The Unique Legacy of David Beckham


Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on on 5/18/2013.

After David Beckham announced his decision to retire yesterday, the inevitable deluge of career retrospectives almost wrote themselves. In fact, his career was remarkable in almost every way, from numbers, championships, and longevity, all the way to his marketability and trendsetting approach to every facet of life outside the game. But Beckham’s true legacy was not about his contributions on the pitch, so much as the peril of taking him off.

The term “game-changer” gets thrown around a bit much, especially where it refers to players who simply bring an intensity to their game. Though Beckham was never short on intensity, his great gift to the game was his artistry on set pieces. Few players master a specific skill so completely. Fewer still–one, by my count–have a movie titled for both the player and the talent most associated with that player.

Bend it like Beckham? If only.

To say nothing of his other contributions as a leader, teammate, footballer, and most importantly, human being, David Beckham was irreplaceable on the pitch for his ability to instantly swing a ball–and consequently a game–in favor of his team. Few people in the history of sports are such an offensive threat that they cannot be removed from a game, regardless of mismatches or shortcomings. One strike, one curl of the ball with his right foot, and the outcome of any game could be immediately altered.

There is no substitute for such a commodity.

Obviously, players get injured or simply flat-out exhausted. And for every top corner finish there is tape of three or four more that missed wide or sailed over the bar. But to have a fit David Beckham was to be a lightning strike from a goal. Not only from set pieces but from balls played out wide to a man who liked to drift out of position. Even at half field, no goalkeeper was safe.

Just ask Wimbledon’s Neil Sullivan.

Beckham survived for 21 years as the game evolved and adapted to breakthroughs in the science of sports, such as diets and specialized boots and perfectly spherical balls. Some of those advancements undoubtedly helped to fine tune his particular brand of wizardry. But as players got younger, bigger, faster, and stronger, Beckham continued to hone the one skill that made him irreplaceable: the ability to consistently play a perfect ball. The result was over two decades of greatness and talent that transcended all national, lingual, cultural, and social barriers.

Though, David Beckham may never have learned to say the title of his movie in any other language, he mastered the ability to make everyone shout the only word that ever matters on the pitch: Goal!

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