This feature was taken from our COPA Collective partners, These Football Times. Join Will Sharp as he details the events between 1998 and 2001 that transformed David Beckham from public enemy into national treasure.
As innate incubators for narrative and drama against which the daily mundanities of life are invited to be forgotten about for two-hour stretches, as stories are told, stars are born and dreams are achieved, the engrossing worlds of film and football are at times indistinguishable from one another.
On occasion the two even collide to, some may say, intriguing effect. The often reprehensible resulting debris is premiered at the expense of fans of both mediums, as football remains one spectacle that may never receive accurate portrayal on the big screen.
There is, however, one melding of film and football that is entirely unique and stands tall above all others. It is not a film about football, though. Instead, it is a true footballing event that is so filmic in its context, so heavily rooted in the very nuances that make a typical Hollywood protagonist’s rise from the ashes so compelling, it is almost hard to believe it was not concocted at the whim of a director or scriptwriter.
This is the story of David Beckham and the goal against Greece that redeemed his reputation, completing his Dusfresnian journey to freedom from a prison of his own unintentional design.
The two most indispensable acts in the narrative of David Beckham’s explosive England career took place 1,191 days apart, in stadiums separated by 1,012km, hinging upon two unforgettable events that together lasted barely 20 seconds.
The first: 30 June 1998, Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, Saint-Étienne, Argentina vs England. The score tied at 2-2, goals from Englishmen Alan Shearer and Michael Owen equaling those scored by Gabriel Batistuta and Javier Zanetti for Argentina, the second half was just a couple of minutes old.
Beckham attempted to control a stray headed pass with his chest but was floored by a robust challenge from behind courtesy of Diego Simeone. The Argentine followed Beckham to the deck, landing gracelessly on top of him. Unappreciative of the so-called tackle, and the subsequent knee and hand pressed firmly into his back, the England number 7 foolishly directed a tame frustrated kick at the legs of Simeone.
The act failed to escape the accusing gaze of the referee. Simeone collapsed into a heap, arms thrust into the air, gesticulating despairingly in the direction of the official. Simeone and Beckham soon climbed back to their feet to be met by a flash of two cards. Yellow for Simeone. Red for Beckham. England were down to ten men.
The score remained level at 2-2 until the end of extra time, after which penalties would decide the winner. Beckham watched on, relinquished of all power and influence, from his tenebrous vantage point in the tunnel beside the pitch.
Berti and Shearer stepped up first for their respective countries and both scored. Crespo and Ince followed and both missed. Verón, Merson, Gallardo, Owen and Ayala all then traded spot-kick duties beating their opposing ‘keeper from 12 yards, but Batty could not. Argentina won 4-3 on penalties and marched on to the quarter-finals as England were sent home. Beckham’s world began to crumble around him.
The second: 6 October 2001, Old Trafford, Manchester, England vs Greece. “Foul on Sheringham – free-kick. Will Beckham have another attempt at goal? We’ve played two-and-a-half minutes of stoppage time. England trail by two goals to one. Beckham could raise the roof here with a goal.” Commentator Gary Bloom set a scene of increasing desperation, his words not so much describing a possible eventuality as pleading for its immediate fruition. Then it happened.
“I don’t believe it!” Beckham’s last-minute free-kick sailed majestically into the top corner and was followed by two distinct sounds: a lashing of net and a crash of jubilation from the Old Trafford crowd. Beckham wheeled away in celebration, arms out-stretched, smile ever-broadening, bathed in complete and utter euphoria. “David Beckham scores the goal to take England all the way to the World Cup finals. Give that man a knighthood!”
A knighthood. Evidently Gary Bloom commanded little to no deciding say on the esteemed individuals included on the Queen’s annual honours list, but his mere mention of Beckham’s deserving of such a decoration presented a stark contrast from the abuse and vilification he had once received.
Three years before, having contributed heavily to England’s early exit at the 1998 World Cup, across the country Beckham’s name was mud. Then, in 2001, having scored the goal that would carry England triumphantly to the 2002 World Cup, he was the nation’s hero.
A fitting climax to the single most cinematic occasion English international football has ever seen, Beckham took his final steps along the road to redemption and his transformation from reviled to revered was complete. Relief washed over him, for it had been an arduous endeavour.
“We’ve played two-and-a-half minutes of stoppage time. England trail by two goals to one. Beckham could raise the roof here with a goal.”
When a 23-year-old David Beckham stepped off the plane having arrived back in England after the 1998 World Cup, he fell into the arms of his father and wept, crying in a way he hadn’t done since he was a small child.
There was to be no consoling him. He may not have missed his team’s vital penalty in the shootout but he felt as though he was responsible for his country’s failings. He should have been on the pitch to prevent the game from ever going that far and he felt the need to atone for his immaturity. Yet he rightly had no idea of the level of vitriolic abuse that awaited him on home soil.
