David Beckham.

Autumn in Milan: Beckham's Italian swansong

Wednesday 10 March 2021 11:36

Hollywood loves a happy ending.

Presumably, that was what David Beckham envisaged when he arrived at LA Galaxy in the summer of 2007. Four years after leaving Manchester for Madrid, his fairytale football career seemed close to completion.
 
At 32, if it wasn't exactly pipe-and-slippers time, running out at the Home Depot Center in Major League Soccer's Western Conference would, with the greatest deference to Colorado Rapids and Real Salt Lake, be rather less pressured than the battles fought in his playing pomp: the heat and history of clashes with Manchester and Merseyside neighbours, the cauldron of El Clasico; even the odd bruising midweek skirmish with Bolton Wanderers.
 
And though his missionary zeal to promote the game Stateside was – and these days, as owner of Inter Miami remains – genuine, the narrative arc for this most modern of modern footballers was not yet done. That itch to appear on the grandest stages remained: an itch that close on seven years after he left was eventually scratched one last time back where it all began: at Old Trafford.
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Top 10: Beckham goals

Our discussion about United's greatest English player begins with Becks, whose top 10 goals are a joy to watch...

The details of that memorable Champions League night in March 2010, an emotional homecoming in the form of a 26-minute substitute cameo, are covered elsewhere. Beckham's Italian jobs – not one, but two stints in the red and black of Milan – may have been brief, but they spoke volumes for a footballer still as madly in love with the game as the shy young hopeful from Leytonstone who idolised Bryan Robson. It's no coincidence that during his appearance on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs in 2017, Beckham plumped for I Am the Resurrection. Regardless of that indelible Mancunian connection of time and place, the Stone Roses song mirrors his own quest for reinvention; that restlessness for fresh challenges.
 
News of Beckham's arrival at Milan on a three-month loan deal in January 2009 was greeted with a relatively lukewarm response. Though they had been among his suitors when he left Madrid, Milan had baulked at a reported US$250million (£152m) to secure his services – a figure later revealed by Beckham's management company to have been a publicity stunt. In truth, the five-year deal with LA Galaxy was to cost the club US$32 million – not exactly a thrifty existence, but less than he'd been earning in Spain.
 
Though still lean at 33, Beckham hadn't played competitively for two months. Billed as a means of getting fit in the MLS close season, with an eye fixed on an England swansong at the 2010 World Cup, critics alighted on the attendant media circus, citing the happy coincidence of the lucrative opportunities afforded in Europe's fashion capital.
When rumours of the deal were leaked a month in advance, Milan's vice-president, Adriano Galliani, conceded that it couldn't hurt the club's finances.

Football today is about full stadiums and sponsors, and superstars like Beckham fill them up,” he said. With him, Kaka and Ronaldinho, it will be a dream team.

Visitors to any major city at the time would have been familiar with billboard  posters from which Beckham loomed, sprawled in a pair of Giorgio Armani underpants.

On Milan's training ground it was clear that Beckham was not about to be undressed despite the stellar company on Milan's roster that also included Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf and Paolo Maldini. Coach Carlo Ancelotti noted Beckham's keenness, and pitched him straight into a central midfield role alongside Pirlo and Seedorf in a 2-2 draw at Roma. He retained his place, this time on the right of midfield, for a 1-0 victory over Fiorentina, and in his third game opened his scoring account with the last goal in a 4-1 romp over Bologna.

Another followed against Genoa three days later. Standing to the left of the 18-yard-box, almost level with the penalty spot, a position from which most would have thought only to cross, he took a step back, before fizzing the ball round the two-man wall and into the near corner to open the scoring. Classic Becks.
Beckham returned to Old Trafford with Milan in 2010, to the delight of the United faithful.
On the pitch, Beckham sees everything before everyone else, Ancelotti enthused. His vision of play is better now than during his time in Manchester. He is slower but much stronger tactically and technically. He is very intelligent and works a lot.
 
