David Beckham will undoubtedly go down as one of the legends of the game.
An old-school winger blessed with a wand of a right foot; David starred for Manchester United during arguably the greatest period of the club’s history. He captained England at two World Cups, played for some of the biggest clubs in the world and was a catalyst in reigniting a passion for “soccer” in the United States.
Outside of football he has risen above being a brand ambassador and has practically become a brand himself. He married a pop star (even if that pop star was Victoria “Posh Spice” Adams), and became a media darling. He has worked for charities such as UNICEF, contributing to millions of pounds being raised, and was even awarded an OBE. He enjoyed a football career, and a life, that many people can only dream of, and yet it so nearly came crashing down around him…
This is not some rags to riches story. Growing up, the Beckhams were fine. David attended a good school, played football whenever he could, attended church and by enlarge lived a relatively normal life. He bounced around a few youth teams, including the Tottenham Hotspur academy, before signing a youth contract at Manchester United in 1991. As a United fan, young David was living his dream.
As the years went by, Beckham worked and worked. Becoming a professional football player is an arduous journey, one that many players fail, and Beckham knew that only total dedication would be enough to succeed. In years to come, Sir Alex Ferguson would go on to praise Beckham’s dedication to training, complimenting his desire to stay late after training day after day to practice his free kicks.
He tasted success early on, winning the FA Youth Cup in 1992. He was part of a team including Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and the Neville brothers; Gary and Phil. This group would go on to be known as the “class of 92” and formed the spine of the Old Trafford first team for years to come.
The player made his debut in 1994, playing minutes against Port Vale in the League Cup and Galatasaray in the Champions League, a game in which he got his first goal for the club. Sir Alex Ferguson opted to loan him out to Preston North End for the remainder of the 1994-95 season, deciding that playing regular first-team football was the best way to hone young Beckham’s talents. Beckham’s loan proved successful, scoring two goals in five games for PNE, including a goal from a direct free kick – an early indication that set pieces were going to be a big part of his game.
He returned from Preston as a man on a mission. He broke into the United first team and nailed down his place, playing in 40 games across all competitions. From 1995 until 1998 David won two League titles, an FA Cup and two Community Shield titles. He was a rising star and a real fan favourite at Old Trafford and provided the fans with many memorable moments, including a stunning lob from his own half against Wimbledon in 1996.
David Beckham missed out on Euro 96, being deemed too inexperienced for Terry Venables’ squad, however, he was called up for a World Cup qualifying match by Glen Hoddle in September 1996. Beckham became a regular fixture in the England side for the next decade.
Beckham went to the 1998 World Cup in France as part of the England squad and hopes were high. The Three Lions had amassed a strong team and after an impressive showing at Euro 1996 two years previously, England were expected to go far. Hoddle questioned Beckham’s dedication to the team, claiming that he believed his star “wasn’t focused” and subsequently didn’t play him for either of England’s opening two games, a win over Tunisia and a damaging loss to Romania. Focused or not, Beckham was an exceptional player and after losing to the Romanians, the pressure was mounting and questions were being asked as to why he was not included.
He started the final group game, a must-win match against Colombia, and scored the second goal for England. This was a direct free kick and his first goal for England. The fans went wild. Beckham had earned his place in the starting line-up for their knockout game against Argentina and hopes were high that his delivery could be the difference.
His right foot did make the difference. With a tight game tied 2-2, Argentina captain Diego Simeone came crunching into the back of Beckham with an overzealous tackle, flooring the England star in the process. With the foul given, Simeone slowly backed away. David Beckham raised his famous right foot and caught Simeone on the back of his leg. The referee was walking towards the incident after the initial foul and had no option but to flash the red card to Beckham. It was playacting at its worst by Simeone – one of football’s hard-men feigning injury in such a pathetic manner left an ill feeling to those watching it, but rules are rules. Whether it was hard or not, Beckham kicked out. It was a moment of petulance that would plague him for years to come…
England battled hard for the remainder of the game, but 45 minutes in a World Cup knockout match is a long time, particularly given that the majority of the starting XI had played so many minutes in the opening three games. The game went to extra time, and with no breakthrough in the final 30 minutes, a penalty shoot-out was needed. Both teams had scored a penalty in the opening ten minutes of the game, but the pressure was higher now, and England had their penalty reputation to shake off. England were also missing one of their set-piece specialists. Paul Ince and David Batty both missed, but it was David Beckham who was public enemy number one.
David Beckham deserved to be criticised. He made a stupid decision that contributed to his country being eliminated from the FIFA World Cup. Fans booed and jeered him, which was to be expected. What was unexpected was that some of these came from sections of the home support. In future England games and even for Manchester United, he was a pariah. This was tough for David, but being a professional footballer he was used to abuse. The Daily Mirror newspaper even went as far as to print a dart board cover with Beckham’s face over it. The player received a multitude of death threats. Things were unbearable for a period and he was evidently struggling with the crushing pressure he was under.
