David Beckham, the most celebrated soccer player of all time, could wind up as hobbled as Willie Mays, as loony as Howard Hughes and as irrelevant as the Rolling Stones.
As Machiavelli once warned: “Therefore these princes of ours, who have been many years in their princedoms, and then have lost them, should not blame Fortune, but their own laziness.”
What is Beckham doing? Fortune once favored the savior of English football. He became an international legend – the most recognizable athlete since Muhammad Ali. What Wayne Gretzky did for hockey throughout North America, Beckham has done for soccer in countless nations.
They’ve made movies about him. “Bend It Like Beckham” shows his impact on the United Kingdom’s massive Indian subculture. He makes it OK for an Indian girl to play the game and win a U.S. college scholarship. Without him, we may never have been exposed to Keira Knightley.
He’s an international sex icon. His naked image is worshiped by women on Fifth Avenue and by men on Santa Monica Boulevard.
He married Victoria “Posh Spice” Adams. The Beckhams became celebrity royalty – rich, popular, untouchable.
His ascent to princehood began with spectacular absurdity. In August 1996, while with Manchester United, Beckham scored from midfield. He floated the ball from the halfway line past Wimbledon goalkeeper Neil Sullivan. The Premiership would later proclaim the shot “the goal of the decade.”
In the 1998 World Cup, he scored in England’s 2-0 win over Columbia. He then got tossed out of the round-of-16 match against Argentina – and England lost. His fickle fans hanged him in effigy over pub doorways, but his magical aura continued to grow.
In the 2002 World Cup, he bucked injuries and single-handedly took England to the quarter-finals. By then, he was a household name from London to Los Angeles and from Ho Chi Minh City to Montevideo.
But sport – especially when played for money – can be so unkind. Beckham left Manchester United in 2003 for a mega-deal with Real Madrid – Europe’s answer to the Yankees. He seemed poised to cement his reputation as the superstar without equal. Instead, the ramparts of Beckham’s princedom began to crash down.
Suddenly he was lost. Surrounded by superstars like Raul, Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos, he was no longer the franchise centerpiece. His fiery and impetuous temper took over. He was called for more and more fouls. He never missed penalty kicks with Manchester – now he misses more than Shaq misses free throws.
He missed a penalty shot at the 2004 European Cup and talent-heavy England went home early. Now the vultures are out in force. The tabloids regularly accuse him of cheating on Posh Spice. He is called overrated. Lazy. Washed-up. His popularity at home has plummeted and his armor of arrogance is slowly chipping away.
He’s doing weird things. Though he claims to be non-religious, he built an enormous Gothic chapel at his home for the christening of his children. Howard Hughes would be proud.
His career is in its twilight. He’s 30 – ancient by soccer standards. He hasn’t scored yet this year for Real Madrid. He was booted out of a World Cup qualifier again this month – the only player in the history of the English football to be red-carded twice in national matches. You can almost see the ghost of Willie Mays urging him to get out before he humiliates himself.
So we must ask Machiavelli: What has happened to our Prince? Is he a casualty of his own fame or is he just too old for the game?
Younger superstars – Wayne Rooney, Michael Owen, Freddy Adu – wait in the wings, ready to claim Beckham’s crown. As Shakespeare said, “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” As Shakespeare also said, “Good night, sweet Prince, may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
Kyle Sheahen is a Sun Senior Editor. The Ultimate Trip will appear every other Friday this semester.
Archived article by Kyle Sheahen