Amid the incredible coiffures, salacious headlines, and steely-gazed advertising eroticism, David Beckham has once again used his ability to reinvent himself where it matters most: as a player.
Resuming his play with AC Milan last Wednesday, the 34-year-old showed he is not only capable of making himself useful, his joy for the game, so evident in his beaming smile, brought a new energy to the aristocratic Italian team who went on to defeat Genoa, 5-2. This past Sunday Beckham turned in another solid game to help Milan defeat 3rd place Juventus, 3-0, a victory that puts the Rossoneri eight points behind first place Inter but with a game in hand to be played.
As an athlete on the other side of 30, Beckham has approached his game as shrewdly as he has approached the marketing of his image. No longer the Terrier of a mid-field player who can get behind the defense, Beckham has reinvented himself as a utility player who will play wherever needed, be it defense, midfield, or, as he did in both games for Milan, filling in for the injured Pato on right wing. He can still make the punishing runs down the right side and his work ethic is as strong as ever but his game is more about feeling the flow of the game, knowing how his teammates work, being in the right place at the right time and doing whatever his coach asks of him. In an age when players with unfulfilled playing demands can force coaches out of jobs, Beckham’s attitude is mature and his acceptance seems graceful.
Beckham is succeeding because he has a goal: to make the England National Team roster for the 2010 World Cup. Fabio Capello, the granite-jawed England coach from northern Italy, has always had a distant and disciplinarian relationship with his players. His relationship with Beckham is no different. In the 2006-07 season, Capello took the coaching reigns of Real Madrid which had been suffering one of its longest droughts without a trophy. Playing right midfield was Beckham. Instead of playing the free-flowing, individualistic Galácticos style craved by the fans and media, Capello unapologetically organized his team around defense, a style that would win the league trophy and his sacking.
The fans expected to see Beckham in his usual role of forward midfielder, curling crosses into the box and shots around walls of defenders into the net, making the weekly list of Top Ten Goals. What they got instead was Beckham dropped back into a defensive midfield position.
The team struggled in the beginning of the season and tensions rose to conflicts with Beckham sitting on the bench. When, halfway through the season, Beckham’s publicity group announced he had refused a contract extension with Real Madrid and signed with the L.A. Galaxy, Capello announced that Beckham would never again suit up for his team. Several weeks later Beckham returned to the lineup, helping Los Blancos win the league on the last day of the season.
As a badly banged-up Beckham began his MLS career Capello was appointed manager of England’s National Team. For his first game as manager, Capello faced Switzerland at Wembley. At the time, Beckham had 99 international caps (he’d played for the England team 99 times). Being picked by Capello would have given Beckham the milestone before a home crowd and in one of England’s most revered stadiums. Capello is not made of such things, stating Beckham lacked match fitness and would not be on the roster. Three months later, a fit Beckham got the call-up and captain band for his 100th cap. Since then he has gone on to set the record for most individual appearances for the England National Team.
But the pressure to be at the highest level of match fitness is not sentimental, as Capello has let it be known through the media, most recently with a statement to the La Gazzetta dello Sport, “Beckham knows well that if he doesn’t return to a big European championship in December he’ll have no chance for the World Cup.” AC Milan, a club of playing legends such as Ronaldinho, dieticians, kinesiologists and physiotherapists, is happy to have the name “Beckham” on their team store jerseys, and Beckham, with an opportunity to play at the highest level and in Capello’s home country, knew his star power was more than enough to bend the Galaxy into a loan.
As for the disenchanted fans, getting into the MLS Final was all the lubricant needed to smooth out some rough feelings.
Beckham’s versatility and work ethic within his single-minded pursuit of a goal comes as no surprise. Just look at the way he has marketed his image. Most athletes are content with an endorsement contract, a pitch-man gig. Not Beckham. He is a brand. His marriage to Spice Girl Victoria Adams put him in the nexus of fashion and music. His cultivated metrosexuality appeals to the largest demographic cross-section of men, women and gays. Adidas, Pepsi, Gillette, Armani, Playstation, Vodaphone, Motorolla, Sharpie are among the many companies that pay Beckham a lot of money to sling their goods.
It’s Beckham that the people are buying and he knows it. In June of 2002 Beckham demanded and received a payment of $32,000 a week from Manchester for his image rights, over and above his salary as a player, which was already enough to make him the best-compensated player in the world. Those who think Beckham’s attempt to bring soccer to the States is finished make the mistake of assuming that because he’s pretty, he’s soft. When he sets a goal, he’s anything but.
It’s fitting, really, that Beckham would spend this part of his career playing for Los Angeles and Milan as he works to represent his country in World Cup. Los Angeles, a city thought of as being filled with people crafting and continually recreating the image their personality impresses upon the viewer, both in the movie industry and in the lives they lead. Milan, with Versace, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana and the Piazza del Duomo, is one of the fashion capitals of the world, an industry of continual crafting of appearance and the image it conveys. Beckham works his craft in both cities as he pursues his goal of appearing in one more World Cup. And like the worlds of movies and fashion, the world of football is not sentimental to those on the other side of thirty. To thrive in those worlds you have to have, as Beckham does, an iron will of adaptability.