May 17, 2013

Sayonara to a legend: David Beckham

I was in Japan during the 2002 World Cup. I distinctly remember the entire country, and everybody who was there at the time, collectively losing their mind for an entire month, as they basked in the euphoria of (co)-hosting the premier sports event on the planet, and lived and died by the exploits of their home team.

The Japanese also became utterly infatuated with one foreign player in particular: David Beckham. A wildly popular figure even before the World Cup, the appetite for Beckhamania became insatiable within seconds of him walking out of the airplane carrying the England squad. There was a palpable excitement about his presence on Japanese soil: His face dominated the magazine stalls. People everywhere copied his faux-hawk hairstyle. Girls swooned and fainted simply from watching him on TV. There was simply no exaggerating the spell that Becks cast over the nation.

Not surprisingly, the England-Argentina clash was the most anticipated group stage match that didn't involve Japan's national team. Beckham himself had infamously been sent off against the same opponent at the last World Cup, a fact that was endlessly repeated in the build-up to the kickoff. As luck would have it, the game was being broadcast live on the big screen next to the central station of my hometown. There was already a massive crowd on hand by the time my family and I got there; it would still build more before the teams took to the pitch.

Becks had come into the match looking for a chance to redeem himself; he would duly get his opportunity late in the first half, when Michael Owen won a penalty for England. This drew a huge ovation from the mostly pro-England crowd; the applause, however, gave way to a somewhat nervous silence, as he stood over the dead ball and began to eye his intended target.

Then, as they say, it happened.

One emphatic kick of the ball into back of the Argentine net sparked scenes of sheer pandemonium in the pubs, clubs, and town squares of England. And absolute delirium in the stands of Sapporo Dome. And total bedlam in the viewing section in my hometown in Kitakyushu.

The penalty would stand up as the only goal of the match, as England defeated their bitter rivals to inch closer to the knockout stage, and their captain vanquished his personal nightmare against the very team that caused it four years prior.

I had witnessed Beckhamania at its absolute peak.

I was still an impressionable teenager back then, vacationing in my hometown; but at that moment, I became a huge Becks fan. I've followed his career -- both club and country -- with interest since that day. I even tuned into the MLS on a semi-regular basis for the first time, after he made a shock move to the LA Galaxy in 2007.

Beckham's retirement shouldn't have come as a surprise, given his age and his list of accomplishments. He has had a glittering career, which he will close on a high note with a league winner's medal with Paris St-Germain. He undoubtedly has a second career waiting for him as an ambassador of the game. Becks has sealed his legacy, both on and off the pitch.

Yet, his announcement has me flashing back to June 2002, to that moment against Argentina. That World Cup had left me with an indelible love for the game. Becks had a massive role in helping me develop that love. Put simply, I haven't known football without David Beckham in it. My next reflection of Beckhamania will certainly be a little more nostalgic than this one.