David Beckham: The AC Milan Diaries

The Milan Lab has become well-renowned over the last decade for extending a player’s careers. Run by Belgian chiropractor Jean-Pierre Meersseman, a man with no footballing history or links whatsoever, he worked closely with AC Milan and Carlo Ancelotti in the early 2000s, following the injury-plagued Fernando Redondo project and worked on extending ageing players’ careers. The likes of Clarence Seedorf, Andrea Pirlo, Filippo Inzaghi and Paolo Maldini, amongst several others were assessed in the lab as they aimed at preventing injuries rather than treating it to give players their legs to keep their careers going on for longer.

Another player that was exposed to the theories of the Milan Lab was David Beckham, who upon joining, was told that he could play up until the age of 38, which was an additional five years, as his supreme fitness and work ethic guaranteed more time on the pitch. But away from his fitness, Beckham’s move to Italy was significant for several reasons. On a personal level, this was a chance in Europe to earn his place back in the England team and a chance for him to boost his brand.But to many, especially those in the United States where he was coming from, this was a move that wasn’t welcome as they thought he was disrespecting the Los Angeles Galaxy and Major League Soccer.

“On the pitch, Beckham sees everything before everyone else. His vision of play is better now than during his time in Manchester. He is slower but much stronger tactically and technically. He is very intelligent and works a lot.”
—Carlo Ancelotti on Beckham’s condition at 33 years old [Telegraph]

David Beckham has never been shy of the spotlight. From Manchester to Madrid, Los Angeles to Paris, he’s been a well-travelled and well documented figure. The move to the USA was a breakthrough for soccer in the country and in the region, which is why his loan spell to AC Milan was often considered to be discourteous. In his early days in Italy, he made it clear that he would return to the MLS once his loan spell at the San Siro expires, but even then, this was an immense marketing move for the non-existent, yet frequently-active ‘brand Beckham.’ Nevertheless, the transfer was in place, Beckham was an AC Milan player, and the Galaxy would have to play without their marquee man.

Upon joining, he was part of a team that included a whole host of superstars, and a whole host of players that had made their names with their free-kicks. In addition to Pirlo and Seedorf, there was the Brazilian trio of Ronaldinho, Alexandre Pato and Kaká, arguably the best player in the world at the time, to match Beckham’s free-kick prowess and give Coach Carlo Ancelotti many brilliant options from long-range. But apart from their greatness from distance, they had the experience, skill and desire having already won the biggest of trophies throughout their careers and were now assembled in one team, fighting for one target under one of the best managers around.

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Unveiled just before Christmas, he made his official debut for the team over a fortnight later at the Stadio Olimpico against AS Roma. It was clear that Beckham lacked the sharpness and fitness to make his debut in such a high-profile, high-intensity game and Ancelotti was criticized for giving him the start and keeping him on the pitch for 89 minutes. He struggled; he looked weary and only had a few moments where he looked comfortable in a 2-2 draw. A week later, he made his first playing appearance under the San Siro lights against Fiorentina in a game where he was overshadowed by the star in Milan at the time: Kaká, whose future in Lombardy was uncertain as the fans pleaded for him to stay.

Soon after that, he scored his first goal for the club in an away fixture against Bologna. On the counter-attack with AC Milan having the numbers’ advantage over the opposition, Beckham received the ball from Seedorf on the right side of the box and from a rather uncomfortable angle, curled the ball into the net, beating the goalkeeper on the near-post before bursting off into a celebration. The jubilation was clear, as Beckham had a smile as wide as the pitch in the festivity after the strike – this was the break he needed, this was the job he needed to do to reach his ultimate aim of regaining his place in England’s squad for the World Cup qualifiers and subsequently, the finals itself.

After only three appearances, the former England captain was already impressing, satisfying himself, the club’s hierarchy and the fans and he only added to this record in his fourth appearance, where he scored a trademark free-kick against Genoa. Coming just past the half an hour mark, the angle on this free-kick was tight as well – on the left flank, just outside the box, the sort of position where one would ideally cross from – but Beckham’s strike was perfect and it gave Milan the lead. The goalkeeper managed to get a hand on it, but the curl and power on the shot proved to be too much as the half-empty San Siro celebrated going one-up in a complicated fixture.

His good form led to both club and the player’s desire for him to prolong his stay. Although he was set to move back across the Atlantic just a few weeks after his second goal, he expressed his wish to seek a permanent transfer to the Serie A as it increased his chances of reaching his goal.However, AC Milan were unwilling to meet LA Galaxy’s $15 million valuation of the player. In the end, a deal to extend Beckham’s loan was agreed upon and he would wear the famous Rossoneri until the end of the Italian league season. And if Beckham’s reputation in the States wasn’t dwindling already, it was set to hit an all-time low after this announcement.

The deal was up-in-the-air, though. Milan were unwilling to pay his fee due to the fact that Beckham would be a free-agent following the expiration of his LA Galaxy contract in November that year, so they could’ve got him for no price at all. Ancelotti and the Milan board were reluctant to lose him, however, as his good form brought stability and assurance to the San Siro’s midfield in their push to return to the Champions League. For the LA Galaxy’s benefit, they saw an opportunity to temporarily offload the biggest wage-bill on their team and were happy to oblige as their domestic results in his absence were decent and saw them pushing for the all-important MLS Cup.