The backlash began in the national tabloids. The Mirror ran the headline “10 Heroic Lions, One Stupid Boy” while The Sun ran an image of a dartboard complete with David Beckham’s boyish face at the centre: “Still bitter? Take your fury out on our David Beckham dartboard,” encouraged its vile caption. The nation soon followed suit.
Effigies of Beckham were hanged and burned on the streets, death threats were hand-delivered through the door of his home encased in envelopes that held bullets, while journalists harassed members of the Beckham family intent on asking them if they understood the extent to which Beckham had betrayed them and the rest of their country. One mistake on a football pitch, one ill-judged flick of his foot, had led to this.
Beckham escaped this new hell for just a few weeks, holidaying with family and resting in anticipation for the upcoming domestic season, before returning to duties with Manchester United. He vowed to focus purely on his football. From the stands, for months, Beckham was the subject of endless shouts, chants and songs decrying his stupidity and calling for his head. In many ways, he was treated as though he were less than human.
As a result, the mental strength evidenced by the young footballer in dealing with the abuse was praised by almost everybody close to him during that time. His manager and teammates were astounded by his ability to simply continue playing.
In the immediate upcoming season, United experienced unparalleled success, winning an unprecedented treble of Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League trophies. Beckham was integral to their almost every triumph, and was even recognised in being named runner-up in the European Footballer of the Year awards, finishing only behind Ronaldo, who had taken his adopted continent by storm with his displays at Inter.
But still Beckham had unfinished business. He had been able to take in the occasions when lifting his team’s trophies, to savour the moments and celebrate with his family and teammates. But, in fitting with his obsessive-compulsive nature, he couldn’t rest until he had made right his wrongs for his country.
Sadly, if the domestic season that directly followed Beckham’s 1998 heartbreak was smooth sailing for Manchester United, the subsequent years for England were the very opposite. England were in disarray. Guided through an abysmal qualifying campaign for Euro 2000 by a combination of Glenn Hoddle then Kevin Keegan, England scraped through to the competition proper by the skin of their teeth.
In a qualification group consisting of the comparatively meagre powers of Sweden, Poland, Bulgaria and Luxembourg, with just three wins, four draws and a loss from their eight games, England finished second, nine points behind group winners Sweden. Despite a turgid 1-0 loss at home, they squeezed beyond rivals Scotland by winning their Euro qualification playoff tie 2-1 across two legs.
Yet at the tournament matters only worsened, and under the weight of expectation from their watching nation, England buckled. Their fragile nerve deserted them, their temperate abilities waned and, after a loss against Romania condemned them to a third-place finish in the group, their competition was over.
Keegan departed in October 2000 after a 1-0 loss to Germany in England’s opening qualifier for the 2002 World Cup, reportedly resigning while holed up in the Wembley toilets after hastily exiting the stage to the sound of a 75,000-strong chorus of boos, leaving Howard Wilkinson to take over for a single game before Peter Taylor was made caretaker manager.
He too was also entrusted with just a single match, a forgettable 1-0 defeat to Italy, but, during his short stay at the England helm, Taylor would make one particular decision that would help to impart a legacy destined to outlast his own. He chose to make Beckham the captain of England. With the midfielder’s commitment certified and his confidence channelled, albeit by a temporary manager, Beckham was given the boost he needed.
“With players like David Beckham, you do feel there are certain moments of destiny.”
Beyond Taylor’s briefest of tenures, the Football Association then took the unique and controversial decision to employ a non-native to marshall their nation’s football team, looking to Swedish coach Sven-Göran Eriksson for guidance.
When asked why he had chosen to allow David Beckham to remain as his team’s captain, the new manager’s response was far from emphatic, alluding to it simply being a matter of convenience: “I am sure this will work out well with David. [Beckham being captain] worked out against Italy,” he reassured. “Why should it not against Spain?” Beckham’s performance while wearing the armband against Spain permitted no such room for doubt.
Beckham retained the captaincy as England followed their opening day loss to Germany with a frail 0-0 draw away to Finland, though he also oversaw their winning of the reverse fixture at Anfield.
Victories then came against Albania in Tirana and Greece in Athens before Eriksson’s men were required to do battle with Germany again, this time in Munich. In what remains quite possibly the Three Lions’ greatest foreign conquest of the 21st century, England defeated Germany 5-1 at the Olympiastadion.
After seeing off Albania at St James’ Park, just one fixture remained. England would face Greece at Old Trafford with the chance to secure top spot in Group Nine and a guaranteed place at the World Cup.
What followed from Beckham could rightly be described as the most complete performance from an England captain for almost half a century. For portions of the encounter, such was his phenomenal endeavour and the consequential gulf to that of his compatriots, it seemed as though Beckham was the only Englishman giving his all in his country’s final group game.
