LONDON – David Beckham, whose curling free kicks, rugged good looks and celebrity marriage made him one of the most famous athletes in the world, is retiring from soccer.
Whether striding on the grass, the red carpet or the fashion catwalks, Beckham transcended his sport and became its highest-paid player, with a fortune estimated at $250 million.
The 38-year-old former England captain said Thursday he would quit after his final two games with Paris Saint-Germain, where he won a league title this season.
"It's a good way to go out," he said in Paris. "It's every athlete's dream, every footballer's dream to go out on the top – on top form or winning a trophy ... leaving as a champion."
Although he never lifted the World Cup, soccer's ultimate prize, Beckham won enough club honors in his 21-year career to cement his status in the game and went out a winner on both sides of the Atlantic. He also helped popularize the sport in the United States, playing with the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer.
FIFA President Sepp Blatter described the midfielder as "one of the most iconic figures in global football."
"It's the end of a chapter of an amazing story," Blatter wrote on Twitter. "David grew up as a football loving child & achieved his dreams, and unquestionably inspired millions of boys & girls to try & do the same."
Beckham's fame went beyond the game. Guided by his wife, former Spice Girl Victoria Adams, the dashing Beckham was known as much for his fashion as his feet, with ever-changing hairstyles, nail polish and sometimes outrageous outfits. In 2002, Salon dubbed him "the biggest metrosexual in Britain."
Last year, retailer H&M covered almost the entire side of a New York City building with a picture of Beckham in a pair of boxer briefs.
"Sometimes that has overshadowed what I have done on the pitch or what I have achieved on the pitch," Beckham said in a television interview conducted by former United teammate Gary Neville. "And as much as I say that doesn't hurt me, of course it does.
"I am a footballer that has played for some of the biggest clubs in the world and played with some of the best players in the world, played under some of the biggest and best managers and achieved almost everything in football."
Beckham was immortalized in the 2002 movie "Bend it Like Beckham," which told the story of a British teenage girl of south Asian heritage struggling with family pressures and cultural expectations to play the sport she loves. Beckham's retirement led to a flood of tweets dubbing the day "End it Like Beckham."
Beckham also was mentioned in the 2003 romantic comedy "Love Actually." Hugh Grant, portraying the British prime minister, touts the country's assets while telling off a bullying American president.
"We may be a small country, but we're a great one, too," he says. "The country of William Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter. David Beckham's right foot. David Beckham's left foot, come to that."
He began his career with Manchester United and also played for Real Madrid and Los Angeles, winning titles with all those clubs. He played on loan with AC Milan and made 115 appearances for his country, a record in England for someone other than a goalkeeper.
Beckham's earliest defining moment was an audacious goal for United in 1996, lobbing the ball from the halfway line over the Wimbledon goalkeeper and into the net.
"If you had told me as a young boy I would have played for and won trophies with my boyhood club Manchester United, proudly captained and played for my country over 100 times and lined up for some of the biggest clubs in the world, I would have told you it was a fantasy," Beckham said. "I'm fortunate to have realized those dreams."
From 1992 to 2003, with United, Beckham won six Premier League titles, the Champions League, two FA Cups and the Intercontinental Cup.
Beckham left United in 2003 shortly after manager Alex Ferguson accidentally struck Beckham's eye with a soccer boot. Ferguson announced his retirement from Manchester United last week.
Beckham spent four years in Madrid — winning the 2007 Spanish title before making the surprise move to the Galaxy, where he won titles in 2011 and 2012.
There were highs and lows in Beckham's international career. He was blamed for England's elimination from the 1998 World Cup for his red card against Argentina, but scored the winning goal against the same team at the World Cup four years later.
Beckham responded to jeering at the 2000 European Championship with an obscene hand gesture to England fans, but was lauded by the same supporters little more than a year later when his last-minute free kick against Greece secured a place in the 2002 World Cup.
England dropped Beckham in 2006 for younger players after a quarterfinal exit at that year's World Cup. He returned for the remainder of England's unsuccessful attempt to qualify for the 2008 European Championship.
His last England appearance came against Belarus in October 2009, and he missed the 2010 World Cup because of an Achilles tendon injury.
Asked what led to Thursday's decision, Beckham replied with a laugh: "Probably when (Lionel) Messi was running past me in that home game," referring to a match against Barcelona last month.
Although he was overlooked for a spot on Britain's team for the London Olympics last year, Beckham played a key role in helping the city win the bid to host the games. He also was involved in England's unsuccessful bid to host the 2018 World Cup, and the English Football Association wants to draw on his influence and star power in the future.
Beckham lives in London with his wife and their four children. Victoria Beckham said the couple is "excited about the next chapter in our lives."
Beckham has the right to purchase an expansion team in Major League Soccer, and has said repeatedly that he intends to exercise that option.
There are just two matches left for Beckham — against Brest on Saturday and at Lorient on May 26. He has been giving his salary to a children's charity.
AP National Writer Nancy Armour in Chicago and Trevor Huggins in London contributed to this story.
Rob Harris can be reached at http://twitter.com/RobHarris