Perhaps the nicest thing about the reaction to David Beckham's retirement this week was the sense, almost immediately, of the many layers of Beckham-ness being peeled away, of the Beckham personage being threshed and fluffed and generally dangled out of an upstairs bedroom window, chaff scattered to the winds – pants, haircuts, porcine insemination – to leave only fond reminiscence of his brilliance as a footballer.
Beckham will be genuinely missed, in part for his unstinting commitment, relentlessly hobbling about the pitch like a faithful bandy-legged horse. But mainly for that single super power, the right foot that seemed to have its own distinct and separate mini-brain, a whirring starship enterprise bridge located somewhere above the big toe and crammed with scampering minions, constantly firing up the phasers, setting course at warp speed three, and reeling off the long-distance side-foot, the crossfield skim, the top-corner yawn, hallmarked in each case with the fussiness of a genuine craftsman.
At a time of wider departures it makes you wonder a little also about those who remain behind. In particular John Terry, one of the few enduring fixtures of what feels like a domestic era that has now passed, and who again emerged this week from the wings to lift a major European trophy.
There was a lot of talk about Terry's latest fancy-dress intrusion in Amsterdam, the quick-change emergence from the stands in pristine matchday kit that was, in truth, entirely harmless and even quite sweet, like the kind of boy who insists on wearing his Spider-Man suit to a wedding.
For many the wider assumption here was that this simply exposed what are perceived to be Terry's worst traits: yahooing self-promotion, mendaciousness, leaving the washing-up and all the rest of it. In fact the opposite is true. No matter what your opinion of Terry, those full-kit gatecrash celebrations actually show him at his best, providing a little glimpse into his own private magic dust, those rather opaque footballing qualities that have provided the enduring ballast to a career that might otherwise have been scuttled many times.
This is not to defend Terry on wider issues. It was above all the failure simply to own up and apologise that makes the Anton Ferdinand incident doubly wretched.
Although, it must be said that even pre-racism controversy Terry had become something of a repository in English football for all that is bad, a convenient touchstone for absolute awfulness, like Piers Morgan or tonsillitis, not to mention other often unvoiced feelings of wider anxiety. You get the feeling, and the details aren't yet clear, that he is somehow responsible for Ukip, for disaffected inner city youth, for the failings of the high-speed rail system. There is a kind of contagion here. If you stand near him in a lift you're 50% more likely to walk out of it a benefit cheat. If you think about him too much, or voice favourable opinions on, say, his tackling, you will start to forget how to do basic maths, or find yourself drunkenly chucking chips around at the bus shelter or riding a very small bike defiantly along the centre of a crowded shopping street.
In spite of which there remains something oddly vital about Terry's presence. To the extent that to dismiss him entirely because of those parts of him you may find dislikable is also to miss something of substance.
First, though, it is necessary to consider the unique environment at Chelsea, a club that has been subjected to the irradiating effects of billionaire ownership for almost a decade. And also to acknowledge the basic inanity of the billionaire himself, a creature whose existence is essentially the complete opposite of sport, with all its ragged edges and imperfections. Whereas the billionaire lifestyle is pegged out around a notion of absolute certainties, a sense of being continually replete, recumbent on a giant mattress made of veal, helicoptered from triple-glazed pyramid to glass-walled enormo-drome. To the billionaire, sport, with all its glorious uncertainty, is something to be tamed and killed, machine-gunned with money, until even the grandest football club begins to resemble some stretched and burnished trophy wife, muzzled beneath a paste of high-end slap and stitch.
At which point it is tempting to compare the performances of Manchester City and Chelsea in their respective end-of-era cup finals. City of course were flat in defeat by Wigan, a team of declining celebrity electricity now in need of their routine two-yearly defibrilation. No doubt City will rise again, but compare this sense of Gatsby‑ish ennui with Chelsea's air of purpose against a Benfica team that had them hanging on in the first half.
There is still an extraordinary internal momentum to the Chelsea project. It just keeps on driving forward: 11 trophies and counting in the years since The Event. Led by a stick-on manager, surrounded by departures and uncertainties, Chelsea just looked incredibly happy in Amsterdam. And Terry, of course, is a significant constant in all this. This is his quality: not speed, athleticism or technical skills. During Fabio Capello's spell as England manager one of his assistants was asked why Capello seemed so stuck on Chelsea's captain. The answer was simple. Every other England player seemed diminished just by putting on the England shirt. All except for Terry, who really is the kind of person who, while everyone else is vomiting next door, or staring at their laces, strides about japing and cajoling and generally looking absolutely delighted to be there. He isn't the brains or the heart or the spine of his team. He is instead the bowels, the buried colonic centre. He ensures that Chelsea still smell like a football team.
There have of course always been players who make other players play. But the Premier League is the most artificial environment yet created, one in which the in-house motivator, the equivalent of a tot of whisky and a service revolver in the spine, can seem ever more necessary, to be retained even beyond his own basic footballing usefulness.
And for all the broader charge sheet, Terry remains the player who more than perhaps any other tells us what it takes to win and succeed within the peculiar airlessness of billionairism, with all its gilded incoherence, its sacrifices and its oddly stirring triumphs.