Beckham should feel free to walk away

Beckham should feel free to walk away

Published Jan. 16, 2012 12:00 a.m. ET

Toward the end of great athletes’ careers we see a strange tendency from columnists: Writers start telling players when it's time to retire. I suspect this practice started when boxing had a larger profile – when scribes felt the need to go on record, encouraging prideful fighters to walk away rather than again put themselves at risk. Now, calling for an icon to retire is a well-established formula, one that tends to ignore that there’s little harm if a soccer, basketball, or baseball player outstays their welcome. Often, it’s the only way to bring closure to a career.

All of which brings us to David Beckham. It’s been over a week since Paris Saint-Germain officials announced their club’s prime January target turned down the chance to join their revolution. “Family reasons” was the excuse given by Leonardo, PSG’s sporting director explaining the man who would instantly boost his club’s global profile did not “want to change everything in his life.” Jumping from Los Angeles to Paris entails those kinds of commitments.

Instead, we were told David Beckham opted to stay in Los Angeles, where his family’s made their home. But while the soccer world assumed a confirming announcement would be imminent, neither the player nor club obliged. Within hours of a media frenzy proclaiming Beckham had delivered himself back to Major League Soccer, Tim Lieweke, president of the company that owns LA Galaxy, was forced to clarify: “Trust me, we’re not done.”

David Beckham in what may be one of this last appearances for LA Galaxy, during the team's December tour in Australia. (Photo credit: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)


Now, over a week later, the deal still hasn’t been announced, the reasons why falling under three schools of thought:

• Some think the announcement is inevitable, with the league postponing the media formalities until after MLS Draft week. Let’s not bunch all our good news together, shall we?
• The second thought has Beckham and the Galaxy persisting with negotiations, with the player hoping the Galaxy will up their offer of a rolling one-year deal. Perhaps Beckham wants a commitment commensurate with the loyalty he theoretically showed in turning down PSG?
• The final school of thought tosses its hands up in the air, sees Beckham’s contention that multiple teams were interested, and assumes he could still play with somebody else. Just as Beckham’s signing with LA Galaxy came out of nowhere, perhaps XIX Entertainment is engineering another jaw-dropping move. Tottenham, anyone?

There is, however, a fourth option that has been passed over as Beckham insists on playing. It’s an option inspired by the fairy tale of last November’s triumphant finale. It’s an option that defers to his age and accomplishments - an option which plays on the familial motivation that kept Beckham from relocating to Paris. As a man who has won titles in England, Spain and the United States and rose to the captaincy of his national team, Beckham could walk away instead of playing out a string he’s creating. In fact, it may be best if he just retires.

I write that with full deference to Beckham’s personal wishes. If he still sees himself as a professional soccer player, by all means, he should continue, though I would normally add ‘and continue at the highest level.’ He has a family embedded in Los Angeles, adding an important caveat when judging his rejection of Paris Saint-Germain. However, if Beckham is having a hard time coming to grips with the end of his career, somebody should remind him it’s okay to walk away. With the resume he’s built, there’s no need to feel beholden to Brand Beckham, particularly with four young children at home.

And to be certain, it would be a glorious farewell, one filled with a series of ironic redemptions. Just short of five years after he was dropped from Fabio Capello’s Real Madrid squad (and derided by club president Ramón Calderón as more aspiring film star than player), Beckham toughed through a hamstring injury to give a performance that won many MLS Cup MVP votes. Just as he entered MLS an injured champion, so could he exit.

As teammates cracked champagne in the Galaxy locker room, showered each other and eventually coerced the icon into chugging from the bottle, fans crowding the grass hill at the north of Home Depot Center clapped out their appeal: “We want Beckham! We want Beckham!” The same fan base that had accosted his decision to go on loan to AC Milan and disrespected him on his returns was now showing its adoration, implicitly asking their star to turn down a Paris contract worth over $12 million per year.

By the numbers: Beckham

Because of injury and his loan spells in Italy, David Beckham averaged only 14 games per season with the Galaxy. In the time, LA won two Supporters; Shield and an MLS Cup while Bekcham's goal rate improved from one goal every nine games (with Real Madrid) to one in every 6.5.

