Never a stranger to the big stage, David Beckham was finally overwhelmed and reduced to tears as he went out in a burst of fireworks and cheers Saturday in his final home game for Paris Saint-Germain before retirement.
Fans chanted his name before the game, and they chanted some more when he was finished. There was an outpouring of hugs, cheers, song and congratulations _ from teammates, opponents and even former president Nicolas Sarkozy.
"To end my career in front of a crowd like that, with players like that, it's very special," Beckham said, adding that emotions had already started overpowering him before he was taken off.
"It started about 20 minutes before that, to be honest. I started thinking and then, you know, I couldn't concentrate by then, and it was difficult," he said. "You know, you try to hold the emotion back because it is what it is, but it's difficult."
There also was some soccer to be played. And Beckham, appointed captain for the game, was involved in two of his team's goals in a 3-1 victory over Brest.
He drew a roaring standing ovation and wiped away tears when he left in the 81st minute. As the match drew to a close, Beckham appeared to tire, putting his hands on his thighs as he leaned forward.
"I want to say thank you to everybody in Paris. To my teammates, to the staff, to the fans," Beckham told the fans after the game. "It's been very special to finish my career here. It could not have been any more special."
One after another, the players then walked out onto a makeshift podium in the middle of the field and thanked the crowd after the game had ended.
When it was Beckham's turn to climb onto the podium, the Beatles song `Hello, Goodbye' rang out as the stadium's big screen beamed pictures of Beckham's short PSG career and flashed another message of thanks.
Draped in the English flag, Beckham sprinted onto the stage.
"Merci, Paris," he said. "I'm very sad to be leaving, but thank you."
PSG coach Carlo Ancelotti praised Beckham's impact on world football.
"He will miss the world of football because he showed a good image every time, really professional," Ancelotti said. "I think that he is sure that this decision was the right moment and we have to respect this. It was a fantastic evening for him. He will have a very good memory of this night."
When Beckham had gone off, the crowd, which included Sarkozy, rose as one and players trotted over to give him a hug. The players from Brest also understood the moment. Charlison Benschop, who had scored Brest's consolation goal a minute earlier, walked over to shake his hand.
With chants of "Dav-eed Beckham, Dav-eed Beckham" echoing, Beckham looked to be on the verge of tears. He applauded the crowd and blew a kiss to his family in the stands. There was time for one more hug _ this one a bit longer from coach Carlo Ancelotti _ before he sat on the bench, maybe for the last time.
"I spoke with David and told him that in my last (ever) game I scored two goals," Ancelotti joked. "I said to him `Maybe tonight you'll score two goals' _ but maybe he didn't have my quality."
The former England captain announced Thursday he is retiring at the end of the season. Ancelotti added that it is unlikely Beckham will play in the final game of the season, away to Lorient on May 26, but that this has not been decided yet.
"I just feel that it's the right time. I feel that I've achieved everything that I could in my career. I wanted to go out as a champion," Beckham said. "I've finished my career in a team that has treated me like I've been here for 10 years.
Beckham has yet to say if he will play in PSG's last game, at Lorient on May 26.
"It's a historic moment," the stadium announcer intoned as Beckham was substituted. Not that the crowd of 44,983 needed a reminder.
As Beckham walked off slowly, applauding the fans, his hair uncharacteristically bedraggled, his mother, Sandra, wiped away a tear in the stands.
His replacement, Ezequiel Lavezzi, gave Beckham a big hug and then ruffled the fashion maven's hair. Beckham immediately swept it back into place.
After the final whistle, teammates hoisted Beckham off the ground and repeatedly tossed him in the air, putting a smile back on his face.
The celebrations kicked in as the lights were turned off, light sticks were held up and the crowd broke into song. The fireworks then flew into the night sky, accompanied by an `Ole!' as each one went off.
"After 22 years of playing football I'm going to take a few months to enjoy time with my family," Beckham said, before adding that he still wants to stay involved with PSG. "It's been a very special place for me."
Before the game, the 38-year-old Englishman was given a rousing reception at Parc des Princes. Spectators broke into chants of "Merci, David" when his name was read over the stadium speaker.
PSG's players walked onto the field to a thunderous reception, with Nirvana's "Smells like Teen Spirit" reverberating. PSG right back Christophe Jallet dyed his hair in the blue, white and red of the French flag while the players all wore next season's team jerseys.
The game brought a stronger security presence, with about 150 riot police forming a ring inside the stadium in the second half. The show of force followed Monday night's riots at Trocadero plaza, where a celebration to mark the French title turned violent.
This was Beckham's 14th game and fifth start since joining PSG in a surprise move on the last day of the transfer window. He was appointed captain before the game.
PSG clinched the league title last weekend, making Beckham the first English player to win the championship in four countries after title success with Manchester United, Real Madrid and the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Beckham was involved in the opening goal in the seventh minute. His free kick found Clement Chantome, whose pass released Zlatan Ibrahimovic as he broke into the penalty area down the right side. Ibrahimovic struck the ball into the opposite corner.
Ibrahimovic almost scored a minute later when Beckham's superb long pass sent him through, but the imposing Swede hesitated between heading the ball over goalkeeper Alexis Thebaux or taking it past him. Theabaux snatched the ball from him.
Beckham set up the second goal in the 32nd with a corner kick from the left. Blaise Matuidi's poorly hit ball bounced into the ground and looped over Thebaux's outstretched arm. Ibrahimovic blasted in a free kick from 30 yards into the top left corner for the third goal, setting a personal record with his 29th league goal of the season.
Early in the second half, Beckham almost set up striker Kevin Gameiro with a curling cross from the right that the striker headed wide.
It would not be long before Beckham was gone, but the noise and the celebration and the fireworks still had a ways to go.