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Column: Love or hate Beckham, he can’t be ignored

- Associated Press - Thursday, May 16, 2013

Like his former Manchester United boss, Alex Ferguson, David Beckham picked the right time and best way to retire _ as a winner and before the worst ravages of age became painfully apparent.

It always was a stretch to believe that Beckham, at 38, would or should sign up again with Paris Saint-Germain for what would have been his 22nd season of professional football.

Given all he has already achieved in the sport and the undeniable fact that the years were clearly sneaking up on Beckham, what would have been the point? Another year of bench-warming and bit parts in Paris wouldn't have added anything of great substance to a career that hit its zenith more than a decade ago, under Ferguson at United.

Even if PSG did win its first French league title since 1994, Beckham's final four-month stint in Paris this season felt more like a long goodbye than a glorious ending to his journey through football.

Simply by turning up in Paris in January and by announcing that he was donating his playing salary to charity, Beckham made the requisite splash for PSG's Qatari owners who have the wealth to match their ambition of turning the club into a European football titan. But Beckham subsequently didn't play enough minutes or have a big enough on-pitch impact to silence those doubters who said PSG hired him more for his marketing clout than for his fading football skills.

After PSG drew 2-2 at home with Barcelona in the Champions League in April, a match in which Beckham seemed particularly sluggish and was substituted 20 minutes from time, he emerged from the Parc des Princes changing rooms looking, as always, fabulous. His hair was immaculate, his three-piece suit exquisitely cut.

But it quickly became apparent that the advancing years were encroaching on his thoughts. He used the phrase "at my age" twice in one answer and noted "I'm not getting any younger" when asked if he might play on in Paris for another year. It felt like the end for Beckham was imminent, or that it should be.

After Beckham announced his retirement as a player on Thursday, his former Manchester United teammate Gary Neville asked him in an interview for Sky Sports television when he had made the decision. Beckham responded, perhaps only half-joking, that it was "probably" during that Champions League quarterfinal first-leg match in Paris, "when (Lionel) Messi was running past me."

Although he became a fashion and sex symbol, Beckham should be remembered first and foremost as a very, very good footballer.

Not a great one. That term should be reserved for the likes of Messi or Beckham's former Real Madrid teammate Zinedine Zidane, the true footballing geniuses. Still, to focus primarily on his haircuts, tattoos, clothes and gift for self-promotion would be unfair on Beckham the athlete, the footballer, the worker-bee who relentlessly practiced his trademark free kicks and took such good care of his body and desire to play.

Beckham's move to the United States in 2007 may well have been Major League Soccer's gain, but it felt like Europe's loss, like the theft of a national treasure. In an outpost of the global game, a country where the only football that really counts is played with an olive-shaped ball, Beckham used up _ some would say squandered _ his last good years as a footballer.

As captain of England, Beckham was passionate and decisive. His last-gasp free kick under pressure against Greece that qualified England for the 2002 World Cup was storybook stuff. You could tell that Beckham meant it when he said that playing for his country was a source of great pride for him.

Although people maybe sniggered at times at Beckham _ especially when he and his wife, Victoria, did silly things like venturing out in matching his-and-hers black leather suits _ they also crossed fingers that he would recover from a broken foot in time for the 2002 World Cup. If not for that injury, how many Britons today would be able to locate the metatarsal bone? Love Beckham or hate him, he made it impossible to ignore him.

When England fans turned against Beckham, showering him with abuse and hanging him in effigy after he was sent off against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup, he put on a brave face and plowed on. Kudos for that and for being cheery and good-humored more often than not. Being David Beckham must feel crazy at times, but he hasn't grown crazy because of that. There is no argument that Beckham has been a fabulous ambassador for his sport and its development, as well as for himself.

Congratulations, also, Posh and Becks _ as he and Victoria quickly became known _ for not getting delusions of grandeur, for sticking together through thick and thin. That is a feat not to be sniffed at in this era of mass divorce, with four children and their own careers to manage, and with lurking tabloids picking over their every move and alleged infidelities. As with Ferguson and his wife, Cathy, Beckham's retirement brings to mind that oft-heard phrase which suggests that some men might not have achieved as much without the great women behind them.

First Ferguson surprised everyone by announcing his retirement at age 71. His midfielder Paul Scholes, Beckham's teammate from his United days, is joining him. Now Beckham is bowing out, too.

All leave as champions, the best way to go.

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester

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