When Andrei Kanchelskis was replaced by a skinny 17 year old boy with floppy hair during a Coca – Cola tie against Brighton and Hove Albion 25 years ago, very few in attendance would have known who the young lad was. Even fewer could have predicted the career that boy would go on to have or the influence that he would have on modern football. However by the time he retired, in front of a packed Parc des Princes in Paris, everyone in the world of football and beyond would know him and have been affected (in one way or another) by the impression he left.
So, at a time where he was been inundated with 42nd birthday wishes from former colleagues (that would probably make the best ‘former team-mates 11’ of all time), featured in a trailer for an up and coming movie about King Arthur, been the face of a re-launch of the iconic Adidas Predator Mania’s that he helped design, received the final go-ahead to become the owner of an MLS franchise and been inducted into the U.S National Soccer Hall of Fame– it seems a good time to ask: has anyone had a greater impact on football and society than David Beckham?
Over the course of his career, Beckham amassed 6 Premier League titles, 2 FA Cups, 4 Community Shields, 1 Intercontinental Cup, 1 Champions League, 1 La Liga title, 1 Spanish Super Cup, 1 MLS Cup and 1 Ligue 1 title. He is the first Englishman to score in 3 World Cups, the first Englishman to make 100 Champions League appearances and the first Englishman to win league titles in four different countries. Beckham has 115 caps for England (the 2nd highest number for an outfield player) and captained his country 59 times. In 1999 he finished runner-up for the Ballon d’Or. He has scored 146 goals and provided 252 assists, contributing a total of 398 goals, in 834 games. Possessing a wand of a right foot, his range of passing and crossing ability at times seemingly defied physics.
He was industrious and had an incredible engine; in the game that defined his England career vs. Greece in 2001 he covered 16.1 kilometres and would cover similar distances most times he stepped on the pitch. He was hard-working and driven, often staying behind at training to work on his free kicks and corner delivery. More often than not, he stepped up when his club and country needed him in the big games. Antoine Griezmann, amongst many others, cite him as their childhood hero and inspiration. He is one of Englands most decorated players of all time. In terms of honours won, few can compete.
However, when the Daily Telegraph listed the top 20 British Footballers, Beckham didn’t make the cut (Gerrard and Bale did, in spite of winning considerably less). Despite his career of honours and accolades, there is a sense that he is under appreciated for the footballer he was. His legacy as a player – rightly or wrongly – will probably not be what he is remembered for.
It is possible that his celebrity status as one-half of Posh ‘n’ Becks distracted from his ability. There is a belief that Beckham was simply a pretty face, that “Brand Beckham” sold shirts and merchandise and that’s why he was signed by Real Madrid. Why L.A. Galaxy broke MLS wage records for him. Why Milan loaned him twice and why PSG recruited him in his final year. And there is some truth to this. Madrid sold £25 million worth of Beckham shirts in his first season. PSG raked in £15 million for his short stint in Paris. Over his 5 years in L.A, an average of 300,000 shirts were sold per season.
But the stats don’t lie. Beckham was a world class talent. You don’t play nearly 400 games for United and 155 for Real Madrid just because you sell shirts. You don’t finish runner-up for the Ballon d’Or without having match winning ability. The difference is that Beckham worked as hard off the field as he did his football cultivating his ‘brand’. And, at the time, football wasn’t ready for it. The landscape had certainly changed by the time he hung up his boots.
When David Beckham was negotiating a new contract at Manchester United in 2002, he was asked what was delaying proceedings. His response – “It’s not the salary that’s the problem, it’s just the image rights that need a little perking”. At the time image rights were a fairly foreign concept in football. The idea of a player getting a percentage of the money made by their club from using their image was not at the forefront of public consciousness. Beckham changed all that. He understood that as a name and face known around the world, he was a huge part of United’s marketing campaigns across Europe, Asia and the USA. He wanted not only a cut of the profits but some control over what his image could be used for. Some in the press accused him of vanity or greed.
The truth is, he was possibly the first footballer to really understand the power of his brand and wanted to ensure it had longevity. Yes, other players had boot deals etc. Ryan Giggs even helped advertise Quorn. But to most professional footballers, that seemed a nuisance. Beckham embraced it and, with help, used it to his advantage. He hung up his boots four years ago but his brand is still going strong, no doubt in part due to the fact that he controlled how it was used during his career.
His dabbling with fashion during his career (the sarong, leather suits, underwear campaigns, his input into the design of his Adidas Predator etc.) have meant that a foray into fashion designing now (H&M, Kent and Curwen) appear logical and consistent with his public image. His endorsement of soft drinks as a player meant that splashing a bit of Haig Whiskey in the glass now isn’t a stretch. He is 2nd on Forbes list of retired sportsman annual earnings list (behind Michael Jordan who was perhaps the template on which Beckham based his brand) racking in a staggering £45.2 million in 2016 – more than many still plying their trade in the game.
But it is more than just his bank balance that his understanding of his brand affected. Today it is almost standard for players to negotiate image rights deals, to the extent that 200 plus players are currently being investigated for using them as a tax avoidance scheme.
We have Paul Pogba – the current social media king of branding, whose hair styles and interest in music and fashion get him as much attention as his ability of the pitch (#pogback, #pogboom). Cristiano Ronaldo – the heir apparent to Beckhams branding empire, with his CR7 logo, under wear campaigns, head phones etc. all part of an ever-growing list of endorsements for the current Ballon d’Or winner. Lionel Messi, Neymar and even Pablo Dybala have logo’s that are used to promote merchandise. Their images used sparingly but still seemingly everywhere. Their blueprint for global domination and brand saturation is undoubtedly inspired by Beckham.
