Former Manchester United, Real Madrid, AC Milan, Paris and England midfielder David Beckham is celebrating his 47th birthday on Monday. UEFA.com celebrates a modern great.
1999: Beckham’s crowning glory
International: 115 appearances, 17 goals
UEFA club competition: 119 appearances, 17 goals
european domestic competition: 484 appearances, 92 goals
He had a real dedication to his craft
Born in London, Beckham inherited his passion for Manchester United from his parents, though his southern accent confused some team-mates when he first joined them in 1991. Ryan Giggs said: “It was hard for us to get our heads around. We grew up up in the area, he went to the games but he was a United fan and we instantly took to him.”
He was no “southern softie” when it came to training, as team-mate Paul Ince remembered. “Becks was the true professional,” said the midfielder. “As soon as we’d finished [training]the mannequins would be out and he’d be taking free-kicks, corners and he’d do it for an hour.”
“When he first came to us he would train morning and afternoon then show up in the evening to join in with the schoolboys,” his United manager Sir Alex Ferguson remembered. “At the start of each season we used to give all the players a bleep test to get a sense of their aerobic fitness, and Beckham was always off the scale.”
He wasn’t a pretty boy footballer
His pop star wife and showbiz lifestyle detracted from his ability. “People have obviously looked at some other things that have gone on throughout my career and sometimes that’s overshadowed what I’ve done on the pitch and what I’ve achieved on the pitch,” Beckham recalled ruefully. “As much as I say that doesn’t hurt me, of course it does.”
However, team-mates remember his commitment, and his willingness to track back and battle for the ball surprised many at Real Madrid, AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain. “I just want people to see me as a hard-working footballer and someone who is passionate about the game,” said Beckham.
His greatest skill was as a provider. United team-mate Rio Ferdinand noted: “David Beckham is up there with the best passers I’ve ever played with; over a long distance he was ‘radar foot’. Some left footers look beautiful when they pass the ball. His right foot was like that – it even sounded nice when he hit the ball.”
He specialized in scoring brilliant goals
Beckham made his league debut on loan at Preston North End in 1994. Team-mate Paul Raynor remembered: “I was taken off for David to go on [as a substitute against Doncaster], so I was hunting on the bench, then he went and scored directly from a corner. I had to shut up then.”
An audacious lob from the halfway line for United against Wimbledon on the first day of the 1996/97 Premier League season established Beckham’s reputation for improbable finishes. “It changed my life,” I remembered. “The ball seemed to be in the air for hours and it all went quiet. Then the ball went in and it just erupted.”
Free-kicks remained his stock-in-trade, and fellow free-kick master Roberto Carlos said: “Beckham takes free-kicks better than me. It is a joy to watch him take them and he has proven that free-kicks are not all about power.”
He overcame adversity for club and country
Sent off for a rash challenge on Diego Simeone at the 1998 FIFA World Cup finals, Beckham was widely blamed for England’s round of 16 exit to Argentina on penalties, but won fans and team-mates over – and notably scored a terrific, late free- kick against Greece in October 2001 to snatch England’s place at the 2002 World Cup. He ended up captaining his country 59 times.
When he left United in 2003 – after winning six league titles, two FA Cups and the 1998/99 UEFA Champions League (part of an unprecedented English treble) – Beckham was disappointed. “When they told me they were going to sell me was the first time I spoke to Real Madrid,” he said. “I couldn’t watch United for two years, I was that gutted.”
However, he did not let that disappointment show, notably scoring two minutes into his Madrid debut against Real Betis on 30 August 2003. “The most important goal I scored in Spain was the first one because people were wary about me coming over as a player ,” he said. “They thought I was just there to sell shirts.”
In fairness, I have shifted a few. While his only significant silverware from him at the Santiago Bernabéu was a title success in his final season, 2006/07, it was estimated that his presence from him boosted merchandise sales to the tune of over €500m.
He showed class everywhere he went
Only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi can understand the level of attention that Beckham received throughout his playing career, and his ability to perform under the spotlight was remarkable.
“I don’t know how he manages to be so at ease outwardly on the pitch,” Madrid team-mate Zinédine Zidane said. “He is almost a pop star. I couldn’t do that. It is incredible, especially given that he is as shy as me.”
That self-effacing resilience showed through in the closing years of his career. Following a high-profile move in 2007, Beckham helped LA Galaxy to win two MLS Cups and – as he bid to keep fit for international duty – had two loan spells at Milan, before signing a five-month contract in January 2013 to help Paris to complete their run for the title in his final months as a professional. “I won’t receive any salary,” he explained. “My salary will go to a local children’s charity.”
“The person who has negative things to say is either jealous or hates him,” Zlatan Ibrahimović said of his Paris team-mate. “Because there are no negative things to say about him.”