David Beckham announced his retirement for real on Thursday, but to a lot of soccer fans, Beckham effectively retired in May of 2007. That's partially accurate -- he could have continued to play at a high level and chose not to -- but Beckham's impact stretches beyond his celebrity and his soccer skills.
Major League Soccer is a very solid league that is now a legitimate destination for South and Central American players in the primes of their career, but it was a retirement league when Beckham signed up. Before Beckham arrived in LA, the biggest star to grace the league previously was German legend Lothar Matthäus, whose one disastrous season in New York remains the butt of jokes for hardcore American soccer fans 13 years later.
Beckham was no longer good enough for Real Madrid when he left them, but there were plenty of big teams in Europe who would have had him. He wasn't good enough for Manchester United either, but he could have played for an above-average Premier League team. AC Milan, who he joined on loan twice during his MLS days, would have gladly taken him on a free transfer.
Instead, he decided to move to Los Angeles, play against inferior competition and rake in a lot of money. It was a move consistent with everything his detractors had said about him for the last 10 years. He had been widely perceived as someone who cared much more about his celebrity than the game since he started dating his now-wife Victoria, and he seemingly confirmed all of those suspicions by joining the Galaxy when a few dozen teams in the world's best leagues had a spot for him.
Beckham was a huge part of Manchester United's team that won the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League in the 1998-99 season. He hit a brilliant stoppage-time free kick against Greece in 2001 to send England to the World Cup. He was one of few competent players for England, who he's represented more times than any non-goalkeeper, during a disastrous 2006 World Cup, outshining Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, two of the world's best players at the time. He escaped Fabio Capello's doghouse, despite being told that he would never play for Real Madrid again, and was one of the keys to their 2006-07 La Liga title. In his last two years with the LA Galaxy, Beckham played through injuries and helped the team to back-to-back MLS Cup wins. He's played in over 800 career professional games for his nation and club teams in five different countries.
By anyone's standards, Beckham is an extremely accomplished professional. He isn't a sideshow. Even at 38 years old, he's still a very useful player for one of the richest clubs in the world, but he won't be remembered for that or any of the accolades listed above. An England, Galaxy, Madrid or Manchester United fan might remember Beckham for his on-field accomplishments when asked about him in a decade, but the rest of the world will think of Posh Spice, the movie Bend It Like Beckham and his advertisements before they think of anything that he did with a ball.
Beckham is one of the most accomplished players of his era and a player with an on-field signature skill, but he's going to be remembered for everything but his skills. He's one of the most famous players in the world because of inertia. He's a good-looking guy who married a pop star and played for a good team. He was a good enough player and good-looking enough dude that people didn't forget about him. Someone decided to make a movie with his name in it, and from then on, Beckham was the most famous player in the world and there was nothing that anyone could do about it.
A lot of casual soccer fans probably think of Beckham as the Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods of his sport when he's anything but. He's more like the Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Derek Jeter: a pretty good player whose celebrity transcends his sport. He's never been truly elite. He's been good enough to be the second- or third-best player on a title-contending team, but he's never been the star. Even while playing for the LA Galaxy, he was considerably less important to the team's success than Omar Gonzalez and Landon Donovan.
Like Jeter and Junior, the most educated fans have known for years that he's overrated. Like Jeter and Junior, Beckham is the player that hardcore fans of the sport get asked weekly about by people who follow the sport very casually. They try to explain that he's not that good, the person on the other end of the conversation just doesn't get it, and they sigh in disappointment.
Beckham is good, yes, but he had the good fortune of being born in a country where Manchester United could be his first club and where he could meet and marry a global pop icon, therefore becoming a big enough celebrity that Real Madrid didn't care if he was a one-trick pony who pissed off the greatest manager of the modern era. If his game was all that mattered and he was really famous for the way that he could bend a ball, above all else, you'd know a lot more about this guy, who was better at Beckham's schtick than Beckham was:
MLS fans, soccer nerds and people who spend way too much time on YouTube know who Juninho Pernambucano is, but New York Red Bulls don't sell out giant NFL stadiums when they go on the road, even though Juninho and Beckham are essentially the same guy on the field.
This sucks for Juninho. He has the same talent as Beckham and could have been a worldwide celebrity with hundreds of millions of dollars if he came up through the Manchester United youth system and met a pop star in his early 20s. He could have been the reason that Giants Stadium was sold out for a soccer game. But he wasn't and never will be, because there aren't 70,000 people in New York who are that rabid about actual soccer games and have the time and money to attend them.
While it's annoying to soccer nerds (like me) that more people care about Beckham than any of the two-dozen or so players from his generation that were clearly superior soccer players, he does deserve a lot of appreciation from people who care about soccer -- just the game, not anything else surrounding the game -- in the United States. While he will be remembered for being a cultural icon and a good, but not spectacular, player, he should probably be remembered for something more than that.
Major media types who want something to yell about start yelling about why soccer is going to blow up in the United States right around every World Cup, and equally loud people start yelling that no one will ever like soccer in America. The same thing happened when Beckham arrived. Both sides are equally full of crap during every World Cup cycle, and they were equally full of crap when Beckham joined the Galaxy.
There was a massive initial boom before interest dropped off considerably, but that's not the end of the story. Some of the people who showed up just for Beckham started coming to games. Beckham's presence helped convince other players like Thierry Henry, Freddie Ljungberg, Tim Cahill and Robbie Keane to sign up. Beckham legitimized MLS as a destination for European players who are in their early 30s, not late 30s, and still have something to give on the pitch at a high level.
The Designated Player rule that was created for Beckham led to guys like Mexican international Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Boca Juniors legend Guillermo Barros Schelotto coming to the league. Their successes opened the doors to other South and Central American stars and turned the league into a legitimate destination for younger players who liked the idea of a much more stable and reliable paycheck while they tried to get on the radar of European teams.
Because European stars in their late 20s and early 30s -- along with young players from all around the world who aren't quite good enough for the biggest clubs in Europe -- see MLS as a real option for them and not a last resort, the quality of play in the league is immeasurably better than it was in 2007 and attendance keeps growing at a slow but steady pace. MLS is not blowing up and will never blow up, but attendance and quality of play keep getting better.
Ultimately, that's Beckham's legacy and that's why he matters. MLS might have become a good league with good attendance organically -- Seattle and Portland's support had little to nothing to do with the Beckham effect -- but he accelerated the process. He's the reason why MLS is on par with Europe's second-tier leagues in 2013, not 10 years later.
Beckham was an unremarkable player with one remarkable skill who married a pop star and did a bunch of underwear ads. Most people will remember him for those things, but he deserves to be remembered for what he did for soccer in America.