David Beckham: "Always have something to look forward to. If you don't have that you lose interest."

David Beckham's earliest memory is of running down an out-of-bounds alley before ducking through a hole in a fence onto a playing field where he and his friends would kick a ball until it was too dark to see. This was in Chingford, on the northeastern edge of London, in the early Eighties. Often David's dad, Ted Beckham, would join the kickabout.

A heating engineer — he installed and maintained domestic boilers — and a classic Cockney Red — a southern Manchester United fan — Ted shared his son's dream: that the prodigiously talented David would grow up to play for his team. Their dream came true. And other, even wilder, things happened.

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With United, Beckham won six Premier League titles and two FA Cups. In 1999, he was an instrumental figure in the team that won the treble of Premier League, FA Cup and Uefa Champions League, becoming an Old Trafford hero to rank alongside Best, Charlton, Cantona and the rest. (When, at the beginning of this year, United fans were asked by the club's website to vote for the club's best ever player, Beckham polled seventh, above Roy Keane and Wayne Rooney.)

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He has played 115 times for England — more than any other outfield player — and captained his country 59 times, reaching the quarter-finals of the 2002 and 2006 World Cups. Twice — in 1999 and 2001 — he was runner-up for the Fifa World Player of the Year.

In 2003, the same year he was awarded his OBE, he moved from United to Real Madrid, where he was one of the so-called Galácticos in perhaps the starriest club side ever assembled: Zidane, Figo, Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo, Raúl, Beckham. In his last game for the club, in June 2007, Real won La Liga, watched from a box at the Bernabeu by Beckham's movie star friends Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. By then, it had been six months since the announcement that Beckham had signed a five-year deal worth $32.5m to join the LA Galaxy in America's fledgling Major League Soccer.

He arrived in the US that July like a footballing Beatle, his Spice Girl wife posing on the pitch for the world's media in a tiny pink dress and enormous sunglasses. The first season he was in LA, the Galaxy sold 300,000 replica shirts bearing Beckham's name: more than any other sportsman shifted in America that year.

That was the football bit. Along the way Beckham had married — becoming half of a tabloid cartoon couple, Posh and Becks — and started a family (he and Victoria, now a successful fashion designer, have four kids); amassed a family fortune, according to the most recent Sunday Times Rich List, of £190m; caused mass hysteria in Asia, Africa and wherever his playing career took him; given rise to various dubious hairstyles; become perhaps the world's leading exponent, in a hard-fought contest, of the pseudo-spiritual tattoo; launched fragrances; advertised sunglasses, clothes, hair gel, fizzy drinks and much more; designed his own range of underwear, appearing on skyscraper-sized billboards around the world in nothing but the skimpiest pair of briefs; become a sex symbol for straight women and a pin-up for gay men as well as a poster boy for fatherhood, while simultaneously being accused of having extra-marital affairs — each of which he strenuously denies, including the one that didn't happen with the woman who subsequently became famous for masturbating a boar on television.

Also along the way, he became totemic of a certain ideal of modern masculinity, the kind that encourages young men to sculpt their eyebrows, tone their stomachs, moisturise their skin, whiten their teeth, tease their hair and experiment with outré fashion trends. He became, according to the writer Mark Simpson in an influential 2002 article for Salon, the "uber-metrosexual", the embodiment of the feminising socio-cultural trend first identified by Simpson in 1994, the year before Beckham became a regular first team player for Manchester United.

This past July, he became the first man ever to grace the cover of Elle, the women's fashion magazine, emerging shirtless and dripping from a pool, in tight jeans, tattoos and with his hair slicked back, greaser style. (If his father had the biggest influence on his choice of career, then his mum, arguably, had the most impact on his outside interests: Sandra Beckham is a hairdresser.)

Beckham achieved further pop cultural penetration. A charming English movie about an interracial friendship between two teenage girls was named for his trademark free kicks; it made Keira Knightley a star.

When the writers of the Oscar-winning war film The Hurt Locker wanted global audiences to identify with the character of a little Iraqi boy, they called him Beckham. More recently, the novelist Bret Easton Ellis suggested on Twitter that were he to write a sequel to his satirical slasher classic, American Psycho, one of his anti-hero Patrick Bateman's first victims would be Beckham, who would be murdered in a lift.

No less gruesomely, when his native city wanted to define itself during the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Beckham appeared on the top of a red double-decker bus, punting a football into the crowd while Leona Lewis and Jimmy Page performed "Whole Lotta Love". (Yes, that really happened.) And when we bid for the 2018 World Cup, we sent in our two most internationally recognisable Englishmen, Prince William and David Beckham; the Prime Minister went, too.

Flash forward 30 years from that kickabout in Chingford, and one might forgive Ted Beckham and David's childhood playmates for scratching their heads over what became of their boy.

All of which is to acknowledge that while for more than a decade he has been the world's most recognisable sportsman, Beckham's fame far transcends sport.

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In fact, like many celebrities today, the means of his ascension to pop-iconic status seems mostly irrelevant, a feeling borne out by the fact that, with the exception of two brief loan periods at AC Milan while he has been at the Galaxy, and a small number of qualifying matches for England, he has spent five years in the football wilderness of Los Angeles. He hasn't played in an international tournament since England lost in the quarter-finals of the 2006 World Cup, and there was never any suggestion that he would join the injury-depleted England squad at this summer's Euros. This seems to have affected his fame and his commercial potential not a jot.

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In truth, it sometimes seems that the fact he is a footballer is something of an inconvenience, certainly to Beckham's handlers. Injuries, the vagaries of team selection, ups and downs on the pitch: all these distract from the real point of David Beckham, which is, what? To represent the brand. The brand being: David Beckham.

It's a brand, nebulous as that sounds, created and overseen by the TV and talent impresario Simon Fuller, of XIX Entertainment, in concert with the Hollywood talent agency CAA and the PR agency Rogers & Cowan, where Beckham shares a publicist with Bruce Willis, John Travolta and Sylvester Stallone (though not, curiously, with Dennis Irwin or Nicky Butt).

Somewhere beneath all these layers of management and marketing and gossip and hype and projection and gender studies is a living, breathing human being: a quiet, polite 37-year-old Englishman who is really, really good at football.

He's sitting next to me now, in a trailer parked on a muddy ranch high in the Hollywood Hills, where the Esquire cover shoot is taking place. He's eating lunch: chicken and salad on a paper plate from the catering table outside. While his publicist fiddles with her BlackBerry in the corner, Beckham carefully answers my questions in his soft, high-pitched, unmodulated voice.
By the time we sit down to talk, it's a few hours since Beckham made his entrance, stepping out of the driver's seat of a black Rolls-Royce Ghost — black grille, black wheels, matte-black bonnet, for all I know the engine is matte black, too — in tracksuit bottoms, a grey sweatshirt and a black beanie, looking exactly like David Beckham. Unlike many other famous people, Beckham in the flesh is neither taller, shorter, thinner, fatter, uglier or more beautiful than he appears on screen or in print.

And so he really is quite outrageously handsome, his fine features and slender body counterpointed by a rugged, squint-eyed stare, enigmatically empty, under a furrowed brow. His face has lined and creased and crinkled in exactly the way a man might hope to age; he looks tough, but pretty. The football writer Simon Kuper has likened Beckham to a doll. I know what he means. He's like Action Man: you can dress him up as Football David in his Galaxy strip, or Red Carpet David in three-piece suit and tie pin, or Hip-Hop David, in the baggy sportswear he's wearing for today's outing, or Ambassador David, with the three lions on his blazer pocket.

For the Esquire shoot, he is required to play a masculine archetype: the American outdoorsman, Rugged David. Not many men — hardly any men — could pull this contrivance off. To go from having one's eyelashes tinted, hair zhuzhed, nose powdered to pretending to be a muddy-kneed, heavy-booted, dirt-biking cattle poke would seem to require a giant leap of the imagination. But this is a silent-acting job, one of those jobs that Beckham does best, and he seems to have no trouble at all. He approaches the task methodically. He is co-operative to a fault. He smiles and nods when spoken to, but hardly replies. He broods magnificently when required.

Beckham gives good still, then, just as one might expect from the contemporary representative of masculine glamour and narcissism. In this he reminds me of his female equivalent, Kate Moss — born a year earlier, also from a humble London suburb — who is the accepted exemplar of British feminine beauty and style, the woman our wives and sisters and daughters are most likely to wish they looked like, or at least want to dress like. Moss, famously, is not only sylph-like but also sphinx-like. She doesn't grant interviews. She and her advisors understand as well as anyone that the power of the still image is enhanced by the silence of its subject. In her surface is her depth.

