This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
David Beckham was an unlikely candidate for the first truly global brand in football. Ever since Pele decided to take practically every commercial opportunity available to him some time between the release of his self-titled soundtrack album and the filming of Escape to Victory, there have been players who have been financially successful outside of football, but Beckham was unprecedented in the way that he managed to transcend the game. He had the requisite good looks, shy affability and clean-cut image to appeal to advertisers from the very start, but he also had a series of naff haircuts and mannerisms which were something of a gift to uninspired television impressionists. In fairness, there is a good degree of hindsight involved in declaring his haircuts 'naff', with high street barbers across the country inundated with requests for Becks' latest look around the turn of the millennium. Still, that was in Britain, not across the world, and it was only later that Brand Beckham reached the lofty global pinnacle where it has remained ever since.
The first step for Beckham was to create a legacy at Manchester United, which he earned for his part in their six league titles between 1995 and 2003. His was a career of highlights, with his set-piece ability, lung-busting work-rate and thumping shots and crosses giving a conspicuous edge to the team. He won the double with the rest of the 'Class of '92' in 1995-96; he scored his seminal goal from the halfway line against Wimbledon on the opening day of the following season; he was a huge part of the treble-winning side in 1998-99 and got his hands on a Champions League winner's medal at the age of 24, and so became a household name in Britain and on the continent as well.
This was at a time when the Premier League brand was booming and Manchester United along with it, and Beckham no doubt benefitted from his association with the corporate miracle of English football. Global exposure, international investment and voracious profiteering had come to the game, and with Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and the rest of his teammates far less suited to the limelight, Beckham was now the most famous player, at the most venerated club, in the most marketised league in the world.
Another thing that set Beckham apart from his teammates and contemporaries was his seamless segue into the world of pop culture. While the Spice Boys at Liverpool achieved a tawdry form of celebrity recognition largely at the expense of their careers in football, Becks managed to find fame off the pitch while still delivering something like his best when called upon. His relationship with Victoria 'Posh Spice' Adams – a tabloid obsession from 1997 onwards – certainly caused tension with his managers, and was cited as one of the reasons that Glenn Hoddle left him out of the first few games of World Cup 98, this before he was sent off for kicking out at Diego Simeone during England's Round of 16 defeat to Argentina. Though Becks briefly became the most hated man in Britain in the aftermath, and was widely criticised for putting stardom above football, his performances for England over the next decade were indicative of his ability to juggle fame and the game with relative grace.
The Beckham marriage was announced in 1998 to enormous fanfare, and so the 'Posh & Becks' phenomenon was born. The pair became incredibly popular with the British public and Victoria Beckham even bestowed her husband with a new nickname, 'Golden Balls', while their ability to manipulate the media – no doubt aided by Simon Fuller, the massively influential talent manager who had masterminded the Spice Girls and with whom David Beckham signed just after leaving Manchester – saw them ride out several tabloid scandals almost completely unscathed. Being married to a pop sensation and increasingly influential figure in fashion launched Beckham into the media stratosphere, but it would take two monumental transfers for him to break through the glass ceiling and achieve near-universal recognition. The first was his move to Real Madrid, where he was wanted as a footballer almost as much as for his spiralling renown.
Speaking after the breakdown of their professional relationship had seen Beckham move to Real in 2003 – again, the baggage which came with celebrity was said to have been the main cause of the fallout – Alex Ferguson said of his former protege: "Getting married into that entertainment scene was a difficult thing. From that moment his life was never going to be the same. He is such a big celebrity, football is only a small part." Ferguson wasn't being entirely fair, with some of Beckham's best performances coming in his last couple of seasons at Old Trafford. The expectation at the Bernabeu was gargantuan and while he never quite lived up to his Galactico status – winning a solitary La Liga title and one Supercopa de Espana with Real, even as the Galacticos concept became fabled the world over – Beckham continued to be the star man for England and to thrive on the international stage.
If his transfer to Real Madrid exposed Brand Beckham to an even bigger global market, it was Becks' move across the Atlantic which secured his status as a commercial deity. With Victoria Beckham's fashion career burgeoning in the USA, her husband found himself able to launch a line of fragrances with multi-million dollar backing, as well as pose for fashion shoots, appear on the front cover of glossy magazines and grace the lucrative American talk show circuit, cultivating an ever-more marketable persona and refining his image and mannerisms along the way. While there were many back in Britain who felt that Beckham had put himself out to pasture too soon, his move to LA Galaxy saw him leave Britain behind and become a transatlantic idol, with football now firmly second to being an A-lister (even if he did win the MLS Cup twice with Galaxy). Like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and George Michael before him, Becks had broken America, and was even afforded swansongs with AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain to make sure the French and Italian-speaking worlds were similarly keen to invest in the products now bearing his name.
With Beckham still a source of daily news four years after his retirement from football, we can safely say at this point that his personal brand is here to stay. Unlike the likes of Pele before him, football now seems incidental to his success, with the keepy-uppy gimmicks which haunted his Brazilian forebear well into his retirement almost entirely absent from Beckham's public image. The Premier League boom; his success at Manchester United; the insane ambition of the Galacticos project; the shrewd decision to conquer MLS; the reflected fame of his other half and the business acumen of her manager; Beckham's transcendent celebrity is a mix of circumstance, commercial genius and good fortune. With the possible exception of Cristiano Ronaldo, another prodigious self-promoter forged in the fires of Old Trafford, the upshot is that Beckham has become a brand which is rivalled by no other footballer on earth.