With LA Galaxy:

Year GP G A
2007 5 0 2
2008 25 5 10
2009 11 2 3
2010 7 2 1
2011 24 2 15

Look closely at that rejection and you’ll see a man whose priorities have shifted away from the game. This is a player whose career had been motivated by his iconography as much as soccer. That his prime saw those goals aligned somewhat obscured the importance of Brand Beckham, though his move to Los Angeles left no doubt. When Real Madrid failed to keep him in Spain after his contributions to their 2006-07 title, Beckham’s goals were made clear: Moving to California both kept a promise and maintained his new career path.

That he is now unwilling to move to Paris hints Beckham’s goals have changed. You can hardly begrudge a 36-year-old athlete shifting focus away from his sporting career - eschewing the life of a transcontinental icon in deference to his children. But if that’s motivation enough for him to turn down PSG’s offer, you wonder why he doesn’t walk away all together. Where soccer once took a back seat to image, now image is taking a back seat to family. Why persist at all?

The Olympics would be the reason, some would say. That group would include Beckham, who has made playing for Great Britain his number one priority. As a last, lasting image of an astounding career, a legend could do worse than represent a country that loves him.

But there is an inconsistency to all the talk about the London games: When did the Olympics become so important in the soccer world? True, some nations take it very seriously, but the United Kingdom is not one of them. It’s hard to imagine young David Beckham growing up with Olympic gold flickering in his sclera. Wearing the armband as England’s captain, winning titles in the Football League, going to and winning World Cups were more likely motivations. Aside from raising the World Cup, Beckham’s accomplished all those things.

Men’s soccer at the Olympics remains a U-23 tournament that struggles for relevance, the inclusion of a handful of over-age stars doing little to establish significance. Beckham’s potential selection only plays into the tournament’s irrelevance: The host country implying the competition’s better suited for a lifetime achievement award than its best effort. For Beckham, it makes the Olympics a goal of convenience. Even if he led ‘Team GB’ to an unlikely gold medal, the accomplishment won’t mean much in the bigger picture. “Oh, and he played in the Olympics, once” will be the final missive of the fan reciting Beckham’s career accomplishments. Destined to be dismissed by soccer history, the Olympics are no reason for him to put off retirement.

Not that retirement should keep Beckham from representing the UK. If Beckham’s contributions to English football are significant enough to earn him a spot on the team, then seven months of retirement shouldn’t be enough to have him omitted. It would be a ludicrous proposition: The reward for a near 20-year career taken away because of a seven-month sabbatical. The spot on Team GB is either ceremonial or its not, and given Beckham probably isn’t amongst the best 18 players Team GB could select, the choice would be more honor than achievement. Surely there’s a way to give Beckham that honor without dictating his professional career.

But for the cynical, there is another accomplishment within Beckham’s reach. It’s the same goal that laced the fan’s reaction at MLS Cup with triumphant irony, a goal that truly could enhance his legacy as a player. It’s the same goal that Beckham espoused when he started on his US adventure five years ago.

Beckham can still win over fans in this country. No, at this point he’s not going to be able to grab the casual sports audience MLS may have hoped to convert on his arrival, but he can reinforce those who have been made aware of MLS. He can re-convert some of those who bought into the laughable idea Beckham was a bad guy and quasi-traitor for entertaining unexpected opportunities with his country and Milan. Another contract with LA gives him a forum to make that case, and with the gravitas of having turned down a big-money deal in France, Beckham will be able to outline all that he’s given up to wear Galaxy gold.

The question is whether that fight is even worth it. Credit to Beckham if he takes it up - he’d be more noble than most. Still, in the face of a fan base blindly willing to overlook Beckham’s opportunities to disparage him, you almost want him to just retire. Why should he devote the last chapter of his career to them?

Beckham won’t see it that way. He’ll see it as just playing the game he loves, but with focus shifting to family and with little left to accomplish, Beckham may be wise to consider that fourth train of thought. If his heart isn’t in a move to Paris, the Olympics aren’t reason enough to stick around. Let the smiles of his post-match press conference at MLS Cup be our last morsel.

At any moment, Beckham’s likely to do the opposite. By the time you read this, his return to the Galaxy could be official, but in these last moments before pen’s put to paper, we can hold out hope - hope that he’s not sticking around because of Brand Beckham; hope the Olympics aren't obscuring his better judgment.

David, you’ve given us enough. Play if you must, and play if you want, but you can move on. The next phase of your life awaits.