The same is not quite true of Beckham. He speaks to the press, he appears on chat shows, gives post-match interviews and works for Unicef. He and his handlers have created an extraordinary persona: salt-of-the-earth East End boy done good, turned international fashion peacock. But it's a 2D persona. As with Moss, it's how he looks, and how he presents himself, that matters. He is a cipher, a screen on which we can project our own fantasies. What he has to say about that, or anything else, hardly matters. Which makes interviewing him a strange experience. He's an open book. But it's mostly a picture book.

When I ask him if there's any disconnect between our perceptions of him — his image — and the real man, the private Beckham, he says not. This is rare, I think. Most people who have any kind of public face feel it is, at least in some ways, misrepresentative, distorted. Some are fine with that, others resent it, but in my experience of talking to celebrities, it's very unusual to feel that one's promotional avatar is an accurate representation of one's interior being. "What you see," he tells me, "that's me. And that won't change. I might not walk around in just my underwear every day, but that's the only thing [that is different about the private man]. I don't try and hide anything. There's nothing to hide."

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When asked, he can't think of a single public misconception about himself. It's possible that his answers to my questions — very much the platitudinous, pleased-for-the-lads, noncommittal kind that media-trained sportsmen specialise in — are deliberately opaque. He understands that to explain is to reveal, to demystify and, ultimately, to disappoint. Certainly, like all sports stars, he has been media-trained. But it's just as likely that he really doesn't think deeply about things, that he lives a largely unexamined life. Unexamined by him, anyway. That, as he insists, there's not much more, or less, to him than meets the eye.

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Certainly, he is imperturbable. He is scrupulously polite, to the point where it is impossible to know where on the spectrum of emotions his attitude to this interview falls: is it agonising or enjoyable? In fact, he just seems a bit bored. Who can blame him? He is not, as we all know by now, eloquent or especially articulate. He does his talking on camera and on the football pitch, without opening his mouth.

All of which means that, having now met him, I don't know him any better than I did before. This, I am certain, doesn't matter a bit to him. And maybe he's right. Maybe it's better that way.

The interview, then. We begin with some easy stuff to warm us up, some soft passes to feet: he's come a long way from East London to Beverly Hills, hasn't he? I wonder whether he still feels any connection to his working-class English background? "I've lived out of England now for 10 years," he says, "but it doesn't change anything. I'll never forget where I'm from, never forget my roots. It doesn't matter where I live, I'm English, simple as that. And I want our kids to have an English upbringing."

How does one manufacture one of those, in sunny California? "We eat English food," Beckham says, "We have English stuff around the house."

Bangers and mash notwithstanding, three of his four children have never lived in England, which must make giving them an English childhood difficult. "They have an English mentality," he says. "They're normal kids. And that's because me and Victoria have kept our roots and a very English, down-to-earth living for the kids. We want to give them the same morals we had growing up, the way our parents brought us up, which was in a very strict way."

Observed from afar, I tell him, he and his family seem to live in a celebrity bubble, a diamond-studded, gilded cage, probably handmade to their specifications in a Paris atelier. I envision a casual weekend gathering chez Beckham being catered by their good friend Gordon Ramsay, with Tom Cruise popping by on his motorbike, Victoria swapping fashion tips with the skinny one from Desperate Housewives, Snoop Dogg shooting hoops with the kids in the backyard. He laughs. "People think that," he says, as if people are a bit silly. But he doesn't do much to disabuse us: "There is a good chance of Gordon being round cooking a beef Wellington. And do I ride my bikes with Tom? Yeah, I do. Have we become good friends over the years? Yes, we have become very good friends. It's not a big celebrity thing. It's just something that happened. And it's good to have friends like that."

What's the biggest movie star of the past three decades like to hang out with? "He's a really good person. Tom is one of the hardest working people that I know. He never stops. He's a great dad and he's got a great family behind him."

What about Scientology? Is it true Cruise has interested him in his belief system? "No," he says. "It's not true." Is Beckham religious, does he believe in God? "People look at my tattoos and the majority of them are religious images so people think, 'Oh, he must be very religious'. I respect all religions but I'm not a deeply religious person. But I try and live life in the right way, respecting other people. I wasn't brought up in a religious way but I believe there's something out there that looks after you."

He goes on a bit — "everyone has their beliefs" — before coming back, for the third time, to the reassurance that he respects all religions.

Something similar happens when, having discussed his work as an ambassador for British sport, I try, flailing somewhat, to get him onto politics. Does he have political views? He doesn't. Does he vote? No, because he lives outside the country. Would he, if he could? He says he'd rather not talk about politics.
What, I wonder, is he interested in outside of football? Does he have any hobbies?

"Not really. I don't have time for hobbies. At the end of the day, I treat my job as a hobby. It's something I love doing." Pushed to think of anything he enjoys outside playing and training, he decides that, "My children are my hobbies."

And so we're back to family life. He's long been a tireless advocate for the joys of fatherhood. He is also, in interviews, unfailingly uxorious. Asked to describe Victoria to someone who's never met her, he says, "She's charming, she's funny, she's immensely talented, first with being a Spice Girl and especially now with being a designer. She's a very committed person. When she wants something she knows what to do to get it. And she's an amazing mum. That's her strongest quality for me. Being her husband and the father of her children, there's nothing better than seeing a woman who is amazing with her children." Pink ticket for Mr Beckham.

He and Victoria have been together for 15 years. What are the ingredients, I ask, for an enduring marriage? "You have to find time to spend with each other," he says. "As much as we work hard and we love to spend time with our kids, and that's our main priority, we make sure we go out for dinner once a week." Before I can ask for any DB date-night tips, he's backtracking. "But our number one priority is our kids. Nothing work-wise, relationship-wise, ever comes between that. We do what we have to do. We both work really hard. But one of us is always with the kids. If I'm away, she's here, if she's away, I'm here…"

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It must be difficult for his boys, I venture, in that their dad is a superhero to millions of their contemporaries around the world. Isn't there pressure on them to live up to his achievements?

"Obviously, there's expectations on the football side for the kids," he says. "It's hard for them. There's a lot of pressure on them. They go for football try-outs and people automatically think David Beckham's son is going to bend the ball in the top corner at the age of six." Then he qualifies. "But to be honest they don't really notice the pressure. They're very confident kids. They take it in their stride. They're nice boys."

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After the three boys, Brooklyn, Romeo and Cruz, in 2011 Beckham became, for the first time, father to a daughter, Harper Seven. "I'm still amazed we have a little girl," he says, eyes full of wonder. "I change her nappy and I'm still amazed that it's a girl. Amazing."

Lovely as it would be to hear more of these revelations, I'm worried we might spend the
whole interview on how nice the Beckhams are. We turn, instead, to business. David and Victoria are a brand. What does he think his brand stands for? What are its values? His answer is comprehensive without being especially enlightening. The upshot is that he thinks his brand stands for hard work, his and his wife's, and attention to detail. And belief in the products. Always giving 110 per cent.

So I ask him about fame. It's long seemed to me, I tell him, that he is one of a very rare breed of people who are entirely unfazed by all the attention they receive. He seems to enjoy his celebrity and to accept his position without question.

"I would never complain about the position I'm in or the attention I get," he says. "At the end of the day, I'm very lucky to have what I have and do what I do, but I don't see myself as any different from anyone else who works hard and is a dad and a husband."

To what, then, does he ascribe his tremendous worldwide appeal? It's obviously not just the football, so it must be something else. "I honestly can't explain why the interest in me is so strong," he says. "It's strange. It surprises me."

Perhaps it's because he's so good looking. Does he think he's good looking? "No, not at all." Oh, come on. He must accept at least this: that he is passably attractive. "I honestly don't know how to answer that question."

Well, if you were ugly, we wouldn't be taking your picture for the cover of Esquire. "I'm not ugly, I know that."

He's always been interested in fashion, he says, always enjoyed dressing up. When I remark upon his influence on the way young men dress and style themselves, he seems genuinely chuffed. "Thank you," he says. Does he find it odd that people ape his tastes so closely, even copying his tattoos? "I am aware of it, people copying certain things I wear or hairstyles I do or tattoos I have, but it's not something I think about."
He does confess to at least a measure of embarrassment that such a fuss is made of his physique, but clearly he's not overly self-conscious. "It's definitely got easier over the years," he says, of taking his clothes off for photo shoots, "but when I was in New York, seeing a huge poster [of himself in a pair of briefs] on the side of a building, that was quite daunting. I remember driving past there, and stopping and running out and taking a picture, and this guy walked past me and he was like, 'Oh, my God! Have you seen your dick up there?' Something disgusting like that. That was funny."

Telling an anecdote like that, he does seem winningly unaffected. You've seen him do similar on Parky or Jonathan Ross, seen him do his bashful grin, laughed with him, been charmed by him, relieved he's able to converse at all.