Whether this is a good thing can be questioned though. One obvious ethical issue is the use of image rights being used as a tax avoidance scheme with players taking less in wages but a larger portion of the money made from the use of the image. This becomes even more suspicious when youth players are negotiating image rights – before anyone cares who they are or what they endorse. These concerns have prompted an investigation by HMRC.
But further to this is the focus of players on their brand over their ability. That Beckham, blazing a trail as a ‘brand’ and focusing on the commercial exposure of his image, has created a generation of players more focused on self-promotion than the game. That youngsters are growing up thinking about boot deals and followers on social media more so than they are dreaming of winning titles. Even an aspect of FIFA 17’s “Journey” alludes to the need for budding professionals to appeal to the masses and commercial investment.
For many, it is a difficult balance to find. The glitz and glamour of football stardom and all the trappings that come with it can become a distraction. It makes Beckhams’ ability to do both even more admirable.
The growth of Brand Beckham has no doubt been helped in becoming a behemoth by his popularity in the USA. Back in 2007, as his contract at Real Madrid reached its final 6 months, Beckham announced he would be joining Major League Soccer side L.A. Galaxy. It was a decision that surprised many and drew ridicule from others. He was just 32, still in good physical condition and involved with the national team. Many assumed he was going for the money, namely the £6.5 million a year.
Beckham claimed he was going because he saw the MLS as a project that he hoped to be a big part of. “I’m not saying me coming over to the States is going to make soccer the biggest sport in America. That would be difficult to achieve. Baseball, basketball, American football, they’ve been around for a long time. But I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think I could make a difference.” Some scoffed.
However, his impact in the US can be seen in the state of their game today. When he left Galaxy for his farewell swan song at PSG, MLS executive vice-president of communications Dan Courtemanche stated that Beckham had helped the MLS experience ‘exponential growth’. His decision to join the MLS when he was still in demand in Europe (as evidenced by his loan spells at A.C. Milan during and season at PSG after his time in L.A) gave legitimacy to the competition.
Since then Theirry Henry, David Villa, Andrea Pirlo, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard have all opted to head stateside. More impressive is the likes of Sebastian Giovinco and Giovanni dos Santos deciding to go to America for arguably the peak years of their careers. Don Garber (MLS Commissioner) suggests the league wouldn’t be where it is today without David Beckham.
Before him, the MLS had 14 teams, none valued higher than $35 million and no TV deals. Today they have 22 teams (and plans to expand to 28), a handful of teams valued at over $200 million and their games are now broadcast on Sky Sports (amongst others) bringing in $70 million a year.
And whilst getting the American people more interested in “The Worlds Game” might not seem that big a deal, the sheer size of the country and its subsequent pool of potential players means that his inspiration may birth a future Ballon d’Or winner or global superstar. Current USMNT darling Christian Pulisic would have been 9 when Beckham made his MLS bow. Who is to say it wasn’t the hype around Beckham’s arrival that steered the youngster towards ‘soccer’ rather than one of the country’s more traditional sports?
In 2003, two university professors conducted a study on David Beckham and his impact on societal norms. In “One David Beckham: Celebrity, Masculinity and the Soccerati” they concluded that he was the quintessential modern man. He is ‘New Man’ (nurturer, compassionate partner, parental), and ‘new lad/dad’ (footballer, fashionable father, consumer) and ‘old industrial man’ (loyal, dedicated, stoic, bread-winner) all rolled into one. They held him as a role model for anyone in Britain between 6 and 60. A subvertor of male stereotypes, the term ‘metrosexual’ was coined to describe him. Their hopes were that his example could help to shape a more tolerant society.
A big ask maybe, but one that Beckham, whether consciously or not, made inroads into. Every time he appeared in a headline-grabbing outfit, or appeared on the cover of a non-football related magazine (including Attitude Magazine – a publication for gay men) he was telling football fans that it’s ok to have interests in fashion and acknowledging his gay following as part of his identity.
The frequency with which he and Victoria where pictured together holding hands, reminds us that its ok to be affectionate. Once Brooklyn was born and Beckham had his first born sons’ name tattooed on his back he was symbolically telling us he was a dedicated father.
In his retirement, his Instagram account and his work with UNICEF is a reminder of these different facets of his persona. It’s also a reminder to us that the once held stereotype of what a footballer or football fan is has changed.
And whilst it may be too much to suggest that Beckham is the reason for the rise in tolerance of the LGBT community and gender fluidity we are experiencing in Britain, he may be a contributing factor. His example has shown that it is possible to be ‘one of the lads’ whilst at the same time be accepting of others. It is also possible that he has helped show current professionals and fans that there is nothing wrong with being a family man. Nothing wrong with caring about things outside of footballs traditional parameters.
It is, of course, possible to say these changes to the demographic of the footballer community, that Beckham has been at the epicentre of, have had a negative impact on the game. That the metro-sexual, fashionista genre of footballer supporter has lessened the game. That, by making the sport more appealing to a wider audience, the game has lost something tribal and is worse for it.
David Beckham will probably never get the recognition as a player that his genuine world class footballing ability deserves. However, the way in which he has influenced modern football and the fans watching the game should certainly not be questioned. Yes – footballers before Beckham did endorsements. But none with the enthusiasm and understanding that he did. Yes – other footballers have gone to play in America before. But none had the impact in aiding the growth of the game stateside as him. And yes- other footballers have shown themselves to be family men and fashionable. But none combined the two as well as Beckham did and continues to do.
Aspiring professionals and viewing public as a whole now have a different perception of what a footballer – and a man – is meant to be. It is possible that the impact Beckham has left on the game – for better or worse – may just be greater than any who have come before him.