The prospect of putting on his beloved England jersey in a fourth FIFA World Cup drove David Beckham through three seasons of Major League Soccer and two loan spells with Italy's AC Milan.
With that dream now dead after Beckham's devastating Achilles injury Sunday, where does the English icon go from here?
Beckham ruptured his left Achilles tendon late in Milan's 1-0 Serie A victory over Chievo Verona and was slated to undergo surgery Monday in Finland. Speculation as to how soon he can return to the field or whether he will return at all has since been the obsessive focus of newspapers, radio talk shows and soccer blogs around the world.
For now, it seems very unlikely Beckham will be able to play in this summer's FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
Beckham also was to return to the Los Angeles Galaxy after the June 11-July 11 tournament, but that plan, like so many others, has been placed on hold.
Beckham could be back on the field within eight months, but his age -- he'll be 35 years old in May -- and motivation will go a long way in determining how quickly (or whether) he resumes his career and whether he'll be the player he was before the injury.
The injury was a fluke. In the 89th minute of a 0-0 game, Beckham had the ball at his feet with nobody near him. He shifted his weight, took a step and started hopping on his right foot toward the Milan bench. He motioned with his hands that something was broken, then dropped to his hands and knees and buried his head in the turf.
Beckham was overcome with emotion as he was taken off the field via stretcher, and Milan teammate Ignazio Abate later told reporters, "He's not doing well; he was in tears in the dressing room, he wasn't saying a lot. This has affected us all."
After the game, Milan manager Leonardo said, "Beckham's injury makes us feel terrible. David understood immediately that he had torn his Achilles tendon. He felt the muscle begin to come up, which is a typical symptom when you break an Achilles tendon. This is a real blow. He is an extraordinary guy, and today's game proves it yet again."
Milan's club doctor, Jean Pierre Meersseman, confirmed the injury, and Finnish specialist Sakari Orava, who performed the surgery, told the BBC it would be at least three months before Beckham could resume training.
"To start kicking and playing football will take about three months," Orava said. "For maximal performances and maximum kicks and jumps, maybe it takes one month more, three to four months before one is able to do light playing."
And it could take longer.
"It's remotely possible he may be running in three months," British sports physician Tom Crisp said on BBC Radio 5 Live. "The chances of him being fit to play for England are nonexistent. It takes six to eight weeks minimum for the tendon itself to heal. [His calf] will have been immobilized completely for that length of time. Therefore it would take many, many weeks to strengthen the calf and the Achilles tendon before he can load it properly, and then he's got to get his fitness back on top of that. The Achilles tendon applies all the force of the calf muscle and is involved in running to a great extent."
Beckham joined the Galaxy amid great fanfare in July 2007, and his arrival was heralded as a major stroke for MLS because it spiked interest in the young league and boosted sales of memorabilia, primarily Galaxy jerseys carrying Beckham's name and number. His five-year deal was reported to be worth $250 million, but it was nothing of the sort -- he was guaranteed $6.5 million per year; the rest was estimates of what he could make through sole control of his image rights.
But Beckham's first full MLS campaign in 2008 was a major disappointment. The Galaxy were a poor side, there was internal strife in the club -- largely the doing of Beckham's handlers -- and he seemed disinterested most of the season despite serving as the team's captain.
However, Beckham, desperate for a chance to play in the 2010 World Cup, turned things around. He engineered a loan deal with Milan and was stunning for the Rossoneri. Then he continued that form when he returned to the Galaxy in July 2009, and his performance was pivotal in L.A.'s run to the MLS Cup final.
England manager Fabio Capello, who had encouraged Beckham to seek a loan deal with Milan, felt his experience and leadership would be an important asset for the English World Cup team. His return to Milan in January would lead to South Africa and what Beckham hoped would be a triumphant return to the Galaxy once the World Cup was over.
Then came Sunday. And, with it, many questions:
Is Beckham's career over?
That really depends on what Beckham wants to do. He's always been diligent about his fitness, is by most accounts a terrific teammate and has returned from injury many times before. But with the 2010 FIFA World Cup gone, will he lack the motivation to come back?
Andy Cole, Beckham's former teammate with England and Manchester United, has no doubts.
"He'll come back from the injury. I don't think he'll want to retire on this note," Cole told BBC Radio 5 Live. "He'll work his socks off to try to get himself fit."
Will he play for the Galaxy in 2010?
If Cole's right, it's possible. The recovery window from a torn Achilles tendon is about five months to a year, and Beckham is a world-class athlete, so perhaps five to eight months is possible. If it's five, he'll be ready for the Galaxy's stretch drive and the MLS playoffs. If it's eight, maybe he'll be back for a playoff game or two.
