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Beckham watches from bench as soccer career ends

5:45 PM, May 26, 2013   |    comments
Paris Saint-Germain's British midfielder David Beckham (2nd L) sits on the bench on May 26, 2013 as he watches his team play a French L1 football match against Lorient at the Moustoir stadium in the western French town of Lorient. AFP PHOTO / FRANK PERRY (Photo credit should read FRANK PERRY/AFP/Getty Images)
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LORIENT, France (AP) - For David Beckham, this really was the very end of his soccer career.

Now begins the rest of his already very famous life.

At a small, homely stadium on the Brittany coast of western France, with seagulls flying overhead and a world away from soccer temples like Manchester United's Old Trafford where fans used to sing his name, Beckham on Sunday officially became his sport's most famous new retiree.

A thigh injury prevented Carlo Ancelotti from picking Beckham for Paris Saint-Germain's final match of the season. The Italian coach had previously suggested that the artificial turf in Lorient's stadium might be too taxing for Beckham's 38-year-old legs.

So Beckham sat this one out. He didn't have to make the trip, since he wasn't on the team, but still he tagged along for the ride one last time.

Hands buried in the pockets of his red team top, his usually immaculately coiffed hair toasting under a wooly black hat, Beckham took his place on the PSG bench with zero fanfare. He was so inconspicuous that it's probably safe to say that many in the 16,336-strong crowd didn't realize he was there at all, that they were party to a final little dollop of Beckham soccer history.

Beckham announced his retirement May 16. He shed tears two days later at his last home game for PSG, getting a rousing sendoff and standing ovation in Paris. That, as it turned out, was the last match of his career. Ancelotti said Beckham picked up an injury in that game, was unable to train in the week since, "and so he was not able to play" on Sunday.

Even though he had no role in the 3-1 win for PSG, Beckham will find this match hard to forget - and not merely because it marked the full stop to his 21 seasons as a professional soccer player, a journey that saw him win titles and trophies with Manchester United, Real Madrid, the Los Angeles Galaxy and now the new French champions.

Lorient President Loic Fery marked the occasion Sunday by giving Beckham one of his team's bright orange jerseys with Beckham's name on the back above the number seven and the word "Kenavo," which means "Good-bye" in Breton, the Celtic language of Brittany. Up in the stands, fans played bagpipes and luxuriated in the warm evening sun.

In the 81st minute, the match turned bizarre. Referee Benoit Bastien ejected PSG goalkeeper Ronan Le Crom for felling Julien Quercia as the Lorient forward was sprinting for the ball in front of the Paris goal.

Le Crom is a reserve keeper for PSG. He was born in Lorient. At age 38, it's possible this is his last season. So Ancelotti brought him on, a kind gesture, for the last 30 minutes, replacing Alphonse Areola.

When Le Crom was then sent off, that left no one to guard PSG's goal. Ancelotti called on Mamadou Sakho, a defender, to do the job. Sakho was sitting next to Beckham on the bench. They had shared a blanket to warm their legs and joked around while watching the game. Then, suddenly, Sakho was having to borrow Areola's used pink jersey and pull on a pair of goalkeeper's gloves.

His first task: facing the spot kick the referee awarded for Le Crom's foul. Beating Sakho was child's play for Arnaud Le Lan, who easily slotted away the penalty kick for Lorient. Sakho didn't even dive to stop it.

Le Crom trudged off in tears. PSG teammates consoled him with a group hug. Beckham patted him on the head.

"It's most likely the last match of his career," PSG midfielder Blaise Matuidi said of Le Crom. "The referee could have been a bit softer with him and shown a bit of compassion."

After Bastien blew the final whistle, Beckham sought out the referee to give him a piece of his mind. He made the "Are you crazy?" gesture - tapping a finger against his temple.

What was said remained between them, because Beckham walked quickly past reporters without talking after the match.

"I didn't play" was all he said, by way of explanation for his silence.

Then he disappeared up a flight of steps to PSG's waiting bus and fans shouting "Dav-eeeed!" The bus has Beckham's name and those of his teammates painted on its side.

And that was it.

All in all, this was a very low-key final footnote to one of soccer's most storied careers. One couldn't help but feel sorry for two Irish fans who traveled by boat, bus and train from Dublin and paid something like 10 times the going rate over the Internet for tickets, in hopes of seeing Beckham bend it just one last time. Ciaran Donnelly, 22, and Aidan Mulvey, 21, hung their home-made banner marked "thanks for the memories Becks" on a fence by the stadium. Donnelly said Beckham had been his hero from childhood - when he'd owned a Beckham teddy bear and slept in Beckham pyjamas under a Beckham duvet.

Although Beckham the soccer player is finished, Beckham the brand, the fashion maven, the businessman, the sport ambassador - the list is long and varied - is not. The challenge now will be to adapt his brand, so that it and he continue to thrive without the limelight that playing brought.

"We might just never see the like of David Beckham again," Simon Chadwick, an expert in sport business and marketing at Coventry University in England, said in an interview. "I don't think there's anybody in the world right now who has the potential to become the next brand Beckham."

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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