David Beckham exits as gracefully as one of his arcing crosses
Over the coming days it is fair to say we should expect to see quite a few replays of the free-kick famously speared into the net against Greece and that slightly unusual feeling – growing old, possibly – when so many people who have been a part of our football lives are politely showing themselves to the door.
Never before can there have been a time in football when retirement has been so de rigeur among the A-listers. Paul Scholes and Jamie Carragher have already called time on their own careers. Michael Owen's announcement came in March and, in case you have not heard about it, a certain someone at takes charge of his last match on Sunday. It makes you wonder who might be next. It also means there are only two players, Steven Gerrard and Rio Ferdinand, from that World Cup qualifier at Old Trafford in October 2001 who will be going in for the daily grind of training when pre-season starts in July. For Beckham, this must be the first time in his life when he has been following the trend rather than setting it.
Yet it does not come as a jolt. Watching him for recently, it was clear he still had that refined touch. He hadn't lost the knack of being able to kill the ball stone-dead. He could still see a pass, understand just the right amount of pace to put on the ball and trust himself to play it with all the old expertise. Yet it was also apparent that his mobility was no longer there. That body has clocked up a lot of miles over the years and, as his good friend Gary Neville pointed out, Beckham's success was not just about the fact he could play the ball any distance, long or short, or even the competitive courage that helped him become a serial champion at Old Trafford. It was his phenomenal work rate, the colossal distance he would cover every time he pulled on a football kit (Beckham was known to run 12km in a single match in younger years) and the general feeling that he would give everything for his team.
Sir Alex Ferguson once said he had never seen another right-footed player with the possible exception of Johnny Giles who could strike the ball so cleanly and with such wonderful accuracy. Beckham made you want to believe that right feet could be described as "educated", too. His technique from free-kicks was renowned but the harder skill for a right-sided midfielder has always been to deliver the telling cross on the run. Beckham made this his forte. He would aim for the six-yard line but with a trajectory that meant the ball would arc away from the goal. The cross would be delivered with pace, rather than floated over, making it harder for the goalkeeper to judge the flight of the ball. They were the kind of deliveries, in short, that goalkeepers detest and nobody before, or since, has put over with such distinction.
At the Cliff, United's old training ground, Beckham in his pomp would ask the coaches to fasten an old tyre to the top corner of the goal then line up the ball 25, 30, 35 yards out, before trying to put it through the hole. Invariably, he would manage it within the first few attempts. Then he would raise the stakes and the ball had to go through without touching the sides. And again, it wouldn't be too long before he had done it and he was heading inside with that fast stride and triumphant smile.
The mistake sometimes when a footballer is this gifted is to believe it is all natural ability and overlook the sheer effort that goes into it. Beckham was always a prodigious worker, entirely dedicated to the idea of being a footballer, going all the way back to when he was growing up in Chingford with posters of Bryan Robson on his bedroom wall. He was fortunate, undoubtedly, that his father, Ted, was so devoted – still a home-and-away United match-goer even now – but it was his own dedication, as much as his ability, that made all those endless hours of schlepping up and down the motorway worthwhile.
Ferguson had it spot on in 1999: "David Beckham is Britain's finest striker of a football not because of God-given talent but because he practises with a relentless application that the vast majority of less gifted players wouldn't contemplate."
It is well chronicled now how the relationship between the two men soured, the suspicion of United's manager that his player developed "this fashion thing" and, infamously, what happened when Ferguson blamed him for a Sylvain Wiltord goal at Old Trafford and Beckham, refusing to accept responsibility, swore at him. Ferguson was not intending to strike his player when he took a kick at a stray boot lying on the floor but we have all seen the photographs of Beckham walking up King Street, Manchester's paparazzi central, with his hair scraped back, wearing the cut like a fashion statement.
And yet even when Ferguson moved him on it felt different to some of the other occasions when United's manager has ostracised established players. Sure, there was bitterness at times. "I saw his transition to a different person," Ferguson once said. "His life changed when he met his wife." Mostly, however, it felt like disappointment, maybe partly with himself for not being able to affect it. Ferguson's fall-outs tend to be permanent but not in this case.
Beckham's CV now forms a handsome contradiction to the often-heard cliché that, after United, there is only one place to go: down. For England, there have been 115 caps, a record for an outfield player, and championship medals in three other countries.
There were some undistinguished moments along the way, plenty of people have found it unappealing how he has morphed into a brand and, without wishing to be cruel, most football observers were talking about him in the past tense even before the official announcement. Yet Beckham, first and foremost, was always a sportsman before the modelling, the clothes, the aftershave and all the rest of it – even if it did feel like a close-run thing at times.
This side of Beckham sometimes gets overlooked when he is living his life through public relations niceties and a Colgate smile. A man with his looks was made for Hollywood but there is a tough edge to him. There had to be as a United player. Just look at the photograph of the time he went to West Ham after his red card in the 1998 World Cup, the pub effigy and all that. It is an image of its time: Beckham, all blond highlights and floppy fringe, taking a corner in front of the home supporters. Some are wearing T-shirts making it clear what they think of him. It is a sea of contorted faces, shouting abuse, cupped hands and jabbing fingers. Beckham's expression is unflinching.
Stuart Mathieson, the United correspondent on the Manchester Evening News, tells a story about driving back from an away game one season when he suddenly became aware his car was beside the team bus at traffic lights and Beckham and Neville were at the window, holding up both hands, fingers spread, making it clear they wanted a 10 in his match ratings.
A few years later, the newspaper gave Beckham a six (and Nicky Butt a seven) and it was the last time he helped them for a long time. Yes, it was petty on his part. But the people who know him best say it simply boils down to his own standards. Beckham, in short, could not tolerate the idea of being six-out-of-10 for a club where being average is not tolerated.
That is why it does not feel a particular surprise, two weeks after turning 38, that he has decided Paris St-Germain's game at Lorient will be his last in the business. L'Equipe gave Beckham three out of 10 when he started the Champions League tie against Barcelona last month. The Beckham of old – whipping over crosses, playing those crossfield right-to-left passes, trying to chip the goalkeeper – had already left us. Though, somehow, it is probably not the last we have heard of him.