PARIS – Football, fate and his own refusal to take age lying down are carrying David Beckham back to the scene of his greatest triumph as a footballer.
Beckham's hair has changed — repeatedly — since that famous night in the Camp Nou in Barcelona in 1999 when he fired in the corner that won the European Cup for Manchester United.
What hasn't changed is Beckham's desire to influence matches, to stay relevant as a footballer and not simply as a fashion icon. For putting himself in a position to keep on doing that at age 37, for taking such good care of his body and competitor's mind, Beckham deserves nothing but admiration.
But he cannot forever delay the inevitable. His first Champions League game in three years made that painfully clear. Beckham was the weakest link in the Paris Saint-Germain team that did itself proud against Barcelona on Tuesday night in the enthralling first leg of their quarterfinal. The 2-2 draw allows Paris to believe that victory against arguably the best club team and, in Lionel Messi, the best player in football history isn't impossible in the return game in Barcelona next Wednesday.
The charitable view would be that Beckham merely had an off night, instead of a night where he showed his age to a global audience of millions. He certainly didn't embarrass himself. One hopes he would retire before that happens.
Barcelona's play, as quick and wriggly as a jar of tadpoles, has a habit of making rivals look lead-footed in comparison and Beckham, by his own admittance, was never the quickest of players. So allowances must be made. Still, Beckham looked particularly sluggish at times and reluctant to commit himself to tackles as though he sensed he would be a yard or two slow. Unlike when Beckham was in his pomp, the match — a frenzied clash of styles and football philosophies — largely flowed around him, not through him.
There was no faulting the logic of Paris manager Carlo Ancelotti in choosing Beckham ahead of Marco Verratti, a 20-year-old Italian with more energy but less experience than the former England captain playing his third decade of professional football.
Ancelotti wanted Beckham to project PSG forward, to reverse the flow of play toward Barcelona's goal, with his trademark and still accurate passes. But Beckham had too few opportunities to do that because Barcelona, as always, kept the ball so sublimely. Like so many of their opponents, Beckham found himself scampering after the shadows of Messi, Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and their teammates in lurid orange and yellow.
"It's never easy playing against players like the midfield that they've got, because they pass the ball around well," he said. "You are constantly chasing, because they are so comfortable on the ball, every one of their players from the goal-keeper, the back four, and midfield and up front."
Playing against such royalty in a Champions League quarterfinal marked a milestone for PSG's money-no-obstacle Qatari owners as they transform the club into a European football force. Like Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich at Chelsea or the Abu Dhabi owners of Manchester City, they are proving that success in football can be bought as well as be earned.
More than €250 million ($320 million) in player investments in nearly two years of owning the club has bought not just a collection of individual stars but what, against Barcelona, looked like the makings of a genuine team, one with sufficient character to twice come back from a goal down to draw with the four-time European champions.
"This is ..." the stadium announcer bellowed as players walked off.
"Paris!" the Parc des Princes crowd howled in response.
The Paris arena, like Old Trafford in Manchester, the Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid and Barcelona's own Camp Nou, is going to become one of the cauldrons that top teams will have to grow accustomed to visiting, because there's no sign of the Qatari investment drying up any time soon.
"I'm very proud of the work in the past 18 months," said PSG President Nasser Al-Khelaifi. "Being in the Champions League quarterfinal, playing the best team in the world, is magnificent for Paris, for France."
That Beckham started such an important match was a poke in the eye for the cynics who said PSG recruited him mainly to sell jerseys and to raise its profile outside France. It showed Beckham is still a player, not merely a global brand. It even seems possible that he could extend what was initially billed as a five-month stay for another season, to his 39th birthday.
"We'll see," he said. "I've spoken to the owners, I've spoken to the manager. I know how happy they are with me and they know how happy I am here. But I'm not getting any younger, so I'll enjoy the rest of the season and then we'll sit down and talk."
That Ancelotti felt compelled to take off Beckham for the frenetic final 20 minutes against Barcelona when three goals were scored was a sign of his limitations now as a player that will only get more glaring with time. That substitution came after Beckham lost control of the ball and then clumsily tried to get it back by bringing down Alexis Sanchez, an error that again suggested the game was a smidgen too quick him. Referee Wolfgang Stark showed Beckham the yellow card and Ancelotti brought him off two minutes later. Verratti, his replacement, impressed with his vigor in defense and attack, making a solid argument to be picked to start the second leg next week.
For Beckham, returning to Europe's biggest stadium will revive memories of trips there playing for Real Madrid and, above all, of United's 2-1 victory over Bayern Munich in the 1999 final, when substitutes Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scored in injury time.
Beckham called that "my greatest memory of playing there."
That Beckham now has a chance to make more Camp Nou memories 14 years later is nothing short of amazing.
Will they be good ones?
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester