(CNN) -- Father, son, husband of a Spice Girl, fashion icon, role model, sporting ambassador. It is sometimes easy to forget that David Beckham was ever a midfielder of the highest caliber with more than 100 appearances for England.
He wore a sarong, a headscarf, nail varnish, adorned his body with tattoos and changed his expertly coiffured hair-do practically every week. He spoke sparingly and, when he did, it was with a high-pitched, slightly effeminate whine. And, as far as anyone could tell, his female partner seemed to make all the important decisions. And yet his masculinity was never in doubt.
In the 1990s, we called Beckham a New Man, or a metrosexual. He was evidently straight, but never aggressive or even assertive in a traditional masculine way. In fact, he seemed mild-mannered. He dressed stylishly -- if a little too flamboyantly for many tastes -- groomed himself painstakingly and appeared unembarrassed when asked about his formidable following of gay fans.
There was a shimmering complexity, a quiet elegance, and perhaps even a sly wit about Beckham. Footballers, as the world knew them, were hard-boiled characters, who liked a drink and a good play up, especially after a game. Their reputation was hewn from the granite of working class tradition -- men were tough and affectless. We can barely imagine the reaction in the locker room when Beckham unpacked moisturizer, bronzer, and assorted hair products from his kit bag.
In the late 1990s, when he first surfaced, only Beckham could get away with it. After all, he enjoyed the adoration of women all over the world, had a pop star girlfriend and soon-to-be wife, and had to fend off advertisers who clamored for his endorsement services. He was a man with the world at his feet. He still is.
Today, cultural history is unimaginable without Beckham -- because he helped change that history. He slew the image of the unrelentingly macho sport hero and emerged heroically as the world's first all-purpose celebrity athlete. A symbol of a new masculinity.
And still we have to remind ourselves: Beckham was never rated as the best footballer in the world. And, far from being a hellraiser or a serial womanizer like many a notorious sports figure, he was squeaky clean.
Well, at least until 2004 when the News of the World tabloid alleged that he had an affair -- something he denied. Paradoxically, the alleged affair added rather than subtracted from his already iconic status, introducing a dash of devilry and rescuing Beckham from a kind of borderline piousness, and perhaps issuing a reminder that, despite all the affectations, his manhood was beyond doubt.
So why is Beckham the game-changing celebrity athlete?
There were two David Beckhams: one the flesh-and-blood mortal who kicked a ball around for a living, the other a character that existed independently of time and space -- a product of our imaginations.
Everyone thought they knew Beckham and enjoyed a secret relationship with him. He was like a blank canvas. Had he espoused his own views, or aligned himself with great causes he would have spoiled it. But he was silent, giving interviews rarely -- and, I suspect, at Victoria's discretion. And while he stayed largely unknown, the Beckham mystique grew.
When Beckham first entered the popular consciousness it was amid feelings of hate and revenge. Red-carded in a crucial England game against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup, Beckham was blamed for his team's exit. Effigies of him were burnt and he was forced to retreat. It's difficult to imagine the intensity of the loathing back then. Yet it was crucial in generating interest, even, passion.
The sight, even the name of Beckham stirred up powerful feelings. Football fans may have despised him, but others were just curious. And they became more curious as Beckham defiantly refused to give interviews or make public appearances, save for at the occasional fashion launch or a party hosted by a rock star or designer. All this was very un-footballer-like and faintly unmanly.
By the time Beckham and Victoria were married in 1999, interest in him had extended far beyond the football fraternity. His most devoted followers knew nothing of football. Unlike traditional sport fans, they were not interested in how he played: they were interested in him -- just Beckham.
At the start of the 21st century, there was only an embryonic celebrity culture; the fascination we now have for people who make no material impact on our lives and, in many cases, had no accomplishments of note was a new and perplexing development. Fans knew famous sportsmen and women by their talents and achievements. Beckham was different, he was known for being Beckham and, in this sense, he was among the first generation of celebrities.
Beckham's departure from football will not mean his disappearance. He will remain on our TV screens, in our magazines and on advertising hoardings the world over. But most significantly, he will remain in our imaginations.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ellis Cashmore.