But I think it's fair to say that despite his awareness of his bizarre position, the things he finds amazing — perhaps his most often used descriptive word — and the things the rest of us find amazing are not the same. I find it amazing, as I've mentioned, that when the UK wants to lobby foreign sporting associations for the right to host multi-billion-dollar global events, they tend to send in the heir to the throne, the current elected leader of the nation and a man with really interesting hair who used to play for Manchester United. David Beckham… doesn't find it weird.

There's a widely circulated photo of the toothsome trio — Davids Beckham and Cameron, and Prince William — in Switzerland together trying to secure the 2018 World Cup for England. "It's amazing, and I'm proud of that side of my career," he says. But he doesn't seem exactly overwhelmed by it. Would he describe Prince William as a friend? "Yeah, I think I would. We've done a lot of functions together. It's a very normal relationship. With Harry, as well. They're very easy to get along with. They love their sport. William loves Aston Villa, unfortunately, which obviously I give him a bit of stick about." Obviously.

Asked what else he and the Windsors might have in common, Beckham rather sidesteps the question. "They're two people who have grown up in the spotlight and the respect that I have for them, and that people in our country and all over the world have for them, is amazing. I have a huge amount of respect for William and Harry because of what they've been through from a very young age. They're a credit obviously to their mum and everyone in the Royal Family." For whom he also has a lot of respect.

Was there never a time his head might have become swelled by such things? "No." Really? I think most young men might forgive themselves the occasional lapse in modesty if the world were to fall, quite dramatically, at their football-booted feet. Beckham credits his father with keeping his Adidas on the ground. He's also kept sane by a couple of male friends who have been close to him since his early days.
(After some prompting, he tells me their names: Dave and Terry. But he's vague about what they do. Terry "works for a… business in London". And Dave? "Dave does as well." In fact, Dave Gardner is a high profile football agent while Terry Byrne was for a long time Beckham's personal manager and was instrumental in engineering his move from Real Madrid to the LA Galaxy.)

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Perhaps Beckham's level-headed attitude is the result of his fame coming just in time, before young footballers' lives became completely removed from existence as experienced by the rest of us? "I sound old saying this," Beckham says, "but the problem is that young kids that probably have not played 10 games in the Premiership are earning lots of money, driving around in great cars, but there's no one there to show them how to behave. When I was coming through at Manchester United, you had to work for your contract. That's why Sir Alex Ferguson is as successful as he is, because he makes his players work hard and he makes sure they do things the right way."

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Beckham, by all accounts, was always self-disciplined. He always trained hard. He was never the type to fall drunk out of nightclubs, get into fights, embarrass his club. How does he let his hair down, I wonder? "I let my hair down with my family, the children, my close friends." Yes, but how? Does he drink? "I like — love, actually — a glass of good red wine." This sounds promising. When was he last drunk? "At the weekend. I had the day off so I had a couple of glasses of red wine. But I'm not a big drinker. I don't do things excessively."

If the Beckhams have a reputation for anything, it's for lavish spending. He says he doesn't actually spend that much on himself, but he's happy to splash out on the children or his wife. The most recent extravagance he can think of is "a piece of artwork which I had specially made by a friend." A painting of a lilac heart, it was commissioned as a gift for his daughter, Harper, to hang in her room. "We named it Daddy's Girl," he says. And who was this friend who specially made it? "Damien Hirst."

By this stage, I'm asking anything. How's his famous OCD? Is he still rearranging the cans of soft drink in the fridge? Is that a true story? "Yes, very true." So it hasn't got any better? "It's not something I worry about," he says. "I've accepted it. I'm just very obsessive with certain things. Everything has to be in order. That's the way it is. Walk into a hotel room and before I can get settled I have to unpack, everything has to be perfect: the magazines the right way, the drawers in the right way, or whatever." It sounds exhausting. "It is, it's tiring. But it's more tiring if it's not done the right way." Then he asks if I mind stopping for a minute so he can go and wash his hands.

The Home Depot Center stadium, at 18400 Avalon Boulevard in the blue-collar suburb of Carson, California, is a good 45 minutes by freeway from the Beckham home in Beverly Hills. It rises above monotone flatland to the south of LA, opposite a KFC, and looks out over a landscape of under-populated strip malls, auto repair shops, freeway off-ramps and long, straight, still streets. Like the Galaxy team, the Home Depot Center is owned by AEG, the giant live sports and entertainment corporation that David Beckham works for.

