John Carlin: After fun and flamboyance, the Real dream turned sour and it was time to cut his losses

Since Maradona I have not seen anyone who strikes the ball like Beckham
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David Beckham was so radiant, such a picture of golden optimism, the day he signed for Real Madrid in June 2004. Itching to run on the Bernabeu's billiard table turf, thrilled at the prospect of playing alongside Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane, he'd come to the world's most glamorous club, he declared, to win trophies.

But he has won none - none of any significance, anyway - and now he prepares to leave the club in a mood that is as dark and gloomy as his Spanish unveiling was sunny and bright. The record will show, and the conventional view among the pundits will be, that his time in Madrid was a failure. Yet if you were to ask him whether he had made a mistake in moving to Real, the answer - the honest answer, once he had time to pause and reflect -- would not be so cut and dried. When he is an old man and casts his eye back on his career, he will quite likely judge that the good outweighed the bad - and not just because he and his family enjoyed Spain, and his bilingual boys were happy at school.

Nothing in his career will compare with his Manchester United glory days, but in terms of golden moments - goals, assists, passages of play, particular games - Beckham's time at Real has left him with memories that he will savour throughout his life. And the sheer fun of having played in a team that contained the two players he admired most - he viewed Zidane and Ronaldo with almost as much awe as the ordinary fan did - and team-mates as gifted as Roberto Carlos and Luis Figo, no one can take that away from him either.

It is also a fact that in several games where all of those players took part, Beckham was the outstanding performer on the pitch. Not least when Real beat Barcelona 4-2 at the Bernabeu in April 2005 during a late but ultimately failed run to beat the Catalans to the championship. By popular, as well as media, acclaim, Beckham was man of that match. The Brazilian coach, Wanderley Luxemburgo, said privately afterwards that if Real had a Beckham on the left of midfield, they would be unstoppable.

But it will be Beckham's first six months in Madrid that he will treasure above all. It seemed during that period that Real were going to go down as one of the greatest, most flamboyant teams of all time. Until mid-March 2004, they were in line to win the Spanish league (they were clear by seven points) and cup (they were in the final) and the Champions' League, after knocking out Bayern Munich. Then, in what will remain one of the game's great mysteries, they suffered an epic implosion, losing game after game to minnows, ending up empty-handed. From that trauma, neither Real nor Beckham fully recovered. A disastrous chain of events was set off that led to the hiring and firing of five coaches in two years, and the resignation almost a year ago of club president Florentino Perez.

But what of those golden early memories? Scoring at the Bernabeu on his official debut, to clinch victory in Spain's equivalent of the Charity Shield, was one. So was scoring in the third minute of his league debut at the Bernabeu: it was the first goal scored in the Spanish league in 2003-04. A couple of weeks later, in a 7-2 home victory against Valladolid, he delivered one of those perfectly weighted 60-yard passes for a goal that Zidane scored on the run, on the volley. After the game, Beckham said it might have been the best pass he had ever hit in his life. "And that is certainly the greatest goal anyone has ever scored from a pass of mine," he added. "What Zidane did was a dream."

What was happening to Beckham during those first months at Real was almost beyond a dream. The fans at the Bernabeu, the most critical on earth, chorused his name game after game. The press loved him - both for his charm off the field and his ability on it. El Pais, which had expressed grave doubts about him before the season began, described him as an "excellent footballer". Spain's biggest names in football writing described him as Real's "field marshal"; they described his performances as "imperial". The former pros were completely won over. Vicente del Bosque, who had been sacked as Real coach just before Beckham's arrival, marvelled at his ability to switch from the right, where he played for United, to central midfield. "Beckham's great merit has been to adapt himself to the needs of the team, play in that new role as if he had played there all his life," Del Bosque said.

The team's then sporting director, Jorge Valdano, said this about him in December 2003, the day before Real would beat Barcelona at the Nou Camp. "Beckham has given us something we needed. A willingness to sacrifice himself for the team and bags of quality. He is one of those rare players who give you quality and quantity. He has competitive courage, an amateur spirit of love for the game and a capacity to cover an extraordinary amount of ground. And on top of that, since Maradona I have not seen anyone who strikes the ball like Beckham."

The highest praise of all came from an unlikely quarter. Alfredo di Stefano, Real's greatest player, is a famously grouchy old man, but, speaking at Christmas in 2003, he said: "Apart from that ability to strike a ball that he has, he is the first to press when the opposition has the ball. This boy does not stand out as a seller of clothes. He stands out as a footballer. This boy is committing himself unconditionally and with extraordinary effort to the team. Buying him has been a brilliant move for Real Madrid."

The view was held, by and large, by Beckham's first four coaches at Real - until Fabio Capello joined at the start of this season. From early on, Capello decided he was surplus to requirements. Or valuable only as a sort of supersub.

Partly this was a political decision: Capello had arrived at the bidding of the new club president, Ramon Calderon, who vindictively wished to put some distance between himself and Perez, with whom Beckham was associated and with whom he got on well. Partly Beckham fell out of favour because of Capello's insistence on converting the midfield into a second line of defence, thereby reducing the number of attacking players in the team from six to four.

As the Capello project has come unstuck - Real have not only been playing shocking football, they have been losing badly - Beckham has been in and out of the side. It is impossible to say whether he really has gone downhill as a player, as some contend, because he simply has not had a chance to prove his case either way.

In the end, the unlikelihood of Beckham ever regaining a first-team place, combined with the certainty that at best he would be playing in the most curmudgeonly, least glamorous and - as the prospects seem today - least successful of the Real sides he has played in (last season they did come second in Spain to the best team in Europe), were the factors that persuaded him to leave.

Above all, it was no fun any more. Zidane had gone, Ronaldo was even more out of favour with Capello than Beckham was, and Beckham's mate Roberto Carlos was also unhappy. All the elements that had generated all that excitement in him when he arrived had gone. The whole experience had turned sour. Leaving, cutting his losses, was the right thing to do.