When David Beckham broke a bone in his left foot before the 2002 World Cup, Tony Blair, then the British Prime Minister, interrupted a cabinet meeting to express his concern about England’s suddenly uncertain chances. Tabloid newspapers ran photos of Beckham’s injured foot on Page 1 and asked readers to lay their hands on the picture in an attempt at mass civic healing.
On Thursday, Beckham announced his impending retirement from soccer at 38, never the best player in the world but unsurpassed in his era as a cultural phenomenon.
The sport has long had global stars, but none whose careers emerged so fortuitously at the nexus of technology, reality television and celebrity culture. Beckham was the athlete with the most crossover appeal at the moment when everyone could watch together, online or via satellite.
Beckham was not merely an athlete; he was an international brand that smartly fused a handsomeness that bordered on beauty with athleticism, marketing savvy and an eager embrace of the role of pop idol, unsurpassed in his era as a cultural phenomenon.
He was as likely to appear in Vogue as in Sports Illustrated. He was as popular appearing in underwear advertisements as in a soccer uniform. He was appreciated by working-class fans as well as gay fans. His wife was a member of the Spice Girls, and his precise passes and curling free kicks inspired a film, “Bend It Like Beckham,” serving as a metaphor for triumph over social restriction.
“David Beckham is soccer plus sex; those are the only two things that sell in the world, aren’t they?” said Stefan Szymanski, a British co-author of the book “Soccernomics” and a professor of sports management at the University of Michigan.
“What Beckham sold was athleticism or soccer to straight men and sex to women and gay men,” Szymanski said. “He did that rather spectacularly well. I’m guessing he’s the prettiest player the game has ever had. He’s the Marilyn Monroe of soccer. Everybody would want to be next to David Beckham.”
Despite his looks and talent and adulation, though, Beckham was not a prima donna on the field. He was considered to have given everything for his club teams and the England national team, winning titles with some of the world’s most popular clubs, Manchester United of England’s Premier League, Real Madrid of Spain’s La Liga and Paris St.-Germain of France’s Ligue 1.
His name and reputation alone brought newfound international respect for professional soccer in the United States during his six seasons and two championships with the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer.
And, in the era of the Internet and satellite television, Beckham’s career proved hugely influential in the swelling interest of European soccer in Asia and elsewhere around the globe.
“I don’t think it’s unfair to say he put M.L.S. on the map,” said Bruce Arena, who coached Beckham to two league titles with the Galaxy. “And he’s certainly one of the chief people responsible for worldwide attention of the game. He’s one of the most competitive people I ever coached. As he got to the end of his career, he didn’t have the legs he wanted to have, but he had a bigger heart than anyone on the field.”
Beckham, who made 115 appearances with the English national team, did have his less felicitous moments. Infamously, he committed an impetuous foul that got him ejected from a 1998 World Cup match against Argentina. And Landon Donovan, the American star and former teammate with the Galaxy, criticized Beckham’s early commitment to M.L.S. in a book called “The Beckham Experiment” by Grant Wahl, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated.
Still, Beckham’s global appeal went undiminished.
“I think he’s the most famous athlete in the world,” Wahl said. While a similar claim could be made about the soccer star Lionel Messi, the Olympic sprinting champion Usain Bolt and the golfer Tiger Woods, Wahl said: “Beckham has a celebrity component the other guys don’t. There’s a multiplier effect. If you play the old game, ‘How many people on earth recognize this sports star?’ I think Beckham is recognized by more people than anyone else.”
In addition to the typical mob scenes in his home country or the city where he was currently playing — which are standard for soccer stars like Messi of Argentina, Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal or Neymar of Brazil — Beckham’s worldwide reach often seemed limitless.
In Tokyo, a chocolate Beckham statue that stood nearly 10 feet tall was featured in a downtown department store after the 2002 World Cup. In Australia, mere speculation that Beckham might be interested in playing in the country’s league prompted wealthy businessmen to consider helping finance what would have surely been an outrageously expensive transfer.