By Ella Reilly
If you were unlucky enough to stick your head into my bedroom when I was a teenager, you would probably have swiftly withdrawn it, a little overwhelmed. Not necessarily at the (careful co-ordinated) clutter, but rather at the plethora of posters featuring the same Englishman. Glance at my bookshelf and you most likely would have seen a little collection of skills manuals and biographies with the same man figuring somewhere in the titles. Ditto my DVD collection. If this all became too much for you, and you looked desperately at my calendar to reassure yourself that you weren’t in a borderline stalker parallel universe, more often than not a familiar face would look back at you. David Beckham.
Until the announcement of David Beckham’s decision to retire from football, I had thought I was a little bit past such an obsession. Sure, I kept an eye on Paris Saint-Germain’s results after he joined, but I wasn’t that bothered whether or not they won or lost. Occasionally I’d wear my LA Galaxy shirt with his name on the back, but only if my Nottingham Forest or England shirts were out of action for some reason. Very rarely (if ever) would I look up clips from his games, but if one came up in YouTube’s recommended bar then I would sometimes have a look. In short, David Beckham seemed to be on the periphery of adult me’s footballing consciousness and no longer at the centre of it. Admittedly I had fallen a little bit out of love with football for a while, but that’s another story, for another time perhaps. As is probably becoming obvious, Beckham’s decision to hang up his boots has given me reason to reflect on a central part of football: the heroes. Why is it that we spend so much of our time fixating on one or two individuals when the game we love is fundamentally a team one?
Musing upon the matter, I consulted the aforementioned bookshelf and found my well-thumbed copy of Brian Clough’s autobiography (another football hero of mine) to offer some wisdom (as he usually does). “Heroes present themselves in various ways. Some fade quicker and further than others,” he writes, adding “I once had a horse as a hero but not for long. Dante won the Derby in 1945 and I heard everybody talking about it … I’m not into racing all that much, but as a little lad in Middlesbrough I had the distinct impression that Dante was the fastest horse that ever lived.”
Hmm. Girl in twenty first century New Zealand idolises footballer in Europe, schoolboy in wartime Middlesbrough deifies racehorse. It seems a little odd, to say the least. So what was it that Clough and I were doing when we put these individuals on a pedestal? Why is it that footballers or racehorses with little to no connection to one’s day-to-day life take on enough significance in a person’s life that they would see fit to mention them in an autobiography or make them the subject of a blog post? For Cloughie that’s probably an easy question to answer: he wanted to be the best in the business and he could sense this trait in that horse. The possibility of being not the best in the business but in the top one was opened to him.
I think for me the thing with Beckham was what he ultimately represented as a footballer and as a leader. To me, he was Captain Fantastic when he led England. He might not have been a tub thumper in the mould of John Terry (definitely not a bad thing in my eyes), instead he led by example. He led by keeping his head down and getting on with the game; keeping an eye out for his team mates but letting them get on with what they did best. I recall during the 2002 World Cup Danny Mills clashed with the opposition (who I’ve completely forgotten – possibly Denmark?) and was on the ground. Beckham came up to him and put his arms over Mills, shielding him from his opposite number (and probably preventing a retaliatory kick, something we all know Beckham knew something about). The commentator pointed out that this was a real captain’s thing to do – reading the situation and acting accordingly to defuse it. This might seem like a daft little thing to remember, but something resonated with my nine year old self and I remember it to this day.
For me, there was also something truly magical the way he played. His crossing, his long range passing, his free kicks. The fact that he’s won trophies in four separate leagues, that he spent his entire career playing for some of the best teams in the world, that he continues to command the respect of the world’s top figures in football. I didn’t (and still don’t) care that he’s married to a former Spice Girl and seems just as comfortable strolling down the red carpet as he does strolling into a 70 000 seat stadium. That stuff’s not important. When I watched David Beckham play, whether it was on the TV or down in Wellington in 2007 (or here in Auckland in 2008 for that matter), the off-pitch stuff meant nothing. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was what Beckham could do on the pitch, with the ball and with his team mates. He might not have been in the technical league of Messi or Zidane, even I’ll acknowledge that. But his work rate, his determination, his sheer passion for the game was something that came across for me each and every time I watched him play.
That’s how he wants his career to be remembered and as it happens it’s how I’ll remember his career. The posters might have faded and I might have moved onto more challenging books than a footballer’s ghost-written autobiography, but the memories still remain. Thanks Becks.
[Ella is a long suffering yet admirably devoted Nottingham Forest and Ingerland supporter who, when she’s not studying English Literature at the University of Auckland or watching Bend it Like Beckham, both plays for and is Club Secretary of Waiheke United AFC.]
A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.