What's the big deal about David Beckham?
David Robert Joseph Beckham should need no introduction. As one of the most famous soccer players on the planet, he has been in the public eye more than anyone else in the game, and is now one of the most recognizable celebrities in the world.
Beckham began his career as a trainee at Manchester United on July 8, 1991. As a child he had attended one of Bobby Charlton's soccer schools in Manchester and won the chance to take part in a training session at Barcelona as part of a talent competition.
Fully establishing himself in the side during the 1995-96 season, Beckham made his mark on the right side of midfield, after the departure of Andrei Kanchelskis, as a dead-ball specialist with a superb range of passing, vision, composure and a dogged determination to succeed.
But it was the next season when Beckham would really make a name for himself. Scoring an incredible goal from the halfway line against Wimbledon, his profile rocketed and a great run of performances saw him net the Premiership's Young Player of the Year award.
Yet more publicity came in 1997 when he started dating Victoria Adams, also known as Posh Spice of Spice Girls fame. The couple's relationship attracted a great deal of media attention, ironically since, reportedly, it was that Posh had originally wanted to date Beckham's teammate Ryan Giggs instead.
As Beckham's profile in soccer grew, he also became an unlikely fashion icon with Posh's help (especially after being pictured wearing a sarong in 1998). His good looks enabled him to become the face for many brands, including Gillette and Brylcreem, and he continued to profit from his image.
He was included in Glenn Hoddle's England squad for the World Cup finals in France '98 and after being left out of the first team for the first two matches, he then scored a long range free-kick against Colombia.
The tournament would prove costly for Beckham's profile, however, as he was sent off against Argentina for aiming a kick at midfielder Diego Simeone. England was eliminated from the competition on penalties, with many fans and journalists making Beckham the scapegoat for England's failure.
The abuse that followed was horrific. Fans targeted his relationship with 'Posh Spice,' who he would make his wife in July 1999, and their four-month-old son, Brooklyn. He was subjected to booing from rival fans throughout the following season, but on the pitch he was an integral part of Manchester United's treble-winning season in 1999, and was nominated for both World and European Player of the Year awards.
Despite winning the BBC Sports Personality of the Year for 2001, and being named captain of his country, he was only really able to win over the England fans as the qualification campaign for the 2002 World Cup reached its climax against Greece.
With England down 2-1 to Greece and about to miss out on qualifying for soccer's biggest prize, Beckham's inspirational performance and last-minute free kick ensured that England drew the game 2-2 and made it through. His conversion from villain to hero was complete.
Suddenly the country loved him again, and the media coverage in the build-up to the 2002 World Cup was dominated by the fact that he had broken his fifth metatarsal and was a doubt for the competition.
Beckham broke his Argentinean hoodoo by scoring the winning goal against the South Americans and knocking them out of the tournament, but could only watch as a Ronaldinho free kick for Brazil put an end to England's hopes of winning, and eliminated them during the quarterfinals.
Even so, his personal life was still the subject of intense media attention as his second son, Romeo (reportedly named after a U.K. rapper), was born in September.
This culminated in the famous incident behind closed doors in which the Scotsman supposedly kicked a soccer boot into Beckham's face after a defeat to Arsenal, causing a severe cut to Beckham's eye.
Beckham was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for "services to football" in June 2003, but it was clear Ferguson was no longer keen to keep Beckham at United, and in July he was sold to Real Madrid for $35 million after scoring 86 goals in 397 games for the club.
To highlight his celebrity status, Beckham's shirt, No. 23, sold out in record time on the day of his transfer, and the club were reported to have received around $1 million in initial shirt sales alone.
Beckham seemed to fit into the Galacticos of Real Madrid, although many doubted his ability to have an impact on such a high-profile squad.
His first season at Madrid, however, was taken up by tabloid gossip rather than focusing on his performances on the pitch. The News of the World claimed he had an affair with his former personal, assistant Rebecca Loos, while an Australian model, Sarah Marbeck, had also claimed she had relations with Beckham.
Beckham dismissed both accusations as "ludicrous," but he could not escape the media storm that his profile outside of football was creating. The allegations affected his play and he ended his first season at Madrid without winning a trophy.
Euro 2004 proved to be another turning point in Beckham's relationship with the England fans, as his missed penalty contributed to the team being knocked out by Portugal in the quarterfinals. Although he was not lambasted in the same way as 1998, many called into question his place in the side and his position as captain.
Beckham became a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in January 2005 and was involved in promoting London's successful bid for the 2012 Olympic Games, but he was still unable to bring a trophy to Madrid.
During the 2005-06 season, Beckham began to establish soccer academies in Los Angeles and was announced as a judge for the 2006 British Book Awards.
Entering the FIFA World Cup 2006, England was seen as a potential winner by many, but the team played poorly throughout, despite reaching the quarterfinals, and Beckham's performance was criticized by the majority of the press and public. However, many still considered Beckham's contribution to England important as he played a hand in each of England's goals, including the game-winning free kick against Ecuador in the second round.
With that goal, Beckham became the first ever English player to score in three World Cups. In the quarterfinals stage of the World Cup against Portugal, Beckham was substituted following an injury shortly after half time and the England team went on to lose the match on penalties. Following the substitution, Beckham appeared to be upset about his injury and the defeat, even being in tears at one point.
A day after England were knocked out of the World Cup, an emotional Beckham made a statement in a news conference, saying he had stepped down as England captain. "It has been an honor and privilege to captain my country but, having been captain for 58 of my 95 caps, I feel the time is right to pass on the armband as we enter a new era under Steve McClaren," he said.
The installation of new coach Fabio Capello in Madrid for the 2006-07 season saw Beckham slide out of favor for the first team, and he spent much of the season on the bench. His drop in form also saw him ousted from the England setup, as John Terry took over the captaincy, and he was left to pursue his interests outside of football -- most notably his friendship with Tom Cruise.
Contract negotiations began as Beckham's future in Madrid looked increasingly unsure. With his existing contract with Real Madrid due to expire this summer, there was plenty of interest from clubs around the world interested in signing the game's most marketable player. Real Madrid reportedly offered Beckham a new deal but could not guarantee first-team status.
On Jan. 11, it was announced that Beckham had agreed to a deal with the L.A. Galaxy of MLS in a five-year deal reportedly worth up to $250 million.
Skeptics will point to the financial motivation behind the move, but Beckham himself has insisted that he is simply "after a new challenge." What kind of impact he will have on America's fledgling league remains to be seen, but in Beckham, they will have the most recognizable face in soccer in their corner.
Jon Carter is an editor for ESPNsoccernet, based in the London office.