Was David Beckham really ‘that’ good?

A friend of mine asked me this recently. It’s truly a fair question. Given the glitz and glam that surrounded him throughout his playing days, and even after retirement, that’s a really fair question to ask.

A football player like him can very easily be remembered for his brand, his suave, his fashion sense, his marriage to Posh Spice, or his 1001 business ventures. The lines get blurred, our vision gets influenced. It’s hard to objectively remember David Beckham the footballer when David Beckham the personality continues to dominate narratives.

But in the last six months or so, we’ve seen a renaissance of public opinion regarding David Beckham the footballer.

The Netflix documentary served as a time machine that transported millions of people back to the good ol’ days when Beckham was whipping astonishing balls with his right foot, for fun. Just a few weeks ago, I had the privilege of interviewing ex-Liverpool defender John Arne Riise, and he was full of praise when talking about Beckham. “People forget how hard-working and truly gifted he was.”

That’s a powerful line. And we’ll get back to that in a bit.

Just last week, David was down in Kuala Lumpur. Not his first time here, but certainly his first time in the capacity of an adidas ambassador. He was down to officiate the #WorldOfPredator exhibition at TRX Exchange, a celebration of the 30-year-old history of the Predator football boots. I was thrilled to be there, knowing I’d be meeting the ‘Becks’, but truth be told, the exhibition sent shivers down my spine.

I come from a middle-class family, and football boots weren’t necessarily at the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But when I turned 13, my parents got me my first-ever branded pair of boots - it was the adidas Predator Absolute, decked out in yellow and black.

To this date, it remains the best football boots I’ve ever owned or worn. And to see the exact same model on display at the exhibition? Complete utter goosebumps.

Alright, moving back on track, a bunch of journalists had the opportunity to do a roundtable chat with David, moderated by our very own Adam Carruthers. And this is where it truly got interesting and insightful. David opened up about his favourite predator - the Accelerator. This didn’t really come as a surprise, given that he wore it during the historic 98/99 season when Man Utd won the Treble. He spoke in depth about the evolution of these Predator boots and his admiration for how they’ve now become a fashion statement.

And then he spoke about football. More specifically, his career. Even more specifically, his favourite moments and his legacy.

“I’d like to think people remember me for my work ethic, and it’s something I’ve carried into my life after retirement too.”

When asked about his all-time favourite career moment, he referred to the England vs Greece match. If you watched the Netflix documentary, you’ll know what I’m talking about as well. The one-man show. The sensational free-kick. England colours at Old Trafford. World Cup qualification on the line.

The irony is this. David played a part in arguably one of the greatest comeback moments in the history of the game. He was a pivotal part of the United side that won the Treble. He had scored an astonishing goal from halfway line vs Wimbledon.

He had netted countless free-kicks in many big games. But his favourite moment ever? A 90-minute performance in which Beckham stood out more than anyone else, for his work ethic, and of course ‘that’ free-kick. No one worked harder than him that day. No one wanted it more than him that day. Of course, he had a score to settle after 1998, but he covered every blade of grass at Old Trafford that day.

I always find answers to these questions very insightful because they provide a glimpse into what professional athletes regard as their biggest strength. For years, the world looked at David Beckham as a flashy prima donna, who could only make a career out of football because he was born with a gifted right foot. But in David’s eyes, he was a perfect mix of work ethic, desire, and some form of ability on the ball.

To his eyes, he was a footballer that worked harder than anyone else and, as a result, became one of the best wingers at his prime. And this is where we rope John Arne Riise back into the conversation. Even the guys that played against him remember him for his work ethic.

Just do what I did over the last few days. Spend some time on YouTube, rewatching old clips of David Beckham. If you can find old games involving him at Man Utd - even better. Just observe him. Observe the ground he covers. Observe his defensive work-rate.

Observe his desire to win possession. Observe his runs, his movement off the ball, his positional awareness. David wasn’t just a ‘cross merchant’, as the kids would say these days. He was an incredible, well-rounded, footballer.

In the modern game, he’d be a wing-back. A marauding wing-back with a wolf-like appetite for attacking, but also with the work ethic needed to drop back and defend. Beyond the glamorous lifestyle that seemingly defined him, David was a footballer moulded by working-class values. And I think, as football fans, we have a responsibility to play in shaping the narratives around footballers.

It’s easy for people to be focused on David Beckham’s personality. There’s absolutely nothing wrong in people remembering him for his brand, or his lifestyle, or his business ventures, or even his relationship/marriage with Victoria. But it is upon us football fans to make sure David’s exploits, traits, and characteristics as a footballer are not sidelined.

It is upon us to ensure his footballing legacy remains undiluted. Most importantly, it’s upon us to ensure they are remembered for what they want to be remembered for.

Huge thanks to #adidasMY for inviting us to the launch of the #WorldOfPredator exhibition and giving us access to meet and speak with David Beckham. Go drop by TRX Exchange and visit the exhibition!