The scene in an English pub on Thursday:
Football Fan No. 1: “Hey, did you hear David Beckham’s retiring from professional football?”
Football Fan No. 2 (wearing David Beckham H&M underwear, David Beckham Adidas Climacool trainers, a Paris Saint-Germain “Beckham” shirt and freshly sprayed with David Beckham’s new “Urban Homme” aftershave): “What! I didn’t know David Beckham was a footballer!”
Although many in his homeland would argue that Beckham effectively retired as a proper footballer when he abandoned the European game in 2007 to captain America’s LA Galaxy and become the face of Major League Soccer (How could a player like Beckham move to a country where they call football soccer, we wondered? Oh yes, for the $600 million contract, we swiftly answered ourselves), he remains a curiously undivisive figure.
No one hates David Beckham, which is odd for anyone who is estimated to earn in excess of $46 million a year, is married to a former Spice Girl, and has sold out more professionally, more extensively, and more successfully than any other soccer player in the history of the game.
The 115 times he played for the England side (many of them as captain) and the memory of the way he would effortlessly use free kicks to bend the ball around the opposition’s defenders when it really mattered, apparently earned him enough credit with the lads to allow a blind eye to be turned as he seduced their wives with his rippling, tattooed torso and boyish good looks.
But really, the making of Beckham was his marriage to Victoria. One of my very first assignments as a journalist was to go and cover the wedding of David and Victoria at an Irish castle in July 1999, and even then the media circus that surrounded them was extraordinary.
I remember a helicopter hired by The Sun attempted to fly over the site and photograph the happy couple (ah, those heady pre-Levenson days) when another chopper hired by the Beckhams reared up out of nowhere and flew straight back at the tabloid’s, giving the impression that they were prepared to risk death rather than allow their clients’ privacy to be invaded.
The Sun backed off (a rarity), and instead put a pencil drawing of how Victoria might have looked in her dress on the front page.
None of us thought the marriage would last. But last it has, despite claims of an affair by former assistant Rebecca Loos in 2004. And Victoria has undoubtedly been hugely important in turning a damn fine soccer player into a style icon and marketing genius. Beckham used to be cripplingly shy and lacking in self-confidence. A friend who worked on a branding project with him in the early ’00s once told me that when David had to say, “Hi, I’m David Beckham, and I love [this brand],” in front of a crowd of journalists, he asked for his “line” to be written out for him on a card.
He wouldn’t need the magic marker today.
His decision to retire from the professional game is unlikely to hurt his earning power, however, experts say.
Lyonel Tollemache, business development director at London talent endorsement and entertainment marketing agency ITB (Independent Talent Brands), told The Daily Beast:
"There have been other massive soccer players like Pele and so on, but Beckham is the first who was born in a generation of branding and marketing. His brand has arguably become bigger than the single entity that was his playing career. My personal opinion is that retiring from the professional game isn't going to affect him at all. In fact it just means he will be able to get on and do more stuff.
"He is already down as a legend, he has got the personality, and he’s married to Victoria, a very high-profile person in her own right who has metamorphosed from being a pop singer into someone who is being taken seriously."
Beckham's move to LA galaxy represented a breakthrough moment for soccer in America, says Tollemache.
"The point is, he actually went and lived there. He wasn't a part-time commuter going back and forth to London. He fully threw himself into it and did all the coaching and the academies as well. David and Victoria were as much a part of Hollywood as anyone. In fact those two were arguably the biggest stars in Hollywood for a time. It was a perfect storm for them.”
In his statement today, Beckham said: "If you had told me as a young boy I would have played for and won trophies with my boyhood club Manchester United, proudly captained and played for my country over one hundred times and lined up for some of the biggest clubs in the world, I would have told you it was a fantasy," said Beckham in a statement. I'm fortunate to have realized those dreams."
Beckham singled out captaining England as one of his "proudest achievements."
"I knew every time I wore the Three Lions shirt, I was not only following in a long line of great players, I was also representing every fan that cared passionately about their country.
"I'm honored to represent England both on and off the pitch. I want to thank all my team-mates, the great managers that I had the pleasure of learning from.
"I also want to thank the fans who have all supported me and given me the strength to succeed.''
Beckham, 38, was born and raised in East London, but began his career at Manchester United at the age of 14, winning the Champions League in 1999, as well as the Premier League six times and the FA Cup twice.
He moved to Spanish giants Real Madrid for £30 million in 2003 and LA Galaxy in 2007, before moving to Paris Saint-Germain on a short-term contract earlier this year.