Almost a year ago to this day, the Los Angeles Galaxy were in Montreal to take on the Impact in a game which had the city buzzing with anticipation. The Impact, a relatively new team on the Montreal sporting scene, don’t usually have it easy when it comes to attracting fans to games in a city where hockey is practically religion. But this time, with little effort involved, the Impact game had become the highlight of the weekend, because David Beckham was going to be playing in it.
The game was set for a Saturday afternoon and the Galaxy held a press conference the day before where head coach Bruce Arena, forward Landon Donovan, and Beckham answered questions from the media. There really aren’t more than a dozen or so journalists that cover the Impact on a regular basis, but this time the press room at the Olympic Stadium was packed to the brim with over 100 reporters and camera men, many of whom had probably never even seen Beckham actually play. But they knew who he was and, for one reason or another, simply needed to be there.
Waiting for the press conference to begin, I kept asking myself what it was that made Beckham so special that all these people should feel the great need to gather here to see and hear him speak.
All I really wanted was to see him play.
But as the questions rolled in, I began to understand why many journalists who have followed Beckham closely down the years have come to acquire a particular affection for him. Beyond the soccer player, the celebrity status, and the whole brand that is David Beckham, he also comes off as an extremely genuine and down-to-earth human being. That was what impressed me most. And by the time the presser had run its course, it was hard for me not to like him, too.
And then the next day he did what he did best: score on a free kick, much to the delight of the 60,860 fans in attendance at the Olympic Stadium – a record crowd for a professional soccer game in Canada.
I couldn’t help but think back to all of that when Beckham announced on Thursday that at the age of 38 he had decided to finally retire from the beautiful game. But I also thought of something else: the Impact’s 1-0 win against the New York Red Bulls this past March.
That game featured another 38-year-old star: Juninho.
The Brazilian midfielder is a player that I’ve also come to admire over the years and much for the same reason as Beckham, for he also is a terrific free kick taker - perhaps the best there was in the prime of his career.
Juninho was the catalyst of a Lyon side that dominated French football from 2002 to 2008, winning seven consecutive Ligue 1 titles. Despite never going all the way in the Champions League, Lyon did reach the last eight on three occasions during that time and had become a recognized force in Europe.
Juninho played a big part in all of that.
Of the many positive results Lyon was able to obtain, the one that sticks out the most was a 3-0 win against the mighty Galacticos of Real Madrid at the Stade de Gerland. And in that game, Juninho put on a show.
Two of his free kicks made the difference on the night: the first was headed past Iker Casillas by Fred and the other was a trademark long distance bullet – Juninho’s ensuing celebration around the halfway line is one that is now imprinted in the minds of every Lyon supporter.
Funny enough, Beckham played for Real Madrid in that same loss.
Naturally, I was very much looking forward to seeing Juninho play against the Impact, just as much as I had been looking forward to seeing Beckham play a year before.
This game, however, didn’t have any pre-game press conference; there wasn’t a swarm of journalists and there wasn’t a packed house at Olympic Stadium either - only 26,259 made it to the game. And yet, there was Juninho playing against the home side, but it felt like very few people even knew that he was there – though surely most of the fans there certainly did. There wasn’t even a fraction of the excitement that there was for Beckham, and yet these were two very similar players of comparable ability.
Throughout his career, Beckham always managed to dominate the spotlight wherever he went, but there were always better players alongside him. At Manchester United, there was Scholes, Giggs and Keane. At Real Madrid, there was Zidane and Figo. At Milan there was Ronaldinho, Pirlo and Seedorf.
Beckham was never part of that elite category of players. For a casual soccer fan, it may appear that way, given how much attention he was able to garner and for the occasional highlight reel moment of brilliance.
But he was vastly overrated.
As a player, Beckham was at his best with Manchester United and was part of the treble-winning side of 1999. But even when Beckham came close to winning the FIFA World Player of the Year award – he eventually lost out to Rivaldo – George Best, the legendary Manchester United winger, went on to question his ability.
“Beckham didn't deserve to be voted best player in the world,” Best told the BBC at the time “When he can do something else apart from cross perhaps he will… He cannot kick with his left foot, he cannot head a ball, he cannot tackle and he doesn't score many goals. Apart from that he's all right."
Beckham won’t be missed. But that’s because he really isn’t going anywhere. Beckham the celebrity will still be here. He will still appear on TV ads and billboards and he will still be married to Victoria.
Beckham the soccer player is no more, but at the end of the day, from a purely technical point of view, what has the game really lost?
A player of the calibre and quality of Scholes will be far more difficult to replace. And United will be desperate to find a replacement, though who knows how long that will take. It could even take many years.
In a recent interview, another former Manchester United winger, Chris Waddle, explained that he didn’t think Beckham should go down as a star player.
"As a player I would say he was a fantastic crosser of the ball, a great athlete," Waddle, 52, told BBC Radio 5. "Now people will be talking about him and saying 'How great, how great'. I would say 'how good'.
"I would not say he was a great. He was very good at his job, he worked very hard as a professional footballer."
I do understand the hype that has surrounded Beckham, and I understand how easy it is to get caught up in his truly unique and brilliant presence.
But when you take a step back and look away from the limelight, you will find that there were much better players. There were some that even went largely unnoticed.
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