David Beckham is the man that single-handedly gave American soccer the most attention it’s received in years. For the longest time he was the only soccer player I could name, and I’ve never followed the sport in my entire life. But until now, I didn’t know what made him a superstar.
Born on May 2, 1975, Beckham had been obsessed with soccer from the start. When teachers at school asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he’d say “I want to be a footballer.” They wouldn’t take that answer seriously, as it seemed little more than a silly child’s dream, but to Beckham, “that was the only thing I ever wanted to do” (Reginato, 2007). His parents were diehard Manchester United fans, so at a young age he became enamored with the squad as well. There’s little doubt this played a role in his taking an extended stint with the team early on in his career (Culpepper, 2007).
In 1991, Beckham joined Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Nicky Butt, and Paul Scholes on the Youth team for Manchester United at the age of 14. These players would then go on to play with each other for over a decade as teammates at ManU, known now as “the Class of ‘92”. Beckham’s debut with the first team came in 1994, followed shortly after by his first goal against Galatasaray in commanding 4-0 home victory. The team famously received criticism for starting Beckham and his fellow Youth team teammates rather than signing star players from around the league, one critic saying “You can’t win with kids” (Manchester United, 2011) But he was quick to prove them wrong, stepping comfortably into his role as a midfielder and leading the team to a Premier League title and FA cup victory that season.
But it wasn’t Beckham’s early success and youthful talent that catapulted him into the spotlight (although that certainly contributed to his rise). It was his fateful lob from half-field against Wimbledon in 1996.
The score was 2-nil on a sunny day in mid-August, Manchester United controlling a comfortable lead. Two Wimbledon players were passing the ball up-field when a ManU defender slipped in to poke the ball out. A quick tap later and the ball was rolling at Beckham’s feet. He glanced up-field, weighing his options. He only spotted two red shirts amongst the four Wimbledon defenders. But then, looking again, something peculiar caught his eye. The Wimbledon goalie was a little too far off his line – it looked like almost 15 yards between him and the goal. So Beckham made a choice. He slowed to a jog and gathered. With one swift motion, he sent the ball way up into the air. It wasn’t a cross, his teammates realized, as they slowed to watch it float above the pitch. The goalie came to the same conclusion a little too late. Wide-eyed, he backpedaled. For what seemed like minutes, the crowd watched with anticipation. And then, down it came. Arcing past the desperate, outstretched hand of goalkeeper Neil Sullivan, the ball splashed against the back of the net. The crowd’s reaction was instantaneous. Every spectator leapt out of their seat and the stadium roared to life. “David Beckham, surely an England player of the future, has just scored a goal that will be talked about and replayed for years,” remarked the commentator of the match. And that it was.
“It changed my life. The ball seemed to be in the air for hours and it all went quiet. Then the ball went in and it just erupted. I was on cloud nine. I just wanted to shake everybody’s hand and be out on the pitch for an hour.” (Gwen Russell, 2011)
Today the western world knows David Beckham as a fashion icon, pop culture celebrity, and philanthropist. After his 11-year stint with Manchester United, he went on to play for Real Madrid and (more recently) the LA Galaxy in the MLS. It was this move to the MLS that made the news across the world, and ultimately made him one of the most recognizable sports figures of the modern age. Beckham has had a remarkable impact on the game of soccer, and especially on its popularity in America. In a place where basketball, baseball, and football hold a firm grip on the attention of the mass populace, that’s a difficult feat indeed.
Culpepper, Chuck. “Beckham.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 09 July 2007. Web. 19 Feb. 2016. <http://articles.latimes.com/2007/jul/09/sports/sp-beckham9>.
“Manchester United Season Review: 1995/96.” Manchester United. 11 June 2011. Web. 19 Feb. 2016. <http://www.manutd.com/en/Sir-Alex-25-Years/Trophies/Trophy-Articles/League-199596.aspx>.
Reginato, James. “American Idols.” W Magazine. Aug. 2007. Web. 19 Feb. 2016. <http://www.wmagazine.com/people/celebrities/2007/08/beckhams_steven_klein?currentPage=2>.
Russell, Gwen. “Arise Sir David Beckham: Footballer, Celebrity, Legend – The Biography of Britain’s Best Loved Sporting Icon”. John Blake Publishing. 2011.