His journey in Italy continued as he made further appearances in the league as well as in Europe, where Milan were participating in the UEFA Cup. The latter journey was short-lived – just one appearance as Milan crashed out against eventual finalists Werder Bremen on away goals after a 3-3 aggregate score. And over in Serie A, he was constantly competing with Mathieu Flamini for a place in the starting squad, but was never truly able to build on his early form to nail down a starting spot. The Frenchman’s defensive capabilities were preferred for the assurance it bought, as Milan enjoyed a strong end to the season and briskly made their return to Europe’s elite club cup competition.

After the end of the football season in Milan, Beckham returned to LA Galaxy as they were bidding to win their first MLS Cup since 2002. Expectedly, no matter how influential the Englishman had been to football, or how much star power he brought to the club and the league, his return wasn’t welcomed pleasantly. Fans constantly jeered his every touch, held up banners against his presence in the team and even chanted for him to go back to Europe, calling him a “part-time player”, but he carried on. The club was successful, going all the way to the final, with Beckham featuring prominently, but lost to Real Salt Lake on penalty shootouts.

And just a few weeks later, a deal was agreed to take Beckham back to Serie A when the transfer window re-opened in January and this time, some events made his return a little more significant than his previous stint at the club. At the age of 34, he felt this was his best and final chance of making it to the England roster that was to fly out to South Africa for the World Cup later that year. Speaking upon his arrival he said,”I need to give myself the best chance possible to make the World Cup squad and playing for Milan on loan will help me to do that.”

And he did just that. Now under new management following the departure of Carlo Ancelotti to Chelsea, Beckham worked with former Brazil midfielder Leonardo.But in similar circumstances to the previous year, competition for places in the starting eleven was rife and Beckham still didn’t manage to cement a permanent starting spot despite his good form in Italy last year and in the USA following the expiration of his loan spell. In his first game while under the watchful eye of England coach Fabio Capello, he played 75 minutes in a 5-2 thumping of Genoa in a clash where he was typically calm and controlled the play in midfield, ensuring a smooth and winning transition back to European football.

Throughout his time in his second stint between January and March, he made 13 appearances in all competitions, eight games right from the start, but never managed to get on the score sheet. However, one moment may have stood out for him more than the rest, and perhaps, more than any goal he could’ve scored while donning the famous red-and-black shirt that season. In the Champions League that season, Milan qualified for the Round of 16 despite an inconsistent continental campaign and were drawn to face Manchester United in the second round – Beckham’s first and former professional club, who he hadn’t ever had the chance to return to since he left for Real Madrid in 2003.

In the first of the two legs at the San Siro, Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United won 3-2 and Beckham was introduced as a second-half substitute, receiving a warm applause from both sets of supporters upon his entry onto the pitch. Having been 3-0 down at the time he came on, he had a considerable impact as his world-renowned crossing and effects in midfield helped Milan score twice and give the Italians a minute but plausible chance when they would go to Old Trafford. There was tension in Manchester around the time regarding the tumultuous situation with the club’s owners, but talk of Beckham’s return brought positivity and happiness at a rather dire time amongst the club’s support.

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And when the time came, Beckham was on as a second-half substitute again, and this time, the reception was even greater. United were slick that night, they won 4-0 and Wayne Rooney continued his good run of form by scoring twice to put Milan out of their misery and beat them 7-2 on aggregate. But when Beckham came on, the fans saved the biggest cheer of the night for their former hero who had brought the club so much fame and success in the time he was there. A fan favourite for both sides, the United faithful showed exactly how highly they respected and regarded their former number seven despite his acrimonious exit seven years prior. He played 27 minutes, but was idolized throughout.

Following the game, his status amongst his old fans improved. United displayed green-and-gold scarves for much of the season whenever they played at home – a sign of protest against the unfancied and disliked Glazer family that owned the club and after the clash, such a scarf was given to him and much to the delight of the 75,000-strong at the venue, he draped it around his neck and walked down the tunnel, applauding the home fans, as a sign of public support against the family’s ownership. When talking about the gesture after the match, he made it clear that he didn’t have any intention to protest, but knowing his admiration of the club, that comment was probably to cool tension and hullabaloo.

But that appearance against Manchester United was his second-last for AC Milan, for his last appearance would spell the end of his second stint in Italy and more unfortunately, his World Cup hopes. Playing against Chievo at home, Beckham tore his left Achilles tendon. The injury didn’t surface from any tackle on him, but he was in great pain and left the pitch on a stretcher. The injury, always a tough and long one to recover from, kept him out for five months, forcing him to miss the start of the MLS season when he was set to return to the LA Galaxy and eventually put an end to his hopes of making Fabio Capello’s team to South Africa which was his initial aim for the best part of a year.

A decent two spells ended in the most heart-breaking circumstances. He went off to surgery in Finland and then was indeed on the plane to South Africa as an apparent middle-man between players and management. Often considered to be the 24th player on the roster, he couldn’t help much as England’s disastrous campaign ended with a 4-1 defeat to eventual bronze-medalists Germany. His leadership experience was put to use at times, but in this toxic England side which had all the talent but no clear direction under Capello, there wasn’t much he could do to help him and they were headed home having failed to impress anyone.

Over a combined 10-month spell, Beckham improved his status, but the ending made it clear that European football was perhaps a little too much for his ageing legs. He returned to the United States and redeemed himself amongst the LA Galaxy faithful, going on to win the MLS Cup in 2011 and 2012, becoming one of the club’s greatest players. He then went to Paris Saint-Germain for a brief six-month spell, once again reuniting with Carlo Ancelotti before his retirement in 2013. But while he was at the San Siro, he was fun to watch, and especially fun to pair with a host of other legends. Controversial in Los Angeles, but commendable in Lombardy, this was the David Beckham adventure at AC Milan.

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