Beckham hits 40 as a man in need of substance

In the accelerated life of a footballer, 40 isn’t a career milestone. The two birthdays that matter are 16, when a player can turn professional, and 30, when you’re too old to get a multi-year contract from Arsène Wenger. By then, you’re perceived as a fading veteran with the stamina and speed of a bronchitic snail.

Maybe 35 is important, too – because if you’re still playing at that age, you very soon won’t be. David Beckham retired at 38 only two years ago, so at least that’s much too recent for anyone to want to produce yet more sepia-and-sarong-tinted career retrospectives.

What’s this? Oh.

It must be strange to be a thirtysomething retired multimillionaire – the sense of bereavement at the end of a cherished job counterweighted by the panoply of possibilities that come with youth and wealth. European soccer is now producing dozens, probably hundreds, of these people every summer, and many of them must be wondering what to do with the rest of their lives

But the richest and most famous of them appears to have made a seamless transition to civilian life. To the casual observer it would seem little has changed since Beckham’s last match. He’s still in the celebrity media every couple of days. He’s still doing endorsements, charity work and benignly boring interviews. Still Daily Mail clickbait.

The only thing that’s missing is the kicking a ball around a field part, and for most outside North America — people who never saw him play in Major League Soccer or never cared that he did — that may as well have ended the moment he left Real Madrid in 2007.

Beckham gives every impression that normal service is ongoing despite his lack of a job in professional soccer (not even as a television analyst or coach), which adds retrospective credibility to the critics who derided him as symbolizing vapid fame even when he was still playing at the highest level.

For all the legions of critics down the years who’ve made coin from insisting on Beckham’s irrelevance and hollowness, there have been plenty more media and PR decision-makers who’ve strived to convince us that his significance goes far beyond soccer. That he’s bigger than the game.

Take this CNN article which attempts to depict turning 40 as some sort of career crossroads and frets that Beckham’s brand may have “reached too far away from his core values”.

So even if he wanted to melt into obscurity and spend his days watching TV and taking the kids to school, we can’t afford to let him go now. There is too much invested in him. He can’t be allowed to step off the celebrity conveyor belt, no matter that his life is so over-exposed that the only intrigue left is how covered with tattoos a man’s skin can get before he is legally allowed to identify himself as “inky” in the race section of census forms.

He doesn’t want to get off, anyway. His 40th was a marketing opportunity. This was tagged as “News” on the Sky Sports website: “Sky ambassador David Beckham has joined social media site Instagram to celebrate his 40th birthday. The former Manchester United, Real Madrid, LA Galaxy and Paris Saint-Germain star star posted his first photo with his handle name @davidbeckham wishing his followers good morning from his bed.”

David Beckham opening an Instagram account is not “news,” unless the first post is of him shooting Sir Alex Ferguson with a crossbow or meeting with ISIS leaders in a bid to broker a ceasefire. But two years on from his last free-kick his every action is still being chronicled and analyzed like in some sort of Paparazzi Opta.

Kids, once upon a time, being famous and looking good in underpants wasn’t Beckham’s only, or even primary, job. He won 115 England caps, a national record for an outfield player. Won league titles in England, Spain, MLS and France and was twice runner-up for FIFA world player of the year. He was, in fact, a great and exceptionally committed player. But younger generations won’t know it, and older ones who saw him on the field will forget.

Without recent sporting achievement to anchor his promotional work, he’ll become the soccer community’s successor to the Subway and Viagra salesman Pele, his credibility and even legacy a little stained by his reputation as a corporate shill. There really won’t be anything left except for self-perpetuating celebrity.

That’s one reason why Miami is so important for Beckham and his advisors. Co-owning a club would make soccer the story again. There would be sporting substance to his ubiquity. A chance to embellish his achievements. Just in time, since the fashion world is sure to lose interest when he becomes bald and paunchy. And that’s what happens at 40, right?