Will Beckham play for the Galaxy again?
There's no reason he won't unless he's ready to hang up his boots. He has two years remaining on his contract, and he and his wife, Victoria, love Los Angeles. Beckham also has standing offers to own an MLS club and serve as an ambassador for the league after his playing days are done.
What does Beckham's absence mean for MLS?
Major League Soccer loses its biggest draw for at least a spell and can expect overseas coverage to recede in Beckham's absence. It could mean a decline in sales of apparel and memorabilia, too, but it's hardly as troubling as the existing labor unrest.
MLS players have voted to authorize a strike before the March 25 season opener if their union cannot reach agreement with the league on a new collective bargaining agreement to replace the one that expired at the end of January. The biggest issue concerns free agency and the impact of the league's single-entity structure on player contracts.
What does Beckham's absence mean for the Galaxy?
The Galaxy have been preparing to play the first four months of this season without Beckham anyway, so there will be little immediate impact. If Beckham cannot or chooses not to return, it will affect performance at the box office and possibly on the field. Beckham and Landon Donovan are the Galaxy's biggest stars for a reason, but others could step up: Clint Mathis is an intriguing addition, and three young Brazilians on loan from Sao Paulo, Leonardo, a 22-year-old center back, Alex Cazumba, a 21-year-old left back, and Juninho, a 21-year-old center midfielder, may provide a spark.
What does this mean for Brand Beckham?
Beckham is the biggest star in the sport, but he's hardly the best player, and he and his partners make millions off his image rights. Asia is a particularly fertile market. Some of that brand will wane after he retires, and at nearly 35, he has only so much time left. Not playing in the World Cup will certainly impact the bottom line, but the man has more than enough money to survive.
What does this mean for England's World Cup chances?
England won't fret much without Beckham, although his knack for creating important goals -- from free kicks and crosses, mostly -- has served the Three Lions well. More worrisome is the status of Tottenham's Aaron Lennon, Capello's top choice on the right flank. Lennon, 22, aggravated a groin injury last month that he'd sustained in December, and his manager, Harry Redknapp, says there's no certainty he'll be ready to go by June.
Man City's Adam Johnson, who has never played for England's national team but has experience with the under-19s and U-21s, also could be in the mix. He was part of Capello's preliminary squad for England's friendly earlier this month against Egypt, but he did not make the final roster. Johnson, 22, scored a stunning goal Sunday to give the Blues a 1-1 draw with Sunderland.
Is this the end of Beckham and England?
The injury almost certainly brings Beckham's stellar international career to a close after 115 matches -- the most for an English field player, second overall only to goalkeeper Peter Shilton's 125 from 1970 to 1990 -- and deprives one of the game's classiest and most popular players from a fitting finish on sports' biggest stage.
Beckham scored 17 goals for England and played in three World Cups -- France 1998, Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany 2006 -- and, again, he's made no secret that his primary motivation with the Galaxy and during the loan spells at Milan was to make Capello's 23-man roster for South Africa.
But don't assume, unless he retires, that he's going to quit the national team. "If we won the World Cup and I equaled Peter Shilton's record in the final, I'd still find it hard to walk away from playing for England," Beckham said in December. "Even if that dream came true, I'd still make myself available to play for my country. I'd love to still be involved in some way, whether it's actually playing a game or not. My passion for the team and the country is that strong. That's never going to change."
And Beckham still might make it to South Africa, at least as an ambassador and representative of England's bid to host the 2018 World Cup.
Is this the end of MLS allowing its players to go elsewhere in loan deals?
Not a chance. The movement of players around the world in this sport has little in common with the customs of American sport. Rarely do you see trades. It's all "transfers" -- mostly clubs buying players from other clubs, sometimes for astronomical sums -- and loans, which can be very valuable.
Beckham's and Donovan's loan deals are rarities. Usually, top players aren't loaned out, but MLS plays a shorter season than nearly every other league and doesn't follow the European calendar, which generally runs from August to May or June.
The most common loans send young players who otherwise would be sitting on the bench to clubs that can provide needed playing time. Sometimes there's an option in the loan agreement to buy the player's contract, and sometimes there isn't.
Yes, players can get hurt while on loan, but as Galaxy coach Bruce Arena told The Associated Press on Sunday, "Players get hurt whether they're on loan or not. Injuries are unfortunately part of the game."
Beckham's first loan to Milan proved valuable to the Galaxy. He returned refreshed and in strong form after a superb half-season in Italy.
And Donovan, who flew home Sunday to rejoin the Galaxy, just finished an outstanding two months with England's Everton. Expect him to be in top form this season.