Age may be catching up, but the Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder is coy on whether he will play beyond this season. Scott French writes from Carson, California.
Passion for the game is no passing fancy for David Beckham
The David Beckham you don't know spends hours on the treatment table, in the gym, on the practice pitch taking care of all the little things required to be the David Beckham you do know.
He cares truly about only one thing, family aside, and it has nothing to do with Hollywood parties or photo shoots or which fragrance to which he will put his name. His first love remains his deepest love, something most apparent every time he pulls on a Los Angeles Galaxy shirt and trots into the stadium or on to the training ground.
David Beckham's greatest joy comes on the football field, and he understands his time in the game is nearing its end. He turned 37 in May, and the knocks and pains linger longer than they once did. He cannot run as he used to, surely not for as long nor across as many games, and it takes greater effort to get out of bed the morning after a match. He is getting old.
Footballers rarely play into their late 30s or 40s, goalkeepers excepted, and those who do tend to be shadows of what they once were, if they were anything at all. Beckham is something else: a workaholic gleefully playing a boys' game with the same boyhood abandon he has always possessed; still at or near the crest of his powers, enjoying a golden twilight away from the game's brightest spotlight.
No, he is not in the English Premier League (although he could be), nor playing for one of the world's great clubs (as he twice did, for Manchester United and Real Madrid), and he no longer stars for England's national team (but what might he add if he did?). No noticeable decline in his game has been seen, no tempering of his effort, no erosion of his singular gift for delivering a ball like no one else can. If anything, he has a greater and growing understanding of how to use that skill.
He is a towering figure, by far the biggest star in Major League Soccer, the undervalued US pro league now in its 17th season. His status is not entirely about his celebrity, the shirt sales, nor the attention he (and other top players, such as Thierry Henry and Torsten Frings) have drawn to the league, although all of it plays a considerable role.
He has been superb on the field, certainly since Bruce Arena took charge of the Galaxy in August 2008, and last year he was an MLS Best XI selection after playing a pivotal role in LA's triumphs in the league's two major competitions, the Supporters' Shield (best regular-season record) and the more-coveted MLS Cup, awarded to the winner of the play-off tournament. He isthe deadliest playmaker in the league, able to set up teammates from virtually any spot on the field, and he has been in a sterling run of form all summer as the Galaxy rallied from a horrid start, rising from the Western Conference basement when June arrived to second place with a victory this past weekend.
But 40 is not far off, and neither is the end of his career.
How much more football does Beckham have in him? Might he hang up his boots when this season ends? Or will that come next year, when his current Galaxy contract runs out? Will he sign on for another year or two in LA, or does he head home to England for a final encore? Does he stake out more uncharted ground, perhaps give a boost to the game elsewhere outside the mainstream in, say, the Middle East?
These are the questions Beckham must consider as he approaches his 22nd year as a professional.
"I love the game, so I want to continue playing it," Beckham told The National, claiming he "feels the same" as when he was 30. "I still want to play at a high level, and if I feel I can't play at that high level, then I'll try and stop … I've said I want to continue playing as long as possible. So we'll see what age I finish."
He will be mulling all of it after the MLS season ends in early December. A mutual one-year option is attached to his two-year, US$8 million (Dh29.4m) contract, and Beckham could decide to retire or change locales. The odds of either: doubtful and doubtful.
His coach and teammates expect him to play for the Galaxy until he retires, whenever that may be.
"I would think," says Arena, the former United States national team coach, "David would finish his career here."
"I think that's sort of a given," says the Galaxy captain Landon Donovan, the biggest American star in MLS and the longest-serving LA player. "He's done a lot for this team. He's the second-most-tenured player on this team, so he's as much a part of this team as anybody. We want to keep him here."
Beckham and his family - wife Victoria (the former pop star Posh Spice), sons Brooklyn, Romeo and Cruz and 15-month-old daughter Harper Seven - absolutely love LA. They have a $22m mansion in Beverly Hills, bask in the year-round sunshine and ocean breezes, and find that with the paparazzi more interested in showbiz faces (their friend Tom Cruise's, for one) they can live as normally as they please. Victoria Beckham runs her fashion empire from LA. The kids consider it home; the two youngest boys sound like native Californians.
