By Paul Gardner
Suddenly, like a bolt from the blue, the soccer gods turned on David Beckham, and cut him down while he was doing the very thing at which he was supposed to be divinely inspired: playing soccer.
In a flash, the Beckham myth crumpled. Done in by the greatest mythical figure the Greeks had, the warrior Achilles. Or at least, by his tendon.
But the tragedy that overtook Beckham -- and for him it was certainly that -- is hardly a tragedy of Greek dimensions. That would need grandeur before the fall, and, sadly, there has been so little of that lately in Beckham’s life.
Rather the opposite, as Beckham has slavishly devoted himself to pleasing the England coach Fabio Capello, in the hope of making the England World Cup team. During that pursuit, Beckham has not behaved well. He has put his personal ambitions ahead of his commitments to MLS and the Los Angeles Galaxy. In fact, he has done little for either the league or the club, despite the encomiums that MLS Commissioner Don Garber is wont to deliver from time to time.
Now Beckham’s dream is shattered -- even to the point where a question mark must hang over his future career as a player. Again, the myth of Achilles comes to mind, the invulnerable warrior . . . and surely we had enough warning that Beckham’s view of his own invulnerability, like Achilles’, was a dangerous misjudgement.
Remember his first year with the Galaxy -- the jet flights to Europe and back, his certainty that he could simply step off the plane and take the field for the Galaxy? He tried that, it didn’t work. The injuries piled up, the pallid performances likewise.
But the 30-plus Beckham continued to behave like a 20-plus edition. He certainly looked the part, for he is blessed with boyish good looks. But his body . . . what was that thinking?
Which is where I have some questions about the injury that has just made a mockery of Beckham’s hopes.
I’ll start with this. Of all the people in the world -- all 6.8 billion of them -- I would think that David Beckham must be right near the top, if not at the top, of those receiving or having access to, the best in medical attention, the sort of care designed to make sure that he has a perfectly functioning body.
So how is it that he can suffer this disastrous -- but surely predictable, and maybe avoidable -- injury? Where were all the medical personnel, the doctors and the physios and the sports medicine specialists and heaven knows how many more there are of these guys in L.A. and Milan -- where were they when it mattered?
Are we asked to believe that it is absolutely impossible to predict that an Achilles’ tendon is weakening? Or that it has, maybe, some sort of slight tear or injury that needs to be rested and treated? Is it really believable that a fully normal, healthy tendon can suddenly snap, as Beckham’s did, from the slightest of exertions?
It seems there are no such doctors as tendon specialists -- at least, I haven’t been able to track down any tendonologists, or tendinologists either. Given the seriousness of an Achilles’ tendon injury to an athlete, this seems rather odd.
As far as Beckham is concerned, there is also an age question. No doubt he is, or was, in pretty good shape for a 30-plus soccer player. And it is certainly not unheard of for athletes to prolong their playing careers as long as possible. So we move into an area that still has no convincing answer: How many games a year is the right number for a pro player? More the point, how many are right for an aging pro? And crucially, if those games involve repeated long-distance flights, if they mean virtually no rest period in a year (all this, ironically, in the pursuit of “fitness”) -- then how many games are we talking about?
Already, in 2007, Beckham’s schedule, overloaded with the extra games he played for England, was a problem. I wrote then that the Galaxy “has capitulated before his [Beckham’s] undoubted charm” -- because it seemed to me that no one at the Galaxy was willing to tell him that his chief responsibility was now to the Galaxy, and that “no one dared to contradict him.”
Even so, a glimmer of reality reached Beckham toward the end of his first Galaxy season, when he picked up yet another injury and remarked “Maybe it’s time for me to say I need a rest . . .” But that was before AC Milan beckoned.
Right there, three years ago in his very first season, there was clear evidence that injuries were becoming a major problem for Beckham. But with the loan moves to Milan, his schedule was simply allowed to become even more frantic.
Where were the Galaxy and the Milan medical staffs when Beckham was pushing himself beyond the limit? Well, maybe they were heard from -- if so they were ignored. No doubt because whatever Beckham wanted, Beckham got.
Now it has all ended in tears, Beckham’s tears in the San Siro stadium as he forlornly accepted that his body had finally rebelled and that he would not be going to South Africa. I am not about to mock Beckham, for his disappointment must be enormous. I said earlier that there was no grandeur to this sad story -- indeed, it is more like a fairy tale than a Greek tragedy. There has always been something Peter Pan-ish about Beckham, it was a major source of his great charm. But, of course, it was an unrealistic vision. Now, Beckham can no longer maintain his vision of himself as Peter Pan, eternally youthful, eternally free of fitness problems. That notion has gone forever.
It was one that his advisors, the Galaxy management, and certainly all the highly trained medical personnel at his disposal, should have dispelled. But Beckham was allowed to continue playing the part until last Sunday, when the enchantment of the fairy tale suddenly vanished forever. As fairy tales are apt to do in an adult world.