Fabio Capello was always going to have a challenging decision to make about David Beckham. After an up and down season with the LA Galaxy and a more down than up loan stint with AC Milan, Beckham was hoping that his experience and dressing room leadership would allow him to join the England team in South Africa. With his opportunity to play this summer ruptured along with his Achilles tendon, Beckham has a more dramatic question to face – does he ever suit up in a professional soccer uniform again?
Achilles tendon injuries are among the most difficult wounds from which a player can recover. The tendon needs to be surgically reattached and it is usually six weeks before the heel can be allowed to bear any weight. Occasionally, an elite athlete can return to full training after 3-4 months, but it often takes six months or more to become fully fit and mobile after the injury. By that time, the World Cup will have long disappeared below the horizon in the rear view mirror and the LA Galaxy will only have a month left in their regular season.
For Beckham, the list of major sporting opportunities has now significantly narrowed. Beyond a cameo appearance to wave to the crowd at friendly at Wembly, he is unlikely to ever kit up for the England team again. Loan opportunities with major clubs in the January – May window are hard to come by for 35 year olds who have not played very much in the previous nine months. The only team that really wants him back on the pitch is the Galaxy, and at this point, it will be more for the replica shirts and tickets he sells rather than his skill at the game.
With this injury, Beckham is looking at two roads. On one road, there is a painful and difficult rehab process for him to get match fit again so that he can join the Los Angeles Galaxy for a month or two, and then endure the long MLS off-season so that he can play out the last season of his contract. For that last season, Beckham will be 36 years old and his role as an every-day player will be in serious jeopardy. For the fans that expected his fourth World Cup to be a crowning ending to his career, this road resembles more of a slow fade than a grand exit.
The other road is that of retirement. Beckham has always played his best when he has something to prove, but with the issue about whether he can play at all in doubt, is that enough of a motivating factor? Tribute games with Manchester United and perhaps the Galaxy await. Commentator jobs, promotional tours and brand management will consume his time. Perhaps he could even buy into MLS ownership like he has intimated in the past. It will be cushy and non-controversial, but very sedate compared to the drama he has experienced over the past 15 years.
My prediction is that Beckham opts for the harder road. For better, and occasionally for worse, Beckham has demanded that his career bend to his will. Through force of will, he rehabilitated his career as a Manchester hero, English international, Real Madrid star and American success story. Whatever you think of Beckham, he has been a master at being able to write his own story. I doubt he will permit his story to end with him falling in a heap and being carried off the San Siro pitch in a stretcher.
However, it will be a hard road. It will take a lot of training room sweat and tears before Beckham can be kicking a ball again. During that long process, Beckham will have a lot of time to plan for the final moment he wants for himself on the pitch – a moment when he walks off waving to a crowd that is thanking him for his contributions to the soccer world.