x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Every footballer has a sell-by date

After 40 minutes of tame questions and banal but smiling answers, David Beckham stepped out of the executive lounge at the Giuseppe Meazza stadium in San Siro to look out across the grand arena in the empty darkness of a December night.

After 40 minutes of tame questions and banal but smiling answers, David Beckham stepped out of the executive lounge at the Giuseppe Meazza stadium in San Siro to look out across the grand arena in the empty darkness of a December night. His official presentation over, Beckham took out his mobile phone to take a photo. His wife, Victoria, leaned towards one of her Italian hosts to say: "He's so excited, you know." It was possible to believe in that short moment away from the cameras, lenses and microphones that a genuinely thrilling chapter was beginning in the career of the world's most famous footballer.

It was possible to imagine, too, that Beckham might later send, via SMS, his tourist snapshot of a slightly misty San Siro to friends, like people do when they are at a well-known landmark on a trip abroad. Beckham may have played in the stadium before, in the colours of Manchester United, but there lurks within him an awe about actually belonging there. "I had a few text messages from my mates when it became know I was joining Milan," he says. "They made a lot of the Manchester United-Real Madrid-Milan thing."

The phrase 'David Beckham of Manchester United, Real Madrid and AC Milan' has a unique resonance among footballers of his generation, an epoch in which the leagues of Italy, Spain and England have held uninterrupted status of Europe's top three, an era when United have been England's best most often; Madrid have been Spain's aristocrats; Milan Italy's highest achievers in Europe. It was possible to believe Beckham too when last Saturday he told an audience mainly of Italian reporters he had always aspired to play in Serie A. "It is passionate, it is tough and it is stylish," he said. Some found it harder to believe when he said he had always dreamed of playing for Milan. "But, David," asked one journalist, "in your autobiography you made no mention of having wanted to play for Milan?" Beckham smiled, in his benevolent way.

It is easy to become cynical about Beckham, about the ratio of skill and hard-sell that make up his enormous impact, to wonder about the motives of those who employ him and his motives for choosing whom to be employed by. It is legitimate to wonder what the point is of Milan's taking him on for less than three months on loan from the Los Angeles Galaxy as of next week. Amid these questions it is also possible to forget that within the Hollywood resident, the fashion model, there exists an individual as capable of everyday awe as you or I.

When Beckham first turned up at Real Madrid for training in the pre-season of 2003-04, he said he felt the butterflies in his stomach when Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo arrived in the dressing-room. Beckham's triumph as a sportsman was to know that as players Zidane and Ronaldo possessed talents he did not, to feel awe, but, once he joined them on the field, not to feel overawed. Beckham easily recalls the repetitive questions, when he joined Real from United five and half years ago, about the purpose of his signing: "People asked for about a year if I was there mainly to sell shirts." It irked him. He once said bluntly to this journalist, when again the notion that his value as a marketing icon might outweigh the value of his football was raised: "I'm lucky, I can do both."

Beckham sells, but he can also play. Nor does he waste time worrying about the ratio of skill to hard-sell in the overall package. Beckham in Real was compelling because a fine footballer emerged through the hype. Beckham in Milan will be fascinating because the hype is fading, and nobody, not even Beckham, knows how much the footballer's forces have faded over the last 18 months. ihawkey@thenational.ae