It’s funny what a sarong can do to a man’s public image. Put next to each other, David Beckham and Ryan Giggs occupy wildly different spaces in the public consciousness: one is a globetrotting luminary, the other a low-key introvert. One’s an evergreen fashionista and one-man franchise-machine, the other merely a legendary retired sportsman. Both are iconic footballers, but only one of them iconic for his football. Yet is either reputation completely fair?
The case for Giggs’s greatness is straightforward: as the last man standing of Fergie’s most feted team, he straddled entire eras. He made his debut before Sky reinvented English football and retired long after the top clubs had become pawns in geopolitical chess games. He won more medals than Messi and mastered more positions than Casanova. He also scored one of the most iconic and viscerally brilliant goals of all time, the pinnacle of a season whose success remains unmatched in the English game.
As for Beckham, the popular perception is that fame overtook football early on; that his career is pockmarked by a half-decade in Hollywood; and that its latter years, fruitful as they were, essentially amounted to a red-carpet tour of Europe’s sexiest cities. While Giggs’ public persona has people shrugging en masse, his sporting achievements command universal respect. In contrast, Beckham is loved as a bloke but unrevered as a player. Somewhere along the way, both reputations were cut adrift from reality.
Certainly it’s true that Beckham is a cultural icon more than he is a footballing one, but there’s an irony in how the pair’s reputations have evolved. After all, it was Giggs who burst on to the scene as the first rock-star footballer of the modern era with his sports cars, sponsorship deals and showbiz girlfriends.
While a shy Beckham was out on loan at Preston North End, Giggs was the hard-partying poster boy of the newly rebranded Premier League, his manager compelled to assemble a network of moles across Manchester’s club scene – and occasionally turning up to shut down house parties himself – in order to keep his star winger on something resembling the straight and narrow. By the time, nearly a decade later, Ferguson’s energies had been diverted toward keeping Beckham out of the gossip columns, Giggs was a reformed man and already the pair had helped United to the treble.
That season, perhaps the high-point of both men’s careers – and the season of Giggs’s shirt-twirling heroics at Villa Park – did indeed see a dashingly handsome wide man named footballer of the year. Yet it was David Ginola, playing for 11th-placed Tottenham, who was voted the country’s best player by peers and pundits alike. Beckham was at least shortlisted, along with Roy Keane and Dwight Yorke. Giggs was not.
Others who found themselves clutching FWA or PFW gongs during what we can loosely bracket as Giggs’ peak years include Les Ferdinand, Teddy Sheringham, Robert Pires and Jurgen Klinsmann – fine players to a man but none a bona fide great. And it wasn’t as if the legendarily lithe Giggs was ever mitigated by injury.
Backham had more joy in the international honours too, finishing as runner-up in the Ballon d’Or once and the World Player of the Year twice – no mean feat, and one that gives lie to the idea he was a celebrity first, footballer second. Giggs found such accolades utterly elusive: he didn’t just miss out on them, he was never even in the running.
His PFA prize in 2009 is generally seen as belated compensation for that, a lifetime achievement award in all but name – football’s equivalent of Martin Scorsese being given an Oscar for The Departed, a middling movie that pales against his earlier masterworks. The assessment may be glib but it’s pretty much spot on: in a season when Cristiano Ronaldo scored relentlessly, Nemanja Vidic and co. kept 11 straight clean sheets and Steven Gerrard produced the most electric football of his career, Giggs started 15 just league games.
But the analogy falls down when you factor in what came before. Scorsese had long since proven himself as one of the greatest living film-makers; Giggs’ peak years placed him firmly on the rung below the elite. Scorsese’s award was for his genius, Giggs’s was for durability.
Common consensus is that Giggs aged like a fine wine; in reality, only his reputation did. The truth is that both players were at their buoyant best as young men, their respective games fuelled in their own way by the exuberance of youth: Beckham with the cocksure deliveries and strutting celebrations, Giggs with the fearless wingplay. Both, too, defied the usual boundaries of age – Giggs played his last game at 40, Beckham at 38 – and both bowed out at the top, winning a league title with a European heavyweight. Make no mistake: monk-like professionalism was by no means exclusive to the Welshman – just as, in time, undignified tabloid exposes were by no means exclusive to Beckham.
Yet while the passage of time left Beckham the footballer vastly underrated, Giggs spent his latter years being unduly fawned over. Beckham was every bit the hard trainer Giggs was – “off the scale” was how Ferguson described his fitness levels – but his mistake was to pick a fight with the wrong man. His fall-out with his manager warped his reputation.
Beckham was haunted by Ferguson’s ability to shape the narrative. At Real Madrid, his pre-agreed move to LA Galaxy led to him being frozen out of the side by Fabio Capello, while club president Ramon Calderon said he was “going to Hollywood to be half a film star”. The redemption story is well known – Beckham trained hard, won his place and the league title – but the dirt stuck.
Giggs, on the other hand, started out as the dressing-room maverick but eventually benefitted from adopting a teacher’s pet approach. The man who famously shunned spread quickly learned which side his bread was buttered on.
At around this time, Giggs was undergoing the first of a number of reinventions, playing often as a floating support striker role rather than a pure winger, craft replacing speed as his key trait. Eventually he would retreat to the role of ball-playing central midfielder, at which point – after some eye-catching outings there midway through the 2008/09 season – his plaudits peaked.
And to an extent, rightly so. Few footballers transform their game so impressively. But Giggs’s versatility was neither unprecedented (just ask John Barnes) nor even unique among his six Class of 92 peers: while both were at the club, it was Beckham who was often asked to fill in centrally. He did so with impressive seamlessness – not least on a certain night in Barcelona – and, like Giggs, he also spent the most his later career there: at Madrid he was largely a string-pulling central midfielder, and at Milan and PSG he was exclusively one.
Failed experiments with England notwithstanding, Beckham’s adventures in the engine room were actually more far impressive than those of Giggs. Beckham played one Champions League final in the position – and won it. Giggs played two and lost both, the game passing him by badly in both 2009 and 2011, and was left out altogether for a third, in 2008 (just as he was for at least two other major finals for which he was fully fit).
But all these differences mask the essential point, which is that both players were pretty much of the exact same calibre: brilliant but not superhumanly so. The main difference is that while one wore a sarong and went to LA, the other stayed at home and took up yoga.