As David Beckham signalled his intentions to finish his career with the LA Galaxy with a two-year contract extension announced last week, a career seemingly written by screenwriters in his new hometown of Los Angeles is reaching its final pages. The goal from the halfway line at Wimbledon that announced him to the country, burning effigies, redemption, a boot to the face and long-range free kicks—all plot points. In a script with more dramatic and surprising ups and downs than Hollywood’s best offerings, the final apex is perhaps the most perplexing.
After moving across the Atlantic to forge a sustainable future for football in the United States and his subsequent exile from the England squad, Beckham wants one last go on the international stage, this time with Team GB in the Olympics he worked so hard to bring back to London. The boy from Leyonstone is eyeing a final goodbye before setting off into the hills of Beverly for good, back to the not-so-challenging MLS grind with LA Galaxy and greased up Armani advert shoots on Malibu’s beaches.
Ruthlessly discarded by two successive England managers – Steve McClaren famously phoned Beckham to inform him of his permanent exclusion from the national team and Fabio Capello broke the news to a television programme first – it was clear there would never be a fitting farewell for England’s most capped outfield player.
Offered a celebratory friendly at Wembley, Beckham stubbornly declined, stating, as the cliché goes, that he would not close the door on his international career.
“I’ve always said that I won’t retire from playing for my country… Whether I never get picked again, play one more game or 10 more games. There are a lot of good young players coming through. We’ll see.”
But there is a sad inevitability about all aspects of life that is best exemplified in the short careers of professional sportsmen: everything must reach its end. Beckham’s performances in an England shirt were at times nothing short of magical. Against Greece in 2001, the then-captain took a nation’s hopes on his shoulders in one of the finest individual performances by an England player in recent memory to secure qualification to the World Cup the following year.
Most important in an athlete’s career is the point at which they decide stages in their careers are over. No more. Finished. Take the plaudits and walk away while you’re remembered for being great. That point has come and gone for Beckham on the international scene. Now, with wrinkles deepening, Beckham risks fading away in a manner uncharacteristically sour for the man once enshrined in chocolate by a Japanese confectionery company.
Instead of competing for a place in the European Championship squad this summer, Beckham now faces the prospect of a potential spot on the bench as one of three overage players included to increase press coverage in what is essentially an Under-23 World Cup designed to protect the balance sheets of Sepp Blatter and co. at FIFA. It is a depressingly unfitting exit from the European collective conscious for a man who captained his country 59 times.
There are undoubtedly better, fitter players eligible, but Beckham’s inclusion in the national team has not been one based solely on ability for quite some time. Now, however, his squad number will be a courtesy, of sorts, extended from the London Organising Committee—a thank you to one of the loudest voices of the 2012 campaign for a job well done. Almost as if to say, “Get the Games, David, and you’ll have a chance to take home a trophy for your troubles.”
Beckham will be 37 by the time the competition kicks off in July and, if the rumours prove true, could potentially form part of a centre midfield twosome with a combined age of 75 alongside Ryan Giggs. The years and injuries have not been as kind to Beckham as they have his former Manchester United teammate, and while both have made the transition from the wing to the middle of the park often necessary to continue at the highest level as age takes its toll, it is Beckham who appears to have been most ravaged by Father Time.
Never the fastest or most mobile, serious damage to both Achilles tendons over recent years means Beckham now spends much of his time on the pitch for the Galaxy hobbling around like a granddad attempting to keep up with nursery students, relying more so than ever on his impeccably accurate right foot to make an impact.
The script dictates that this time things will be different; they must be. There have been five international tournaments for Beckham. Five times when it has all gone so, so dreadfully wrong. There can be no more petulant kicks at Argentines, no skied penalties or iced ankles and tears on the bench as his side crashes out in the quarterfinals; just goals and, finally, a shot of one of England’s best ever players jubilantly lifting a cup above his head. But, as Beckham’s career has exemplified, football has a distinct history of tossing aside sentiment at the most inopportune moments, no matter how chiselled the cheekbones of its leading man.