An invaluable asset from far more than simply set-piece situations, Beckham remained a constant thorn in the side of the Greeks for the duration of the match and it was from a free-kick entirely of his own making that England equalised after Angelos Charisteas had given Greece a shock first-half lead.
Receiving the ball from a long Nigel Martyn throw, camped inside his own half, Beckham brought the ball under his control then immediately galloped down the left wing.
He advanced with purpose, using his shoulder to fend off one defender’s challenge before cutting back, retreating in the hope of finding space to cross, and shouldering away another. Beckham cut back again, dragging the ball behind him and spinning away from the second defender, before throwing a feint to weave inside, only to be floored illegally.
“Almost a personal crusade from the captain here,” noted commentator Martin Tyler. Naturally, Beckham volunteered to take the free-kick.
Whipped devilishly, deep into the box, Beckham’s cross was met by the head of Teddy Sheringham with his first touch of the game, having just entered the fray beyond the hour mark, as his flick looped the ball high over the stranded Greece goalkeeper and into the net.
England were level but their parity would last mere moments. Less than a minute after Sheringham’s strike, the ball was cushioned by Greek feet in the area again, as England’s shoddy defence failed to clear another hopeful punt into their territory, and Demis Nikolaidis obliged with a goalward prod beyond Martyn to regain the underdogs’ lead. England had it all to do again.
The score remained at 2-1 until late into stoppage time when Beckham was handed one final opportunity from a free-kick at the expense of Kostas Konstantinidis who was adjudged to have imposed himself on Sheringham unfairly.
“One thing you can be sure of, there won’t be many chances coming along after this,” Andy Gray remarked, fully aware of just how little time was left for England. As Beckham maintained his trademark stance, some 10 yards behind the ball and slightly left of centre, Martin Tyler teased a flash of prophetic inspiration. “With players like David Beckham,” he began, “you do feel there are certain moments of destiny.” Beckham’s very next act ensured his destiny was made to his own detailed specifications.
“David Beckham scores the goal to take England all the way to the World Cup finals. Give that man a knighthood!”
It was arguably the most cinematic moment in the history of the England national team; the player most in need of redemption, the captain, with the final meaningful kick of the game from his trademark free-kick, scoring the goal when his country needed it most.
The event’s undeniable film-like quality, much like a meticulous auteur’s dictating of every minute element of their masterpiece, owes thanks to another small detail which helped to further embed its narrative. That detail was, remarkably, Beckham’s hair. Though it seems odd to dwell on such a seeming meniality, his look enforced his transformation.
Far from the silly young boy he once was, prone to impudent acts like the one in France, Beckham, having shorn off his shapely curtains in favour of a far sterner almost menacing cut, looked like a changed man and the player’s fight on the field coincided with his new image. Should the tale have been born from fiction with the camera aimed at Beckham in the lead up to the game, you can almost picture him in front of the mirror, shaving his head, symbolising the seismic divergence of his character.
It must be said that the necessity of Beckham’s free-kick, for the sole good of England’s on-field aspirations, has through its repeated retellings over subsequent years morphed in nature like a Chinese whisper and taken on greater importance than perhaps it had at the time.
The fact remains, if Beckham’s free-kick had found Row Z as opposed to the top corner of the net, leaving his countrymen to succumb to a 2-1 loss, a place in the World Cup could still have awaited England, simply as a reward for producing a two-legged victory against Ukraine.
Yet the off-field importance of Beckham’s free-kick, in all its inimitable context, remains an altogether different proposal which cannot be oversold.
With one mindless swoop of his right foot, aimed in the direction of Diego Simeone before the eyes of the watching world in 1998, Beckham inadvertently broke the hearts of his nation and incurred a country’s wrath like he could never have predicted. In 2001, again with just a single wave of the wand that was his righteous right foot, his curse was lifted and he found his salvation.
Ultimately the 2002 World Cup would end in heartbreak for England, just as every major tournament had done for generations. Sadly no major trophy with England would define Beckham’s time as captain of his country, but few captains of his once-great nation can sing a tune any different to his.
Few players, when adorned with their country’s colours, cared as much as Beckham. In the nation’s history, there has perhaps never been an England captain so willing to die on the field should it mean ensuring success for his team. His passion and patriotism was largely unparalleled and, finally, in his virtuoso performance against Greece, Beckham proved it on the pitch.
Not many players have careers so succinctly represented by such distinguishable high and low points as David Beckham’s did for his country. Certainly, few are made to climb their way from the pits of damnation to the peaks of deification in the way he did. And, there is no doubt, no player’s journey found its end in a fashion quite like Beckham’s, in a manner so dramatic it is almost hard to believe it wasn’t performed from a script.
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