When David Beckham broke a bone in his left foot before the 2002 World Cup, Tony Blair, then the British prime minister, interrupted a Cabinet meeting to express his concern about England's suddenly uncertain chances. Tabloid newspapers ran photos of Beckham's injured foot on Page 1 and asked readers to lay their hands on the picture in an attempt at mass civic healing.
On Thursday, Beckham announced his impending retirement from soccer at 38, never the best player in the world but unsurpassed in his era as a cultural phenomenon.
"It's a good way to go out," said Beckham, who recently won a league title in a fourth country with Paris Saint-Germain "It's every athlete's dream, every footballer's dream to go out on the top … leaving as a champion."
Beckham has two matches left at PSG, against Brest on Saturday and at Lorient on May 26. He has been giving his salary to a children's charity.
Asked what led to his decision, Beckham replied with a laugh: "Probably when (Lionel) Messi was running past me in that home game," referring to PSG's Champions League match against Barcelona last month.
The sport has long had global stars, but none whose careers emerged so fortuitously at the nexus of technology, reality TV and celebrity culture. Beckham was the athlete with the most crossover appeal at the time when everyone could watch together.
Beckham was not merely an athlete; he was an international brand that fused a handsomeness that bordered on beauty with athleticism, marketing savvy and an eager embrace of the role of pop idol. He was as likely to appear in Vogue as in Sports Illustrated. He was as popular appearing in underwear advertisements as in a soccer uniform. He was appreciated by working-class fans as well as gay fans. His wife was a member of the Spice Girls, and his precise passes and curling free kicks inspired a film, Bend It Like Beckham, serving as a metaphor for triumph over social restriction.
"David Beckham is soccer plus sex; those are the only two things that sell in the world, aren't they?" said Stefan Szymanski, a British co-author of the book Soccernomics. "What Beckham sold was athleticism or soccer to straight men and sex to women and gay men. He did that rather spectacularly well. … He's the Marilyn Monroe of soccer. Everybody would want to be next to David Beckham."
Despite the adulation, Beckham was not considered a prima donna, giving everything for his club teams and the England national team, winning titles with some of the world's most popular clubs such as Manchester United and Real Madrid.
His name and reputation alone brought newfound international respect for soccer in the United States during his six seasons and two championships with the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer.
Beckham's career proved hugely influential in the swelling interest of European soccer in Asia and elsewhere around the globe. "I don't think it's unfair to say he put MLS on the map," said Bruce Arena, who coached with the Galaxy. "And he's certainly one of the chief people responsible for worldwide attention of the game."