Debate: Is David Beckham Truly Great?

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“There are three things everyone has heard of: Jesus Christ, Coca Cola and Pele.” That was the cliché in the 1990s. Although the trio still remains top of the charts, it would be naïve and even downright criminal not to add the name David Beckham to the list.

Golden Balls might have shipped himself so unwittingly to the footballing tundra(read the MLS); his England days might be numbered; he might not even be appearing in those apparently meaningless friendly matches in the Far East for Real Madrid. But he still sustains that legendary charm and is certainly the most recognizable footballing face in the world(although Cristiano Ronaldo might raise an objection to that).

Like the Beatles who became synonymous with rock music in the 1960s or like Leonardo da Vinci with the Renaissance in Italy, David Beckham has become the byword for football mania in the world. True, the game was the number one sport in major parts of the world even before the advent on Becksie onto the stage but he has certainly transformed its image, shaped it into a 20th/21st century money-spinning machine and draped it with a glamour surpassed only by the late great George Best.

The Case For Greatness

6 Premiership titles, 2 FA Cups, 1 UEFA Champions League with Manchester United. 1 La Liga title with Real Madrid. A free-kick specialist whom you could trust with your life. A marvelous right-sided midfielder who could cross the ball more accurately than others. A connoisseur of the long ball surpassed in stature only by a certain Francesco Totti. A glamorous medio whose work ethic rivals Gordon Brown’s 18 hour a day work rate.

David Beckham has always been there when he was needed. Be it for Manchester United, England or Real Madrid, DB has never fallen short of commitment. Announcing himself as a cheeky handsome young lad at the start of the 1996-1997 when he scored against Wimbledon from the half way line, he became a public villain in the 1998 summer when he so idiotically ‘kicked’ at Diego Simone but redeemed himself in the 1998-1999 season when he led Man United to the now clichéd historic treble.

Against Greece on October 6, 2001 at Old Trafford when England needed to draw to automatically directly for the 2002 World Cup, Beckham was the key that unlocked the door. People remember him scoring the last gasp free-kick but what they tend to overlook is his die-attitude during the match, his consistent galloping all over the pitch, his persistent eagerness to get the ball and set England rolling, his annoyingly pleasant urgency to drag his team and nation out of the hole.

At Real Madrid he was arguably the best player after Iker Casillas in those four difficult years. His consistency and commitment were laudable and although to suggest that Becks was the best for Real in their title winning 2006-2007 season would be to undermine the contribution of the entire team, there’s little doubt that it was Beckham who inspired and motivated the squad with his performance and attitude.

The Case Against Greatness

Beckham a great player then, eh? Well, not quite. The detractors of the 33-year old do have some very strong points against Beckham’s right to be christened as ‘great’.

For one, David Beckham didn’t have the finesse or that extra-terrestrial magical touch that defines a truly great footballer. Even an ageing Zinedine Zidane and a disgruntled Luis Figo were more entertaining to watch while at Man United Paul Scholes overshadow Beckham in the technical department.

And then of course he could never dribble, never. There was no Messi-esque gliding past six players or Zidane-esque la roulette or Ronaldo-esque stepovers. Instead, there was the show-the-defender-your-back-hide-the-ball-and-then-pass-it-to-your-nearest-teammate strategy.

The case against him is that Beckham was always, always overrated. His detractors argue that Beckham has limited skills, never had pace, cannot function outside the dead ball situation, gets stuck against alert world class defenders, cannot tackle, cannot defend and is popular only because he has marketed and promoted himself so well, what with his (apparently) dashing looks and a high dose of glamour.

Which of course you cannot deny. David Beckham is certainly a footballer who has altered the concept of football and all things attached to the sport outside the pitch but on the pitch he was never in the same bracket as the Zidanes, Figos, Rivaldos, Ronaldinhos, Ronaldos(Brazilian) or Scholes.

”The Great Paradox”

But then again the ‘greatness’ of a player is not restrained within the insular boundary of the football pitch. What he does off the pitch should be considered as well. And this is where Beckham topscores.

Becksie has always been the perfect English gentleman, so perfect that the Spanish wanted to keep him for good. He has rarely let himself loose, although cynics might observe that as an act carefully designed to preserve his chocolate image.

He refused to smother the England fans(that middle-finger gesture in Euro 2000 apart) when they shouted “May your son die of cancer” in the aftermath of the 1998 World Cup disaster. He was (mis)hit with a boot at his eyebrow by Sir Alex Ferguson inside the Man United dressing room in February 2003 but he declined to blame Sir Alex.

Beckham was dubbed ”half an actor, off to Hollywood” by the Real Madrid president Ramon Calderon midway through the 2006-2007 season but the ever great professional David Beckham kept his lips tightly sealed, only sneering,"The same people who want me to stay now thought I was not good enough six months ago" when Real Madrid desperately tried to trap his LA Galaxy venture.

The lament of virtually entire Europe at the departure of Beckham to a world people call football ‘soccer’ summed up the esteem and affection with which Beckham is regarded as a professional and as a person.

David Beckham might never have been a truly great player but he shall always be a great professional. And a great man.

And a paradox, which is what the Spanish paper El Pais described him in its farewell to Becks:

"Beckham is the great paradox of world football. He is the greatest icon on the planet and the cause of such delirium in the media and on the streets, the greatest catwalk model there is. And yet he has been an anti-diva. He was the most galactic of the galacticos off the pitch, but the greatest of earthlings when he walked on to the field.

Subhankar Mondal

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