Beckham says his family are "all happy. We've been happy here the last five years".
In December, when his original, five-year deal with the Galaxy ran out, he turned down a reported $18.7m, 18-month offer from Paris Saint-Germain and took a pay cut to stay in LA, going from $6.5m to $4m in "guaranteed compensation".
He said: "We thought: why change something that works? The kids love living here, I love living here. Los Angeles has been amazing to us as a family. So we're going to continue to enjoy it."
The sentiment has not changed since. Beckham this week said he would "without a doubt" maintain a home in Los Angeles, no matter what happens. "The way my children, the way my wife have lived their lives the past six years has been really happy for us."
So slam dunk, Galaxy? This is where he will play until he is done?
Not so fast.
"I've always said I'm happy here, but even when I was in Manchester, even in Madrid, never say never," he says. "Things can change very quickly. I've always tried to stay away from saying, 'This is where I'm going to finish my career.' I'd love to have finished my career in Manchester, and expected to, and it didn't happen. … Things can change in football very quickly. They did for me in Manchester, and I wasn't expecting that.
"End of the day, I'm 37 and at some point will stop playing. Whether there will be another change in my career, in my life, who knows? But right now I'm more than happy in LA, love living here, love the club, and everything is good."
Dave Sarachan, the Galaxy's associate head coach, concedes that Beckham will not "cover the ground" he once could, but "when you add the experience and his IQ, and, obviously, he's gifted in terms of what he can do in delivering a ball, he's compensated for the fact that when you're 37 you're not going to run like you did at 30".
Beckham does not have to run as he once did. He prefers to sit deep, a little like Andrea Pirlo, and he roams the field to find space from which to deliver those balls. LA is a high-scoring team, with 48 goals in 20 competitive matches since mid-June, and Beckham's ability to play long balls to a specific spot gives the Galaxy a weapon few teams anywhere possess.
He is less star player than he is the ultimate role player: a complement who fuels the attack, a diligent defender, a fierce and often emotional competitor renowned for his work ethic, his attention to detail, his fitness level and, most of all, his passion and on-field intelligence. He betrays his age subtly.
"He actually covers more ground than people realise," says Donovan, who watched intently while sitting out with a recent hamstring injury. "He runs a lot more than I realise when I'm on the field with him. He has the ability to go four or five games where he's back at, like, 29 or 30-year-old Beckham. It's hard for him to do that over the course of 35 or 40 games, but over a three- or four- or five-game stretch, he can still do it."
Arena has managed Beckham's time carefully, giving him days off from training, rotating him out of the line-up during heavy stretches of schedule, allowing him to miss games for special occasions and commitments elsewhere. Beckham has repaid that approach handsomely and, partnering with Donovan, the Ireland striker Robbie Keane, the excellent centre-back Omar Gonzalez and the rising Brazilian midfielder Juninho, spurred the Galaxy to MLS standards in nearly every category.
Donovan says he would be surprised if Beckham lasts beyond 40. Sarachan says 40 would be "pushing it". One year at a time, Arena stresses. Beckham says he knows "a lot of players that have stopped and miss it so much that they want to come back" and that he will "make sure that I'm ready to stop when I do".
He will have options. PSG may come calling again. Two Premier League clubs - word was Tottenham Hotspur and Queens Park Rangers - were in pursuit last winter. Offers floated in from Brazil, Italy and the Middle East. He is the ultimate marketing tool and he still has game. It is win-win.
The game has seen top players drawn to new markets, such as China, Australia and the UAE. Might Beckham consider such a move?
"I don't know. I don't think so," he said. "I made the step of coming to a different country and relatively new league six years ago, and I was excited about that. The first couple years were difficult, but after that it's been an amazing success on the field and off the field. Now you see [Alessandro] Del Piero going to Australia, players going to different countries around the world.
"It's great to have been part of that."
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