The club's athletics coach Daniele Tognaccini, founder of the club's fabled 'Milan Lab' sports research centre, went even further, describing him as the the perfect English Lord.
 
Clearly invigorated, Beckham expressed the desire to make the move permanent early in February. LA Galaxy asked for US$15m. Milan refused, aware that his contract expired in November. After a month of haggling, the deal was extended to the end of the Italian season, during which he helped Milan qualify for the Champions league.
 
When Beckham returned to America in July, having already missed the start of the MLS campaign, the mood was less welcoming. If banners reading 'Go home fraud' hardly matched the vitriol received at West Ham in the wake of his dismissal at the 1998 World Cup, he felt obliged to defend his honour.
 
I am committed to LA Galaxy and MLS in the long term and remain as passionate as ever about growing the game of soccer in America," he countered. "I'm completely focused on ending this season on a high note with my club by winning the MLS Cup.
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Becks finishes it with a flourish!

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Galaxy – where, incidentally Beckham's arrival boosted season ticket sales by 11,000 – did reach November's play-off final, losing to Real Salt Lake in a shootout in which Beckham successfully converted his spot-kick. By then Beckham had finalised the details of a return to Milan late in January 2010.
 
I need to give myself the best chance to make the World Cup squad – playing for Milan will help me, he said. I genuinely enjoyed my time at Milan and I look forward to meeting the players and staff again.
 
Even at 34, he looked destined to go to South Africa with England – his fourth World Cup. He'd surpassed Bobby Moore's record 108th cap for an outfield player, winning his 115th in October's final World Cup qualifier against Belarus. England boss Fabio Capello was impressed. People think he is a playboy off the pitch – that is not true at all, he said. He is a serious lad, very sensible, a professional.
 
Ancelotti had moved on to Chelsea by the time Beckham returned to Milan; the ex-Brazilian international Leonardo taking the reins at San Siro. With Capello watching, Beckham played 75 minutes of the 5-2 win over Genoa in the first week of January. Between then and March he started eight of his 13 appearances, including the mouthwatering clash with his alma mater for a quarter-final Champions League spot.
 
A rampant United won 3-2 in Milan and 4-0 at Old Trafford, where the biggest cheer greeted Beckham's 64th-minute introduction for Ignazio Abate. It was his penultimate game on the European stage. During Milan's match with Chievo he tore his left Achilles tendon and was withdrawn on a stretcher; an injury which ended his World Cup dream and international career.
Becks embraces his great friend Gary Neville after the final whistle at Old Trafford in 2010.
But there was to be a happy ending in Hollywood. After surgery and a five-month lay-off Beckham resumed his duties with Galaxy, helping them to MLS success in 2011. A new contract and another MLS win followed in 2012 before a stint at Paris Saint-Germain – where he was reunited with Ancelotti – proved the last stop on a 20-year playing ride.
 
To illustrate the passage of time, it is 25 years this August since that goal at Selhurst Park, a strike which catapulted Beckham into a higher level of acclaim and scrutiny.
 
Though  suggestions were made that he had placed too much stock in the fame game by the time of his 2003 departure from Old Trafford, his late swansongs in Milan and Paris did much to dampen those notions.
 
In 2003, Sir Alex Ferguson had questioned the player's distractions, suggesting the focus was not on his football. A decade on, he conceded he had witnessed that resurrection himself; a glorious last flicker of the embers.
 
Sometimes you have to take something away from someone for them to see how much they loved it, he wrote. When Beckham moved to America to join LA Galaxy, I believe he began to realise he had surrendered a part of his career. He worked incredibly hard to return to the level he had been at in his prime and showed more enthusiasm for the hard graft of the game than he did at the end of his time with us.
 
Beckham had no silverware to show for the hard graft of his 33 games at Milan – in each season they finished third in Serie A. But he had won something no less important: respect.
 
This article appears in full within the AC Milan issue of the match programme, United Review. Order your copy here.

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