Fred Allen – an admired and insightful comic – observed that ‘a telescope will magnify a star a thousand times, but a good press agent can do even better.’ Observed through the media telescope that is ‘Brand Beckham’ this man of extreme mediocrity is seen as one of football’s all-time greats by fans across the world. Observed through the lens of a microscope, Beckham’s career is a different story. In the media, Beckham is described in saint-like terms; he is a sporting icon and his footballing legacy is unquestioned. When questioned though, Beckham’s house of cards collapses – and he is exposed as the most overrated footballer of all time.
Let us put everything else to one side and focus all our attention on David Beckham, the footballer. What did Beckham bring to a team? One point I’ll concede immediately is that he was a superb free kick taker – then again, so was Juninho and nobody is claiming he’s one of the best players in footballing history. Was it goals that made Beckham a great player? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer is an emphatic no. In a twenty-year footballing career, Beckham only scored double figures in a league season once and more than half of his career goals came from set pieces. Nonetheless, this is to be expected for a player that played as a right and central midfielder. As he never had the pace associated with other wide men, you would expect Beckham’s defining characteristic to be his passing and crossing abilities. This is where the Beckham myth explodes spectacularly.
Beckham is perhaps best remembered for his passing range and vision – but these qualities have been vastly overestimated. Beckham was a ‘Hollywood passer’, his balls from the centre of the park to either wing looked spectacular but were deceptively simple to execute. As Jose Mourinho wryly noted ‘my passing is amazing too without pressure.’ If his passing was the style, then you would expect Beckham’s crossing to be the substance. However, the Premier League’s all-time assist charts reveal the opposite. Beckham sits 30th on the list, with just 44 assists at a rate of just 0.17 per game or 5.5 per season. 12 Englishmen have created more Premier League goals than David Beckham – including Gareth Barry (59), Peter Crouch (54) and Aaron Lennon (50.) Compared to his successors on the right-wing at Manchester United, Beckham’s record seems even worse. The much maligned Nani picked up 49 assists at a rate of 0.33 a game – almost double Beckham’s rate – whilst Antonio Valencia currently has 48 at a rate of 0.26 per game, despite being converted to a right back. David Beckham was neither a consistent goal scorer nor a prominent provider. So what did he bring to a team?
In short, the answer is that Beckham was never more than a good player in a series of great teams. He never won an award for being the best player in a competition – and failed to be named Manchester United’s player of the year in his nine seasons at the club. Sir Alex Ferguson was more than content to see the back of him at Manchester United whilst Real Madrid were starting Jose-Antonio Reyes ahead of Beckham when Fabio Capello happily let him leave for LA Galaxy. Every European team Beckham played for won silverware in the season after he left – with four of them winning the League – showing he was far from an integral player throughout his career.
Beckham was never more than a good player in a series of great teams
Furthermore, he was incapable of carrying a mediocre side to glory. It took him four attempts to win the MLS cup – one of the weakest leagues in world football – and he was even labelled a ‘fraud’ by LA Galaxy fans. His similar failing in an England shirt is surely the great regret of his career. In 59 appearances from 2003-09 – supposedly the peak of his career – he made or scored the winning goal on only five occasions.
Despite always giving his all for the three lions, Beckham consistently disappointed at international tournaments. His petulant red card against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup was the turning point that led to England’s elimination, his middle finger to the fans at Euro 2000 was an embarrassment and his two penalty misses contributed to the failure of a potentially tournament-winning Euro 2004 team. By the 2006 World Cup, Beckham was becoming a liability with England looking more dangerous when the far quicker Aaron Lennon played on the right. Ultimately it proved to be his last international tournament as he was part of the England team that failed to qualify for Euro 2008 – the first time they had missed out on qualification since 1984. This predictable failure would have been a fitting way to end Beckham’s international career; but instead he was given a triumphant send off against Belarus where he was unjustifiably awarded man of the match despite playing for only 32 minutes. Perhaps this was even more fitting – after all, he has made a career out of undeserved praise and accolades.
From beginning to end, the popular account of David Beckham’s career bends the truth in the most extraordinary ways. He is viewed as a calm, mild manner gentleman – but he has the worst disciplinary record in the history of the national side and has admitted he picked up a booking on purpose. In fact, he has more bookings for Manchester United than assists. He never came close to achieving the greatness of the criminally underrated Paul Scholes who has been called the best midfielder of recent times by the likes of Pep Guardiola, Gary Neville, Zinedine Zidane and Xavi. As Thierry Henry put it ‘I can’t understand why Scholes is not called England’s best player… maybe it’s because he doesn’t seek the limelight like some of the other ‘stars’.’ Now that we have seen Beckham’s media-magnified ‘star’ flicker and extinguish, it is clear that he is a myth but not a legend.