Somewhere between becoming a floppy-haired poster boy on the right side of Manchester United’s midfield and a Clark Gable lookalike in Paris, Beckham worked out how to be famous for more than just a good dead-ball delivery and a passion for the game.
The lad from Leytonstone moved through all these gears effortlessly and ended up in Paris via Beverly Hills. But he is not to be compared with the greatest players of his generation.
Even at United he would sit behind Eric Cantona, Cristiano Ronaldo and Giggs and Scholes, who remained members of the United cult while Beckham was fluttering away to Real Madrid, where he recovered from a mid-season crisis to win La Liga in Fabio Capello’s team.
Internationally, he could not match the Brazilian Ronaldo, Ronaldinho or Zinedine Zidane either, because the range of his gifts was too narrow to be compared with those masters.
But he was always thrusting himself onto the same page as them, if not the same paragraph, by virtue of his extraordinary stamina as an athlete and his expert ball-striking, which spoke of a childhood obsession with practice.
There is no reason to run Beckham down as a footballer. Nor are there grounds to overstate his talent. At United many feel he weakened his status as a natural born footballer by pursuing so many commercial and PR opportunities before leaving for Madrid.
The great miscalculation of his career was assuming the good times had passed after his England career seemed to have ended and his time at the Bernabéu turned sour. Moving to LA took him and Victoria to Hollywood but left him stranded in a team that were beneath his profile and abilities.
With his roving eye for fame, though, Beckham became a highly effective ambassador for the London 2012 Olympic bid, though his political clout could not secure him a place in Stuart Pearce’s Team GB squad.
All the while he was shifting towards the kind of national role Tony Blair might have designed for him were he still in power. PSG started out as publicity opportunity for the club but ended with Beckham playing a credible if limited part in their late-season exploits.
In the stampede to the exit, Beckham joins Michael Owen, Scholes, Jamie Carragher and Ferguson himself, who wearied of his limelight-addiction, which was contrary to the code of ‘Fergie’s fledglings’. He left, the others stayed unless forced to leave by an inability to make the side (Nicky Butt, Phil Neville).
Sitting on his money mountain, Beckham will doubtless feel justified in making the most of his film star qualities while the rest of the class of 92 stayed close to home.
England is where the falsehoods really showed. Sven-Goran Eriksson was in thrall to his fame (still is), and allowed Beckham too much power as captain. When the country needed a serious marshalling of some good players, from 2002-2006, it fell instead into a narcissistic state as the Premier League invaded markets around the world.
Some Football Association employees behaved like Beckham’s personal acolytes. He was commercial dynamite. The power to dazzle those became most apparent in 2002 when Japanese girls queued to book into his old room at England’s team base on Awaji Island. Just to occupy a room Beckham had once been in was enough for these besotted new disciples.
But who would want to take away from his century of England caps, his league titles in four countries, his promising future on whatever stage he chooses?
Football was his vehicle, but it was also his first love, and he used it to beat the system everywhere he went.