David Beckham's story is one that captured the attention of a nation. Whether you liked it or not, living in England during his time at Manchester United, there was no escaping the Beckham brand. He was constantly in the spotlight, hounded by paparazzi and living out his life on the front and back pages of the newspapers.
The Beckham brand grew quickly and ferociously as it spread around the world. Of course, having a pop star wife contributed greatly to his celebrity status back in those early days, but now as he announced his retirement as a player on Thursday, Beckham-mania is very much still in effect. The former England captain created as many headlines off the pitch as he did on it, but he leaves behind some fantastic moments that will never be forgotten.
For me, there are many memories that stand out - but none more so than the stoppage time free kick against Greece at Old Trafford which secured England a place in the 2002 World Cup. It wasn't just because of the goal he scored, but the journey he had taken to get to that point. He became a national hero, just three years after being vilified for his sending off against Argentina at France 98.
So what else will he be remembered for? Obviously his sweet right foot, his incredible passing ability and his trademark free kicks. But for of all his accomplishments during an illustrious career, the one that hits closest to home for us here in North America is the legacy he left behind following his six years in Major League Soccer.
When Beckham signed with LA Galaxy in 2007, one of his primary goals was to help grow the league and the game in North America, and there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that he achieved that. As MLS Commissioner Don Garber sums up succinctly, “Now MLS is far more popular and important here and abroad than it was when he arrived."
Over the last few years, I have had the opportunity to witness the impact of Beckham first-hand. It was always incredible to see the number of television cameras that would come out when he was visiting Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver. The first time he arrived in Toronto as a Galaxy player just after joining the club, I remember being ushered into Air Canada Centre the day before the game for a press conference where he announced he wasn't fit enough to play. Even though he didn't make it onto the pitch, just his presence provided a real buzz in the city. Over 60,000 people turned up in Montreal last season to see Beckham take on the Impact at Olympic Stadium, and the sell -out signs were up at BC Place when he arrived to take on the Whitecaps in July 2012.
His presence helped people across North America take notice of Major League Soccer. Sold out stadiums partnered with increased revenue for MLS from corporate partnerships, TV deals and merchandise sales were all immediate benefits of Beckham's arrival.
However, perhaps the biggest way Beckham has influenced MLS has been by lifting its profile amongst players around the world. Beckham legitimized MLS as a playing option for many European players and in years since, other big names have followed. Speaking with players who have made the switch and some who are considering it, they all point to Beckham joining LA as the moment in time when they began to take serious notice of Major League Soccer.
Beckham is the reason why, overnight, the league took a step up in importance on the world football ladder. At the time of his exit from Major League Soccer, Tim Leiweke who played a major role in bringing Beckham to LA during his time in charge of Anschutz Entertainment Group sad this: "Seldom does an athlete redefine a sport and David not only took our franchise to another level but he took our sport to another level."
There are many people who will be glad Beckham's playing career has come to an end. Some say his soccer abilities were inflated because of his celebrity status, and to a certain extent that may be true. But I do believe this - there is no other soccer player in the world that has ever had as far-reaching impact as Beckham. That doesn't mean he's the best player to ever grace the pitch. Far from it. But he found a way to transcend the sport, and the game benefitted because of that.