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Brand David Beckham changed soccer

The former Real Madrid, LA Galaxy star is set to retire at season's end.
The former Real Madrid, LA Galaxy star is set to retire at season's end.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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OH, THE MEMORIES

From the highs and lows, check out Beckham's most famous moments.

He was the first soccer player to transcend his sport since Pele. He was first to make himself into a worldwide brand, a move so radical for this sport that his manager at Manchester United was deeply suspicious of it. He was a winner on and off the field.

He is David Beckham, and his retirement from professional soccer at age 38 on Thursday sent shockwaves through the sport. He was the long-time captain for his nation, and is England’s current outfield cap leader with 115 to his credit. And he steps down just a week after his old boss, Sir Alex Ferguson, did at his first club. It feels like the end of an era.

Beckham was soccer’s Michael Jordan or Muhammad Ali – a figure known around the world even if people weren’t so certain of exactly what he did. Beckham was famous around the globe for being famous, yet unlike so many other celebrities in soccer, he backed it up with a haul of silverware.

Emerging from a working class family in East London, where his father compulsively drilled him in the finer points of the sport, Beckham rose to stardom through United’s youth ranks in the mid-90s. Not long after, he married a pop star – the Spice Girls' Victoria Adams – and built a marketing engine that put him on magazine covers and billboards. Beckham hawked anything from underwear to perfume to his own line of clothing.

Handsome and rarely caught stepping out of line, Beckham was man for his time. As soccer went global and became commercialized to sudden, stratospheric heights, it was Beckham who led the way.

ONE OF A KIND

Beck's scored some great goals in his career, but was this his best ever?

But Beckham’s fame was sustained by substance. Pure of technique and unfettered in his desire to compete, his many off-field activities never overshadowed his playing obligations. As the centerpiece of a golden generation that included Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, he helped the United win a pile of silverware, including the 1998-99 Premier League-FA Cup-Champions League "treble." His crosses from the right flank, his free kicks and his corner kicks were unrivaled in their precision and spin. Beckham caused opponents fits.

By 2003, with six English championships under his belt, his growing renown – and the endless haircuts and magazine covers – began to fray the relationship with Ferguson, a one-time father figure. Following a famous "boot incident", in which Ferguson apparently kicked a stray cleat into Beckham's eyebrow, causing him to need several stitches, the winger was sold on to Real Madrid. That seemed like the end of an era, too. How could he possibly succeed in Spain?

Yet Beckham’s departure from his boyhood club only helped reinforce his appeal. He became a global icon with Madrid, and success followed wherever he went. He would win the Spanish league in 2006-07, his face peered out from department stores and shopping malls, and he was raking in more money from endorsements than from playing the sport.

ACTION HERO

Look back at the best images from Beck's years off and on the pitch.

Then, Beckham made the most radical move of all. He went to America.

This was an unconventional move for a player of his repute. At 32, he was still very much at the height of his powers. But Beckham was always eager for a fresh challenge, and as sure of strengths as ever. It was bold, and for the young and still-struggling Major League Soccer, it was a massive boost. Without him, MLS might still be a novelty struggling for airtime. With him, MLS became a major player, overnight.

Yet Beckham got off to a slow start in the States. He drew crowds, but his tenure with the Los Angeles Galaxy was fraught at first, marred by injuries and two loan spells to AC Milan in Italy. The time seemed to reinforce the notion that he'd come to live in his $18 million Hollywood Hills mansion for all the wrong reasons – the weather, the easy job, the show business possibilities for his wife. There was a book, and there was criticism. Was the Beckham “experiment” a failure?

But in the last two of his six seasons stateside, Beckham redeemed himself. He led the Galaxy to consecutive MLS Cup wins in 2011 and 2012 in spite of obvious physical discomfort stemming from a back injury shrouded in mystery. And in so doing, he had an impact on American professional soccer that had been not seen since Pele.

His longevity as both a player and brand owed much to his ability to avoid a scandal. There were rumors of infidelity with a nanny in Madrid, but nothing was proven. Nothing ever seemed to tarnish the golden boy, however fiery he sometimes grew on the field. Such was the strength of his reputation that he could never be separated from the benefit of doubt, a rather rare luxury afforded to a man of his celebrity.

Beckham represented the beauty of sport and the good life, and Beckham knew how to leverage both to maximum effect. Cleverly, when he moved to Paris Saint-Germain following his American sojourn for a final five-month spell in the French league – in which he helped PSG win its first domestic title in 19 years – his salary was donated directly to charity.

And that’s how he departs: a canny, photogenic star who ushered in a new age for soccer worldwide.

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