Clean, compact, open to the benevolent southern California elements, the Home Depot Center holds a respectable 27,000. In English football terms, this makes it just slightly smaller than Norwich City's Carrow Road. But the unimposing structure and less than desirable location reflects its relative importance on the LA sporting scene: the Galaxy is not the biggest professional team in town. Most famously there's the starry LA Lakers basketball team and their rivals the Clippers.

There are also two major league baseball teams, the Dodgers and the Angels. And a well-supported ice hockey franchise, the Kings. All are in action the week I'm in LA to meet Beckham, as are the Trojans and the Bruins, the college football teams of USC and UCLA. In the sports pages of the LA Times, these take considerable prominence over the exploits of the Galaxy. On ESPN, the sports TV network, Nascar and IndyCar, the horseracing results and the US team's build-up to the Olympics further relegate football, or "soccer" as we must henceforth call it. Then there's golf, tennis and the many other games that command the attention of American sports fans.

On a Saturday evening in April, the Galaxy are at home to the Portland Timbers, from Oregon, a team with a history that stretches back all the way to 2009. In the car park outside the ground, opposing supporters drink beer from coolers or sit on the grass eating sandwiches. A DJ plays Guns N' Roses and a few dudes pogo along. It's an attempt at rowdiness that makes no threat whatsoever to transition into boorishness.

The proceedings have what AEG would doubtless, correctly, celebrate as a family atmosphere. I've certainly never seen as many kids — girls and boys — at a football game, but there are old people, too, and middle-aged couples. It's like milling about outside an amusement park during half-term or a multiplex cinema on the opening day of a Pixar movie. There's a mix of races, too. A good quarter of the 20,000 people here must be Hispanic, though it's noticeable that members of the black community from neighbouring South Central — we're just an intersection away from Compton — have overwhelmingly chosen to spend their Saturday nights elsewhere.

The match kicks off under a crushed pink sunset. There had been speculation in the run-up to the game that Beckham might not play. He has a minor ankle injury and a tight hamstring. But there he is, in the centre of the pitch, popping up here and there with a deft touch, a tidy pass, switching the play from side to side with his famous pinpoint accuracy and his elegantly floated crosses. He's not the only star in the Galaxy. There's the club captain, US international and erstwhile Evertonian, Landon Donovan and the star striker, the peripatetic Robbie Keane, captain of the Republic of Ireland and formerly of, to name just a few, Wolves, Coventry City, Tottenham, Leeds and Liverpool.

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It's invidious to draw comparisons with the great teams of Europe that Beckham, Keane and Donovan (who has also played for Bayern Munich) have turned out for, but hard to resist — for them, too, surely. In January of this year, I happened to go to the Milan derby at the San Siro, a stadium in which Beckham, for AC Milan, and Keane, for Inter, have both played. In terms of spectacle, sense of occasion, intensity of experience and quality of entertainment, there is no contest. And, clearly, the standard of football was higher.

As a football pundit I'm no Gary Neville, but even I can see that Portland are — technical term here — rubbish. When they score from their first proper attack, they look as surprised as anyone, and there's a distinct lack of concern from the Galaxy fans around me. It feels somehow in the spirit of the thing that when Landon Donovan levels the score in the 44th minute, your reporter is unsighted, as they say, largely because he's outside queuing for half-time nachos.

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The second half is better, the Galaxy's Brazilian midfielder Juninho scoring a fine long-range goal to take the lead. Beckham supplies a number of crosses that no one quite gets on the end of, and even makes a couple of determined runs with the ball. As he has throughout his career, he leads by example rather than by diktat: cranking up his own intensity and propelling his team forward apparently by simple force of will. He is imposing, unsmiling, phlegmatic.

And then, as the game moves into injury time, the score at 2–1, the silver ball is passed to Beckham, who is standing entirely alone, 35 yards from the Portland goal. His first touch is heavy, and for a moment it looks like the ball might escape him, that his thirtysomething legs, his tender ankle, will fail to catch up with it. But he races forward and somehow makes up the ground. Then he windmills his left arm, leans his torso backwards, looks up, twists his hips and strokes the ball with the inside of his right boot.

