First Fergie, now Becks. A week after Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement from Manchester United, David Beckham announced that he will be hanging up his boots after his final two games with Paris Saint-Germain.
For a good chunk of his 20-year career, Beckham was the most famous soccer player in the world. Not coincidentally, he was also the game’s ambassador to the U.S. for a little while, a post that had effectively been vacant since Pele’s stint with the New York Cosmos in the 1970s.
It’s easy to dismiss Beckham’s U.S. career as a six-year publicity stunt -- and a failed one at that. He may have captured the media’s attention for a bit, but in the end, he was no different than Pele. For all of the money and hoopla, he didn’t turn the U.S. into a soccer-mad nation.
The problem wasn’t with Beckham, though. It was with America's unrealistic expectations of him -- which say everything about why the U.S. still hasn’t figured out soccer.
The first thing to note is that Beckham was not the sports equivalent of an aging rock star when he signed with the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007. He was maybe a little bit past his prime, but he was still a world-class player. Indeed, the Galaxy loaned him out to AC Milan not once but twice.
More to the point, soccer is not basketball. It’s not a sport built for superstars. Yes, it can produce transcendent performers and performances. Yet no matter how much hype is lavished on a soccer player, he is still only one of 11. He can only do so much. (Especially when, like Beckham, he’s a passing midfielder who relies on his forwards to finish.)
Beckham may have been grossly overpaid, earning on the order of $50 million a year. But he did bring some real value to U.S. soccer, not by making the sport more glamorous but by teaching his younger teammates how the game is played on the highest level. With any luck, that knowledge will be passed down to the next generation of players, too.
(Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. Follow him in Twitter.)