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Before he was a cultural icon, David Beckham was a world class footballer

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His fame has grown far beyond the sport, but don’t let the revisionists fool you - he was as good (or better) than you remember

David Beckham

You need to find some information on a footballer, so you look up their Wikipedia page or Transfermarkt.com. You then head to YouTube to gauge the player’s ability and will be presented with a highlight compilation that recognizes the player’s best attributes — it’s not quite a scouting report but it helps form an inchoate opinion.

Do the same for David Beckham on YouTube, and you’ll be greeted with a litany of talk show interviews, speeches and — somewhere in this deep dive — you might stumble upon a 10-minute video on his excursions in downtown Tokyo.

It’s not the Beatlemania-like hysteria from 18 years ago when he was leading his national side to the FIFA World Cup, but it’s not far off. There’s childlike delirium as a swarm of onlookers engulf the Supreme store while he picks up some clothing apparel for himself and his kids. Prior to this, he shares an anecdote of one of the authentic dumpling restaurants in Beijing as he treats himself to some Japanese delicacies.

You see Beckham make a pit-stop at a gift shop before docking at the Fashion show hosted by his close friend Kim Jones for Dior – the purpose of the visit. He’s welcomed by Fashion royalty Kate Moss, seen chatting endlessly during the show with Bella Hadid and catching up with artist Travis Scott — completely at home in these state of the art surroundings — before the realization hits that this is all a consequence of being extraordinarily good at manipulating a ball with his feet for 21 years.

This skill propelled him to the highest echelons of the game, but such was his allure that many couldn’t help themselves and were more enchanted by the glitz and glamour that followed. Some believe that Beckham couldn’t help himself either and it has come to the detriment of how many see the player.

Before he was lionized as the paragon of the golden generation for his heroics against Greece in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers, he was the pariah only 4 years prior in the same tournament. Around this time, he’d already become a regular for a Manchester United side that was on the cusp of once-in-a-lifetime greatness.

He’d announced himself to the world with a goal from the halfway line against Wimbledon, accomplished a double with fellow academy graduates of the class of ‘92 — even playing his part in the corner that led to Eric Cantona’s famous volley against Liverpool in the old Wembley stadium. His individual contributions were only going to be more significant in the 1998/99 season as United went on to achieve the Treble, which has become a part of footballing folklore.

And with each of the big moments that season, there was a greater backdrop with Beckham at the heart of it. He was public enemy number 1 in England now and the expletives from opposition fans were only too loud. To silence them, Beckham kicked the season off with a free-kick in the 94th minute against Leicester, earning the Red Devils a hard-fought draw.

This was followed a few months later at Old Trafford with the first of two frenetic 3-3 games in the Champions League against Barcelona, where he’d repeat the free-kick routine, but more importantly had the opposition feature the player that would win the Ballon d’Or over Beckham. Rivaldo was one of the great players of that era and year but one can only imagine the shouts of “Fraud!” on online forums that would befall the bandy-legged Brazilian today, whose side did not even progress past the group stages of the Champions League that season.

Not that football awards are received any better today, as we found out this week. The Ballon d’Or had just expanded in 1995 to include non Europeans and this might’ve played a part. This isn’t to suggest that there was some conspiracy against Beckham. It is to propose that he was far better at this sport than people seem to remember him for.

We move on to a quarter-final of the Champions League where Beckham would face his nemesis Diego Simeone and Inter Milan. He laid two perfect crosses for Dwight Yorke to kill the tie in the first-leg, who also had a phenomenal season with 29 goals and 20 assists. With scores now settled, we were now heading to the business end of the season.

A semi-final replay that is most fondly remembered for Ryan Giggs slaloming past tired Arsenal legs and smashing it past David Seaman in the final seconds of extra-time was preceded by a brilliant Beckham strike from range.

Roy Keane made most of the headlines a few days later but as Michael Cox recently pointed out, Beckham and Yorke were once again the standouts, with the former laying the corner for Keane to head the goal which initiated that famous comeback in Turin. Keane and Beckham would clock the most minutes of any outfield player for United that season, highlighting their influence and consistency that season.

The end of this exhausting stretch of games saw Beckham lead the comeback once again on the final day of the league season against Spurs with a strike from an outrageous angle and we all know of the two corners that confirmed the treble at the Nou Camp. Neither of these corners will be registered as assists but it wouldn’t have been possible without Beckham.

Bill Simmons alluded to these contributions when speaking of Larry Bird in The Book of Basketball:

“Unfortunately, you can’t glance through Bird’s career statistics in the Official NBA Register and find the statistic for ‘most times the fans expected their best player to come through and he actually did.’”

Beckham was doing the same for United.

And how does one measure the impact of a player when they don’t play? If we watch United’s semi-final elimination from the 2001-02 Champions League to Bayer Leverkusen today, there’s a chasm on that right-hand side. Maybe Fergie would have realized his Glaswegian dream if Beckham was available.

It did seem that way when he came off the bench to smash a free-kick against Real Madrid in a thrilling 4-3 second leg win at Old Trafford a year later but it was a little too late. It wasn’t the first time that he’d provided United with some consolation against his future employers.

In 2000-01, United were on the end of another humbling in Europe by the Los Blancos when Beckham used his guile to deftly beat two men before slamming it home to give United some respite. Real Madrid definitely didn’t see a one-trick pony on the day.

Beckham’s powers did wane after leaving United, and he was often criticized by the Real Madrid mouthpiece Spanish paper MARCA during his early days in Spain. A little Google search, however, will provide you with a list of victims of that infamous publication: Cristiano Ronaldo, Raul Gonzalez, Zinedine Zidane, and Iker Casillas all fell afoul of MARCA at one time or another. Beckham, through quality and graft, would eventually win them over.

He won a league title and cup while at Madrid, played Champions League football for Milan on loan and ended his career at 38 with another league title for Paris Saint-Germain, when he could quite easily have called it quits by then.

Beckham also managed to have nearly twice as many international caps as his fellow United midfielders. Capello even called him to travel alongside the team for the 2010 World Cup despite being unable to participate in the competition. This is despite the two having a row when Beckham decided to swap Madrid for Hollywood.

There’s a lot of recency bias and revisionism when analyzing Beckham, which makes Beckham the superstar footballer just as interesting a figure as Beckham the superstar celebrity. He dazzled the footballing world before stealing the spotlight from Royal couples.

None one will blame you for spending 8 minutes on ‘Beckham among sporting legends in Royal Box - Wimbledon 2014’ when researching an article and pondering why Wimbledon’s YouTube Channel felt it was important to have Beckham in the title when Anthony Joshua, Bobby Charlton, and Sachin Tendulkar were among the guests.

When you type ‘David Beckham Wimbledon,’ these are the videos you’re presented with at first, as opposed to his strike from 25 years ago — arguably one of the most famous goals in the history of the Premier League. It’s just what David Beckham did.

Anyhow, to end this piece let’s remind ourselves of another excerpt from Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball, here he takes a paragraph from Mike Lupica and William Goldman’s memoir Wait Till Next Year: “The greatest struggle an athlete undergoes is the battle for our memories. It’s gradual. It begins before you’re aware that it’s begun, and it ends with a terrible fall from grace. It really is a battle to the death.”