Player Zone: David Beckham changed what it means to be a footballer

Elite footballers are role models, celebrities and public figures in the modern age. In the era of Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram, there is an unprecedented clamour to get closer to the very best than ever before. We take it for granted.

It adds an additional dimension to the challenges faced by rising stars such as Trent Alexander-Arnold that was not there 20 years ago and the phenomenon can largely be traced back to one man; David Beckham.

As the world’s first celebrity footballer celebrates his 43rd birthday, there will no doubt be those who remember his finest moments on the pitch and there were many; at club and international level.

That halfway line goal against Wimbledon in 1996, the free-kick against Greece to take England to the 2002 World Cup, where he claimed redemption for what happened four years previously with the winner in the 1-0 victory over Argentina.

He racked up the trophies and was one of the few English players with the technique and adaptability to be a success abroad but arguably his biggest legacy came off the pitch; he redefined what it was to be a footballer.

Nowadays, every player of a certain repute – almost regardless of talent – is subjected to intense scrutiny but in Beckham’s career, he largely bore the brunt of it solo.

More than that, he embraced it. The Fergie Fledgling from Leytonstone with the squeaky voice people used to laugh at became the most marketable footballer on the planet.

He had the pop star wife, the boot deals, the superstar good looks and the ever-changing hairstyles but he had the talent and the continued desire to work hard needed to back it up.

That is not something that you could necessarily say with great certainty about every single one of the modern-day superstars but they are still indulged by their managers because that’s the way the game has gone these days.

Sir Alex Ferguson jettisoned Beckham in 2003, selling him to Real Madrid when he still had plenty to offer, because he felt that all of the off-field commitments were impacting his on-pitch performance and becoming a distraction for the other members of his squad.

One can only wonder what Ferguson would make of the state of affairs in 2018; where Paul Pogba has had his own emoji, commercial commitments are a prerequisite of success and social media does not allow players to get away with anything. Football is down that road though, and not even Ferguson could halt the revolution.

It was Beckham who first made it possible to successfully combine substance off the pitch with style off it; offering plenty in both regards with no discernible impact on the quality of either contribution.

He even used his celebrity status to try to make “soccer” a success in America by joining LA Galaxy and the force of his personality set the ball rolling for the gradual improvement we can see in the States at present.

Beckham was an exceptional case in his playing days, but the scrutiny he played out his career under is now commonplace. He redefined what being a footballer meant and the impact of that has been irreversible.

There have been more talented, more magical, more successful players but never one with a more profound impact on the profession as a whole. That is David Beckham’s greatest legacy.