It's one of those iconic moves in world sport, like a Tendulkar cover drive or a Nadal forehand: you've seen it so many times before that the outcome has an inevitability. As soon as the ball leaves Beckham's foot, still well outside the penalty area, you know it's a goal. It curves through the air and by the time it ruffles the top right corner of the net, he's already running towards the corner flag, sliding on his knees, pumping his fists and throwing his head back in triumph, and I'm jumping up and down with the rest of the stadium.

"Awesome!" says the guy to my left, a twentysomething Latino in a black beanie. "That was vintage David Beckham," he says, in a not-bad English accent, for my benefit. "Was it not?" It was, I say, and we fist bump. "Screamer!" he shouts to his friends. "Right?"

In that moment, for me anyway, it doesn't matter at all that the goalkeeper left clawing at the California air is later referred to in a match report as a "netminder", or that the bench I'm sitting on is a "bleacher", or that the PA announcer is burbling on about the "craziest" Galaxy fan having the chance to win a trip to a nearby casino.

Maybe it doesn't matter, either, that few, if any, of Beckham's fans back home in England or around the world, will see the goal. Even here, in LA, few will hear about it. It is mentioned in a short match report on the LA Times website the following day and the big American news organisations — Fox, NBC — find space for it on their sports sites. It doesn't, as far as I can tell, make the mainstream British press at all. (Indeed, the only mention of "Beckham" in the 24 hours after David's goal is a Mail Online story attached to paparazzi photos of his nine-year-old son, Romeo, larking about in the stands during the game.)

It's clear that the relative anonymity of his current playing career has made no difference to his celebrity cachet, or his earnings: in June, Forbes magazine listed Beckham as the highest earning footballer in the world, on $46m (£29.3m). But surely it has frustrated Beckham. "I love playing for this club and I love playing in this country," he tells me. But he has made more than one attempt to extricate himself from the Galaxy. In 2009, he tried to turn an off-season loan to AC Milan into a permanent move, earning much ire among Galaxy fans. He later discussed moving to Tottenham Hotspur, which also failed to meet the Galaxy's valuation of him.

In December 2011, his original Galaxy contract at last complete, he came close to moving to France to play for Paris Saint-Germain, newly enriched with Qatari millions and under the respected Italian coach Carlo Ancelotti, for whom Beckham played at AC Milan.

"It was an option, obviously," he tells me. "We had to think about it because the five-year deal I signed here was up. And because I won the [MLS] championship last year, that was the thing that was playing on my mind. I was thinking maybe it's time to move on. Living in Paris, playing for a big European team was enticing, I must admit. It was something I seriously thought about." But? "But we weren't ready to leave. We've got a great lifestyle here. We've got great friends."

So now it looks like Beckham's playing career will end here, in the Home Depot Center, rather than at Parc des Princes, or in the San Siro, or at Old Trafford, any other of Europe's great stadia.

A whole book has already been written about the often baffling events that have occurred since Beckham came to Los Angeles, with the stated intention of revolutionising the profile and popularity of Major League Soccer. In 2007, the AEG CEO, Tim Leiweke, predicted that, "David Beckham will have a greater impact on soccer in America than any athlete has ever had on a sport globally." Grant Wahl's tragicomedy, The Beckham Experiment — an exhaustive and exhausting catalogue of the feuding and disappointments that took place during Beckham's first three seasons with the Galaxy — ends with the sentence, "Would it ever be about the soccer?"

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Which rather sums up Wahl's thesis: the experiment may have worked in that it launched Beckham as a major celebrity brand in the US, and made lots of money for AEG, but professional soccer is still a niche sport in America, and there's no real sign of that changing. Granted, Wahl's book ends before the Galaxy's championship-winning season of 2011. But nothing about attending a Galaxy home game in 2012 — as pleasant an experience as that is — makes one feel one is at the epicentre of the American sporting scene.
Revealingly — not a word one gets to use much in a David Beckham interview — when I ask Beckham where and when in his career he was happiest, he doesn't hesitate or, for once, equivocate.

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"Manchester United was the happiest time of my career," he says. "I've been lucky. I've played with great players in great teams at great stadiums. But Manchester United was the club I dreamed of playing for my whole childhood, so to be part of that club for 13 years, that was an amazing time."

Would he have been content to spend his whole career at Old Trafford, like his erstwhile teammates Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes, and to miss out on Madrid and Milan and Los Angeles as a result? "One hundred per cent," he says. "It didn't happen in the end, but to be able to stay at the club that was your childhood dream for your whole career? Of course."

Still he has, he says, no regrets. The only thing he's missed out on, he thinks, is winning a major tournament with England. "That would have been incredible. It's not something that niggles at me, it's just something I would love to have achieved."

