Time waits for no man
The sun is beginning to set on David Beckham's career. Love him or loathe him, for almost a decade Beckham has been impossible to ignore, as much as a result of his celebrity as for his ability as a footballer.
But all things must come to an end and despite protestations to the contrary from Real Madrid, most observers believe it is unlikely that Beckham will be plying his trade at the Bernabeu beyond this summer when his current contract expires.
Despite failing to secure a starting place in the side under new Real manager Fabio Capello the 31-year-old has spoken of his determination to secure a two-year extension.
The problem for Beckham is that he is not the master of his own destiny. Over the next few months Capello, and those in the Real boardroom, will play a crucial role as they decide whether he has anything left to offer one of the most prestigious clubs in the world.
Analysing the situation from a purely footballing position it does not look good for Beckham.
The simple truth of the matter is that he is not as good a player as he once was, and even at the peak of his powers, Beckham was not even the best player at either Manchester United or Real Madrid, let alone the best player in the world.
At Old Trafford there were at least two attacking midfielders better than he, namely Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, while at Real the likes of Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo were far more technically complete players.
But his ability as a player was not the sole reason Real signed Beckham.
This is not a gossip website, so we'll be focussing on football, but suffice to say as result of marrying a world famous pop star, counting Elton John and Tom Cruise as friends, signing a myriad of endorsement deals, sporting ever-changing hairstyles and generally being an international fashionista Beckham became just as famous, if not more so, for his exploits off the pitch than his performances on it.
In 2003, as his ability and celebrity peaked, Beckham found himself unloved and unwanted by Manchester United and on his way to Real Madrid in a £24.5million transfer deal. At the height of the Galactico era ability and fame were commodities to be valued above all others and Beckham typified all that Real wanted in a player.
The marriage of the Beckham brand with Real Madrid's rich heritage created the dream product and allowed the Spanish club to increase their global market share to such an extent that they ultimately usurped Manchester United as the world's richest club.
Three years on, and with the folly of the Galacticos experiment exposed, Beckham finds himself on the wrong side of 30 and shorn of a starting place in a side which is finally being picked by a manager who is allowed to select players based on form and fitness, not fame and fortune.
If Capello feels that Beckham is no longer capable of performing to the required standard at the level at which Madrid seek to compete then his value as a marketing tool will diminish: In short, sporting idols do not warm benches.
Furthermore the Real boardroom could take the view that Beckham has done what he was bought for; their international presence has been taken to unprecedented levels on the back of his established international celebrity, what more can he offer if his better playing days are behind him?
Although Capello claims Beckham remains an important part of his plans the Italian has started Beckham in less than half of Real's games so far this season, a fact which suggests Capello believes Beckham has passed his peak as a player, a conclusion many England fans came to this summer.
In what will surely prove to have been his final game for England, the World Cup quarter-final against Portugal, Beckham was hugely ineffectual, displaying none of the vigour and vitality of his finest England showing against Greece in the 2001 World Cup qualifier.
In that game, at Old Trafford, Beckham turned in the perfect captain's performance; leading by example he wrested control of a vital game through tireless running and tackling before capping it all with a freekick which secured qualification to Japan/ South Korea.
Five years on in Gelsenkirchen Beckham was a shadow of his former self; ponderous in possession, continuously out of position, lacking in energy, and unable to reliably deliver the crosses or dead balls which had become his stock in trade.
In the face of recent criticism over his ability to perform at the top level Beckham has cited his old United team-mate Ryan Giggs as inspiration to prove the doubters wrong.
Drawing a parallel between himself and Giggs, Beckham pointed out that in his final two seasons at Old Trafford the Welshman experienced a slump in form and was on the receiving end of some vociferous criticism from punter and pundit alike. Three years on and Giggs is enjoying a rich vein of form and is as important to United's title challenge as ever he was in any previous season at Old Trafford.
On the face of it you can see Beckham's point; not only is age on his side - being two years Giggs' junior, but Beckham has also been lucky to have avoided serious injury, while Giggs has been blighted with hamstring problems. Unfortunately for Beckham Giggs has a natural advantage over him in that he is technically more gifted and several yards quicker, thus giving him more to fall back on as the seasons go by.
If the assessment from the Bernabeu is that Beckham is a spent force at the highest playing level and has done all he can to grow Real's global brand the question must be: What next for David Beckham?
If we accept that playing a bit part role is not what Beckham envisaged for the twilight of his career, then it follows that a move away is inevitable. Even if Real were to offer him an extension it is hard to imagine Beckham being content with a regular place in the squad as opposed to a regular place in the staring XI.
However, both on and off the field Beckham can still offer much.
Although he will only get slower, in an alternative league where the pace is less frenetic than that of the Premiership or La Liga, or perhaps paired with a younger, more sprightly foil Beckham could still perform quite adequately in either a central midfield or right sided role.
He would bring with him an exceptional attitude to training, a determined work rate, which regularly saw him run over seven miles per game in his earlier career, as well as vast experience and leadership qualities.
Away from the pitch Beckham remains an iconic figure and could do much to bring international awareness to a club - not to mention ticket sales.
Beckham has already said that money is not the primary matter for consideration in his next contract, so although a he would not come cheap it is unlikely he would still command the £116,000 a week he does in Madrid.
Despite Beckham's insistence that he does not want to move there have been no shortage of suitors. Celtic are the latest team to declare an interest, but it is unlikely that Beckham will opt to end his playing days in Glasgow.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has long been an admirer, but Beckham has previously said that he could not envisage himself ever playing in the Premiership for any club other than Manchester United.
When Beckham left Old Trafford it was against a backdrop of animosity between himself and Alex Ferguson, making a return seem almost impossible. However, Beckham recently spoke in glowing terms of Ferguson, possibly smoothing the way for an unlikely return.
Another Premiership option could be West Ham United. Beckham was born in Leytonstone just 3 miles from the Hammers' Boleyn Ground and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that one of the potential takeover suitors for the East End club could target a transfer coup to placate suspicious fans.
However, it seems more likely that Beckham will move to one of America's Major League Soccer franchises, particularly as he himself has already admitted to having considered it as an option.
As the MLS continues to develop its profile the introduction of one of the sport's most famous players would do much to bolster its standing, and could also have a very favourable impact on attendances, marketability and television ratings.
Before the World Cup Beckham said he felt that he could remain at the highest level for two more seasons. However, if Real Madrid don't agree the MLS could be the main beneficiary.
If Beckham were to wait another two years before moving to the MLS the league would be at risk of again appearing as a retirement home for ageing professionals, just as its forbearer the North American Soccer League was when it boasted the likes of 34-year-old Pele and as the MLS was in 2000 when it included players like 39-year-old Lothar Matthaeus and 34-year-old Hristo Stoitchkov.
In January Beckham will be in the last six months of his contract and therefore allowed to sign a pre-contract agreement with another club.
Perhaps it would be worth one of either the New York Red Bulls or Los Angeles Galaxy making a speculative offer to Beckham's representatives: It might just pay off in a spectacular way.