February 16, 2010

David Beckham...class act? PR genius?

At times, or at least at one time, it seems (or seemed) the entire world was infatuated with David Beckham.  For all of his paparazzi glitz and fashion iconicity, the sensational footballer, currently 34 years old, is still playing at a high level.

The man they call "Becks," "Spice Boy," and, occasionally, "Golden Balls,"currently plies his trade for the Italian soccer giants AC Milan, a team with great tradition, but currently in third place in Serie A and just second best in their own city (to Scudetto-leaders Inter Milan).  But before making stops at Milan, as well as for the Los Angeles Galaxy, Beckham spent time with the Spanish club Real Madrid (often referred to as "Los Galacticos" for their propensity to assemble virtual all-star team rosters).

All-Stars in 2004: Beckham, Luis Figo, Ronaldo, Zidane, Raul at Real Madrid.

Before all of that globetrotting, however, Beckham spent his formative - and most productive - seasons in England, with Manchester United.  He debuted with the club in 1995, at age 20, and spent 8 more seasons at the club as the catalyst for one of the most successful spells of all time.  During that time, Manchester United won the English Premier League 6 times and the FA Cup (English soccer's March Madness - only with more than 500 teams) 2 times.  The apex of this run, which established Beckham and Manchester United as global icons, was accomplished in 1999 when the team won the English Premier League, the FA Cup, and the UEFA Champions League in the same season.  That Champions League title came as a result of one of the most sensational finishes in soccer history, after Manchester United scored twice in the dying minutes of the game - both from Beckham corner kicks - to beat Bayern Munich 2-1.

Now, almost a decade after completing his Manchester United career (his manager shipped him off in 2003 because he believed Beckham's public life was a detriment to the club and his play), Beckham, as a member of AC Milan, will play against the Red Devils for the first time.  Today, AC Milan hosts Manchester United in the round of 16 in the Champions League, and the two teams will play a return leg in Manchester on March 10th.  And he seems emotionally torn on the matter.

Here's the important part of all this context: Beckham has vowed not to celebrate if he scores a goal in either tomorrow's game or the subsequent game in Manchester.  Thus, Beckham will forgo the ultimate moment in soccer, the moment where pandemonium typically ensues, the moment where players often sprint around the field, whip their shirts around their head, or do any number of the other entertaining celebrations that soccer has become known for.  However, he seems to already have it in his mind that he will score, why else would he announce his post-goal plans (or lack thereof)?

Beckham, who is unlikely to start, has promised restraint.

His rationale for doing so, he says, is because "Sometimes emotion can get the better of you when you score, but I do not think I would celebrate.  I respect the supporters and the club."  Beckham, who still has Man U season tickets, continued:
"United was the club I always wanted to play for and I loved every minute of my time there.  The first few years (after leaving) were hard and there were a lot of things I missed.  The relationship I have with the fans is still important to me.  I went through some difficult times, but they never stopped supporting me.  I would not have got through everything without them.  To me they are the best fans in the world and the support they gave me week in, week out, was incredible.  Nothing will ever better that."
An example of public relations savvy or genuine humility?  There is no way to know for certain.  But, combined with his decision to abstain from celebrating, I think Beckham dearly respects his first professional home - even if he dreams of scoring against and/or beating them.  Regarding the impending return to Manchester United's Old Trafford, dubbed the Theatre of Dreams, Beckham mused,
"It will also be extremely emotional for myself and my family on the night.  I met so many amazing people during my time there, on and off the pitch, that I am looking forward to seeing everyone again."
Maybe I'm getting caught up in an athletic hero worship - and we've seen the consequences for that all too often - but it's refreshing to see an athlete truly appreciate his/her fans.  And while it can be compelling to see a villain return to terrorize a former club - like Terrell Owens all those years for Dallas against Philadelphia, Brett Favre against the Packers, or Roger Clemens against the Red Sox - to show honest gratitude (even when scoring against them) seems rare.

As a side note, his club career notwithstanding, Beckham is a near-permanent fixture in England's national team - he holds the record for most national team appearances for England, with 115 over 13 years.  Beckham plans to play for England in June's World Cup, where his team will face the US in the opening round, and more than a few suggest he could even make the 2014 squad.  His most famous goal for England, a trademark swirling free kick against Greece, sent his team to the 2002 World Cup Finals.

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