At the time of our interview, Beckham did not know whether or not he would be selected as one of the three senior players — over 23 years old — allowed into the final, 18-man Team GB squad for the Olympics. It would almost certainly be his last chance to shine as a footballer on the global stage and he would, he told me, be extremely disappointed if he were not chosen. He was, he said, "in contact" with team manager Stuart Pearce but they hadn't discussed his participation directly. Opinions in the press seemed to differ on his suitability for Team GB. The chief sports writer of The Sunday Times wrote a damning piece, suggesting Pearce's reputation would take a battering if he chose Beckham: "[Pearce] can kid himself all he wishes but he will know that when he has to name the three most deserving over-23s, he cannot justify selecting Beckham." But elsewhere it was felt Beckham had earned his place because of his ambassadorial work, and the word was that organisers of the Games were desperate for Beckham to play, if only to help shift the 1.4m football tickets still unsold in June.

On 28 June, it was announced that Beckham hadn't, after all, been selected for Team GB. His time as a world-class footballer was effectively over, and there would be no lingering farewell, from the pitch at least, to his home support. He released a statement — calm, rational, generous — expressing his disappointment but also wishing the team the best. One can only imagine what his real feelings were.

It's 12 years since David Beckham was last on the cover of Esquire, in anticipation of England's participation in Euro 2000. Then, as now, he was among the most famous, most highly remunerated sportsmen in the world. Then, as now, he was a figure of fantasy and sometimes of fun. Only two years earlier he had been a pariah in England, burnt in an effigy after being sent off against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup. Now he was redeemed and in the period of his greatest pomp on the playing field.

In another 12 years from now he'll be 49, his playing days long over. Where will he be then, this extraordinary representative of the commercialising of sport, the feminising of masculinity and the fetishising of celebrity?

Simon Kuper, in his book The Soccer Men, imagines a half-life for Beckham not unlike that enjoyed by the great Pelé, another man who tried, in the twilight of his playing career, to take his sport to the US, and who now travels the world as a mostly silent, always smiling, much loved ambassador for football — a benign, Fifa-sponsored figurehead, not quite a fully fleshed-out human being.

It doesn't seem an altogether inappropriate fate but it's not one Beckham wants to contemplate — not today, not to me, at any rate. Instead, he talks of various business opportunities, upon which he declines to expand. He acknowledges that he has an option to own his own MLS franchise, so perhaps he'll become a team owner. He does not have, and never has had, ambitions to go into management or to become a TV pundit — the traditional post-playing employment opportunities for star footballers, now that the days of opening a pub near the ground are gone. It's not that he doesn't think he could do those jobs, he says, if he put his mind to them, it's just that he has absolutely no interest in them. David Beckham and his managers and advisors, one suspects, refuse to think that small.

At the end of our allotted time together I'm permitted a few last questions. When it's all over, how would you like to be remembered?

"Just as a hard-working footballer. I want to be remembered firstly as a good and successful footballer because that's what I've done for many years. And then who knows after that?"
Are you happy with the direction your life is going in, the fact that your career is almost at an end?

"Yes."

Have you always been happy?

"Always. I think it's important. Someone said to me recently, 'Always have something to look forward to. Whatever it is. If you don't have that you lose interest, you become stale'."

So what are you looking forward to at the moment?

"Going out there and getting on that bike," he says, evading another of my pathetically weak tackles.

He means the motorbike that has been hired for our shoot. And that's what he does. He strides out into the Los Angeles afternoon, up a muddy hillock to a small corral that has been cleared for this purpose, climbs on to the bike and rides it round and round in circles, without comment, while Esquire's photographer, Josh Olins, takes photos and a platoon of groomers and assistants and publicity people stand around encouragingly, willing Beckham not to fall off.

He looks sheepish and a bit shaky. Again, it's hard to tell if he's enjoying himself or if he's suddenly regretting volunteering for this foolishness. The potential for embarrassment, or worse, cannot have escaped his notice. Not entirely idly, I wonder if the Galaxy insurance will pay out in the eventuality that he falls off and breaks his leg, or if our magazine will be left in the hole for millions of dollars in lost revenue. But after a couple of circuits, he stops and climbs off, unharmed.

The next day, when Josh emails over the photos, the Beckham caught on camera looks magnificent, a superhero utterly in control of the machine, that moment, and his destiny.

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