All this might have sunk him were it not for a particular skill that truly, incontestably lived up to the hype: No one else ever could, ever did, or probably ever will bend it like Beckham. In a game that emphasizes flow, teamwork, and complexity, a player like Beckham is always a rarity. He is a specialist, something we Americans understand. He has always had modest speed and ball skills, but he does two things incredibly well: (1) He drives down the right side of the field and kicks the ball, sometimes 50 or 60 yards, onto the noggin of an onrushing striker, who then heads the ball into the goal; and (2) after a foul by the other team stops play anywhere within 30 yards of the goal, he takes a free kick that an unusually high percentage of the time ends with the ball in the back of the net. Just as important, he celebrates successful execution of these maneuvers with artful but never crass celebrations, and he sometimes removes his shirt. Given that most soccer games are decided by one or two goals tops, this skill is hugely useful and, for the YouTube generation, insanely marketable. He is, in essence, a long succession of money shots. And we Americans like money shots.

Beckham became a national hero in England by age 21, after a series of precocious displays for his club Manchester United. The English public, desperate for the kind of World Cup soccer glory that has eluded them now for more than 40 years, quickly overhyped Becks to the point where backlash would be inevitable. Beckham’s emergence coincided with the glamorization and bourgeoisification of the English game. Decades of hooliganism embarrassed not only the sport but also the country itself after scores of fans were killed in two stadium disasters. By the mid-nineties, the top English league was relaunched as the Premiership, and featured proper seating (a change from the standing-room-only “terraces” that tended to facilitate rioting), sponsorship from prestigious companies, corporate suites, and the glimmerings of the kind of marketing savvy that, across the Atlantic, was making the Michael Jordan–led NBA the first truly global sports brand.

Beckham was never a dominant player like Jordan—it’s harder in soccer, for one thing—but he was Jordan-like in his ability to generate the kinds of images that sold the Premiership around the world, especially to an Asian market hungry for big-time sports glam. Shortly after pregnant girlfriend Posh gave birth to baby Brooklyn in March 1999 (exclusive photos of which were reportedly sold to a celebrity weekly for roughly $500,000), Becks and a superlative Manchester United won a treble, meaning the team topped the league standings, and then won both the vaunted English FA Cup, and, astonishingly, the pan-European Champions League. The last ended improbably, with the trailing Man U scoring twice in injury time to overtake Bayern Munich, both goals the result of pinpoint crosses from Becks’ right boot. Five weeks later, Becks married Posh in a $1 million–plus private ceremony, with 4-month-old Brooklyn (the child so named because the inseminating event happened in New York City) as ring bearer. A single white dove was released to symbolize the purity of their love. Image rights went, reportedly, for $2 million to OK! magazine.