LONDON: He may be unwanted at Old Trafford, but just about everywhere else on the planet, David Beckham (pic) has never been more in demand.
Even the United States, frontier country for the world's favourite game, has not proved immune to the Beckham phenomenon, judging by the amount of media interest generated by his appearance at last week's MTV awards in Hollywood.
Even without a sizeable American fan club, Beckham can already make a reasonable claim to be the most famous athlete on the planet; his looks, love of fashion and links to the glitzy celebrity world of his popstar wife generating an appeal that transcends sport.
Last summer's World Cup in Japan and South Korea consolidated his iconic status in Asia and his standing in Africa will not have been harmed by a high-profile meeting with Nelson Mandela last month.
In his native country, Beckham's popularity was underlined in the run-up to the World Cup, when he was racing to recover from a broken metatarsal bone in his foot in time to play in the Finals.
Among the thousands of get-well messages that flooded into Beckingham Palace, as the tabloids have dubbed the home he shares with his Spice Girl wife Victoria, was one from Buckingham Palace.
Even Queen Elizabeth II, it transpires, felt moved to inquire after the well being of her country's favourite son.
Given such celebrity, it must be strange for Beckham to find himself surplus to requirements at the club that has been central to his life since he first signed for them as a 14-year-old schoolboy.
For all his fame, Beckham retains an endearing down-to-earthness and modesty, qualities he attributes to his strong family background in a modest suburb to the east of London.
And despite his apparent love of the spotlight, he insists he is only truly at ease out on the pitch.
“I'm at ease more on the pitch than off it,” he said during the World Cup. “I'm quite shy off the pitch but once I'm on it things are a little bit different, I start to enjoy myself a little bit more.”
Explaining the Beckham phenomenon is no easy task but it is clear that it is not just about his ability as a footballer.
Undoubtedly, he is one of the world's finest midfielders, an awesomely precise striker of free kicks and corners.
Yet no one would argue that he is a player who could win a World Cup single-handedly, as Diego Maradona did for Argentina in 1986, or even one who can dictate the pattern of a game the way Zinedine Zidane does for Real Madrid and France.
He doesn't have Ryan Giggs' pace or Luis Figo's ability to go past defenders.
Yet it is Beckham, not them, who has emerged as the game's leading global icon, a man whose image a Thai sculptor deemed worthy of giving the treatment normally reserved for Buddhist gods.
Good looks, his constantly-changing hairstyles and a love of fashion have all helped Beckham's appeal to transcend national boundaries.
But it was the strength of character he has shown in bouncing back from the lows of the 1998 World Cup that really endeared him to his own people.
Sent off for a petulant kick at Argentina's Diego Simeone, Beckham was blamed for England's early exit from the tournament and returned home to be greeted by effigies of himself hung from replica gallows.
For a whole season he was jeered mercilessly at every away match Manchester United played.
Weaker men would have buckled. Beckham decided it was a challenge and, with the help of his family and his club manager Alex Ferguson, met it. “I would never want to go back there (to 1998) but it did make me a stronger person,” he recalled.
Beckham's redemption was complete last summer when he converted the penalty which saw England take World Cup revenge on their old rivals Argentina.
The post-France 98 period was indicative of the huge influence Ferguson has had on Beckham's career.
But the relationship that began when Beckham was still a vulnerable child appears to have finally soured this season.
A dressing room bust up after United's FA Cup defeat by Arsenal in February ended with Beckham needing stitches in his forehead after being hit by a boot Ferguson had kicked in anger.
And in what was perhaps the final straw, in April, the 28-year-old found himself relegated to the substitutes bench for the second leg of the Champions League quarter-final against Real Madrid, United's biggest game of the season.
Beckham continued to insist that he wanted to stay in Manchester but when he took his son Brooklyn on to the pitch after the club's final home game of the season, there was no disguising the sense that he was saying farewell to Old Trafford. – AFP