It was looking like a move away from England was the natural thing for Beckham, with rumours rife that the player was set to move abroad. Sir Alex Ferguson backed him publicly and convinced Beckham to stay. This proved to be a masterstroke, as Manchester United went on to enjoy the most iconic season in the history of the club.
When faced with adversity, you can run from it, or you can fight. Beckham fought. Hard. He enjoyed a Herculean season for the Red Devils, one which saw them win the FA Cup, the Premier League title and the pinnacle of European football, the UEFA Champions League.
The Premier League was a must-win game for Manchester United and went horribly wrong early on as Tottenham went 1-0 up. David Beckham was on hand to score the equaliser to steady the nerves for United. They went on to score a winner and secure their first title of the season. Despite reportedly being under the weather for the FA Cup final a few days later, Beckham started as Teddy Sheringham led the Red Devils to victory over a resilient Newcastle United team.
The crowning glory was the European cup final, in Barcelona, versus Bayern Munich. We all know how this one goes. Bayern Munich scored early and lead for almost the whole game. In the 91st minute, Teddy Sheringham scored from a corner to equalise, only for current Manchester United gaffer Ole Gunnar Solskjær to score the winner in the 93rd. Two goals from two corners. Who delivered those corners? David Beckham. The majority of England still hated him, but it was a begrudging hate. It was now more frustration, “why couldn’t he have done that”, instead of “why did he do that”.
Beckham went on to win the Premier League title for the next two seasons, truly winning over the Manchester United fans. To so many, he was still a figure of hate. At Euro 2000, in a game against Portugal, Beckham was subjected to all kinds of vicious abuse, allegedly concerning his wife and child. He was photographed walking off giving fans the middle finger. Rather than slam it, then-manager Kevin Keegan came out in support of Beckham, saying that he heard some of the comments directed at his player and that he felt ashamed by the action of the fans.
It was not healthy for this level of anger to be directed by England fans towards an England player, and to combat this, Peter Taylor, then caretaker manager of England, appointed Beckham captain of the national team. Maybe this would be enough to get the fans off his back? It was a decision that was upheld by Sven-Göran Eriksson, the next permanent manager of England, and a decision that stood until Beckham’s decision to relinquish the captaincy following the 2006 World Cup.
The qualifiers for the 2002 World Cup were hard going at times. A loss at home to Germany and dropped points against Finland made it look like England were going to have to qualify for Korea/Japan 2002 via the playoffs. A stunning 5-1 win against the Germans in Munich was the turning point, however, and is still deemed by many as the greatest ever England display. A few dropped German points along the way meant that both England and Germany went into the last game on level points. England knew they had to equal Germany’s result – an uninspiring 0-0 draw against Finland. England were slogging it out against a hard-to-beat Greek side and found themselves 2-1 down with the clock ticking down.
With two and a half minutes of stoppage time played, Teddy Sheringham was brought down by the Greek defence. Up stepped David Beckham over the free kick, the weight of the nation hanging on his shoulders. He stepped up and struck the most exquisite free-kick over the wall and past the goalkeeper, sending the Old Trafford crown into raptures. In the commentary box, John Motson was beside himself in celebration “Beckham to take. The 93rd minute at Old Trafford. Beckham!! Yes! Yes! He’s done it! Fantastic! It’s 2-2 and England may still be going to the World Cup automatically!” Beckham ran to the corner flag and just soaked in the moment. The fans who had given him nothing but dogs abuse for so many years were now dancing and singing and cheering on their captain. They may never forgive him for Argentina in ’98, but they will equally never forget him for Greece in 2001.
In a script that even the best Hollywood scriptwriters couldn’t write, England were placed in a group with Argentina in the finals in 2002. In the second game of the group, England inflicted a 1-0 defeat on the South Americans, effectively dumping the pre-tournament favourites out of the World Cup. The game finished 1-0 thanks to a penalty, scored by… you guessed it – David Beckham. His redemption was complete. He had gone full circle.
England were eliminated from the World Cup in the quarter-finals by Brazil. They were put out early at Euro 2004 and again, in 2006, they left the competition prematurely, despite a “golden generation” of talent including a prime Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and many more stars. Beckham was a reliable captain for England but couldn’t get the Three Lions over the line. He eventually left Manchester United in 2003, going on to play for Real Madrid, LA Galaxy, AC Milan and PSG in an intriguing and memorable career. He has gone on to do a plethora of work for charity and always comes across as a genuinely stand-up guy.
David Beckham deserved criticism for his antics in 1998 – although the death threats were certainly far too far. He dug in, however. He fought hard and worked on his game. He improved. He repented. He played some superb football for club and country and managed to go from public enemy number one to England hero; England captain. When he played his last match in 2009, he claimed that he understood that he was unlikely to receive another call-up, but that he would never retire from international football. I am not English, but I can appreciate that David Beckham is a legend of English football and deserves all the credit for his turnaround for the Three Lions.