I was in the car with my dad, listening to the radio on Chambers Street in Edinburgh, right outside of the iconic Jazz Bar. There was no music to be heard, though – the radio’s static crackled with the same electric excitement that passed through us as it fought for signal. There was a blanket of silence as we waited at the lights. We both knew.
Later that night, in front of the television, it was cooler than I ever imagined. The radio transmitted some of what happened, but not all. He stepped up, captain fantastic, bedecked in a holy crisp white, his closely shaved head adding to the zen-like oneness of his being. The weight of a nation could be felt, England’s fate rested on his boot.
The Mitre ball, its arrows like a dance mat, all organised chaos and confusion, sat at an angle on the grass. He stepped back, his socks rolled slightly lower than normal players, yet he was no Rui Costa imitator. Hands on hips, his eyes looked at the ball and the goal, prescience in his mind as he imagined the trajectory the ball was about to take.
Facing the camera, the captain’s armband snuggled tightly to his arm, as if even it looked for some security during the eternal pause. The whistle blew and he ran up, struck the ball with his easily recognisable silhouette, arms aloft at the last nanosecond and he curled the ball across the face of the goalkeeper who was firmly planted, ivy growing around his ankles, into the top corner of the net. David Beckham had sent England to the 2002 World Cup.
My dad and I, two Scotsmen listening in awe, looked at each other like naughty kids. It was as if we dared a friend to do something and he actually did it. We’re not fans of England’s national side and never have been, but David Beckham wasn’t England; he was an island unto himself. He was a national hero. He was also my hero.
Beckham was an underrated talent, always had been. Yet, his impact in crucial ties, either for the club or on a personal level, cannot be overstated. His promising early life at Manchester United seemed to be in jeopardy as he found himself out on loan at Preston North End during the 1994/95 season. It didn’t take long to impress. On his debut, against Doncaster, Beckham, already known for his exciting dead balls skills, scored from a corner – still a rarity.
He only managed five games with the side, bagging another goal, one of his own personal favourites, a free-kick that showed all the hallmarks of what was yet to come. His posture, positioning and precision were clear in the teenager’s earliest outings. It wasn’t long until Alex Ferguson saw a place in his United side for his young prospect. Already gaining a reputation in footballing circles as a winger with a lethal right foot, he was destined to become something beyond just a footballer, an inevitability that was to be both blessing and curse on his footballing legacy.
The failure to win a trophy the previous season for the first time since 1989 meant Ferguson came under fire in the media for his failure to sign a big-name player to bolster his young squad. The Scotsman’s faith was set firmly on the young crop, affectionately known as Fergie’s Fledglings and included Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Phil and Gary Neville. Playing in 33 league games and finding the net seven times, Beckham was instrumental in United picking up the league and FA Cup double, pinging in an exact corner in the final.
His first trophies didn’t bring the fame that was just around the corner though – that had to wait until the opening game of the 1996/97 campaign. Facing Wimbledon, high from the previous season’s exuberant ending, United were sitting with a comfortable, though unremarkable 2-0 lead. Beckham, wearing the number ten shirt, all youthful good looks with his sandy blonde foppish hair, picked the ball up just before the halfway line and took a quick glance up. He then made a decision that would change his life.
With studied insouciance let loose with his iconic Adidas Predator boots, a hapless Neil Sullivan in goal engaged in a telekinetic battle with Beckham, each one willing the ball to do a different thing. After leaving his foot, 60-yards from the goal, it glided through the air for around three seconds until it crashed into the back of the net, as announced by the roaring cheers of United’s travelling support. A star was born.
Thrusting his arms up, Cool Britannia arrived on the football pitch as Beckham’s roguish smile and innocent face graced newspapers all over the country. Just as soon as he announced himself to the back pages, the same goal would spark an unheard-of interest in the young man who took it.
Truly dedicated, Beckham was first in and last out of training. Ferguson wrote of his young star: “He was extraordinary. When he first came to us he would train morning and afternoon then show up in the evening to join in with the schoolboys. At the start of each season we used to give all the players a bleep test to get a sense of their aerobic fitness, and Beckham was always off the scale.” Ferguson could only get him off the training ground by dragging him. He was an example.
It was one of those relationships, possibly as close as father and son, with the ups and downs, adolescent tantrums and fallouts, that Ferguson had in his managerial career. For now. though, his place on the team was cemented. The goal against Wimbledon was the precursor to the rest of his life, where his willingness to take risks shaped him above all as a person.
Another league title and a PFA Young Player of the Year award summarised his season. It couldn’t have gone any better for the player or the club – until next season. In one of English football’s most iconic seasons in recent decades, United kicked off 1998/99 with Beckham’s presence already compromised. After his sending off for lashing out during the World Cup in France, the national backlash seemed enough to push him away from the United. It’s not as if offers were in short supply.
Getting further stick for his increasingly glamorous life outside of football, where he had cemented his place as a true icon of 90 style – diamanté earrings, bootcut jeans and Timberland boots in tow – Beckham’s star, although seemingly at a meteoric peak, looked set to fall. How couldn’t it? He was on top of the world and for some reason the press and the part of the public that didn’t adore him wanted him to fail. The metrosexual new man jarred with some people’s masculine ideals. Beckham didn’t care.
As the season wore on, United fought through some ugly late wins and exasperating draws redeeming frustrating early losses, up until the final match of the season against Tottenham Hotspur, the side Beckham spent four years of his youth with. Going a goal down, Beckham equalised in this match with a typically thrilling curling effort from well outside of the box, tilting the momentum United’s way, securing a 2-1 win. The league was clinched; now for the trilogy: United’s first Champions League title of Ferguson’s tenure.
It’s no mystery what happened in that match against Bayern Munich, the heroes of the night were unquestionably Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjær. Overlooked in footballing history was the incredible pressure Beckham played under, covering for maverick midfielders Paul Scholes and Roy Keane in the centre, both absent through suspension. Both goals are embedded in the minds of all football fans. The messy, unexpected and exasperating scrambles. Both of them came from a Beckham corner.
This year best defined Beckham’s conflicted place in the hearts of football fans. He won the Treble with United, finished second in both the European Player of the Year and FIFA World Player of the Year awards to Rivaldo, yet it’s also the year that he married Victoria, only months after lifting these titles. He was as big on the field as off of it and flashy weddings rarely go down well with fans on the terrace.
Exclusive magazine deals, extravagant parties and a new child, Brooklyn, were how Beckham became best known, as if his mercurial rise had been in vain. George Best said of the star: “He can’t kick with his left foot, he can’t head, he can’t tackle, and he doesn’t score many goals. Apart from that, he’s alright.” That’s how people look back at his legacy. An alright player, stand up bloke, and a good businessman.
But Beckham was capable of what most weren’t. He broke ground. The first English player to win league titles in four countries – England, Spain, USA and France – he was never afraid to do something first, to weather the backlash if it happened to go wrong. His CV speaks volumes. Manchester United, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain. This was no mere celebrity.
So, who else was going to step up to the plate when England needed someone to perform a miracle and take them through to the 2002 World Cup. You’d be lying to yourself if you thought anyone else was capable in that moment. It was always going to be David Beckham. It was at that moment, as the ball crashed into the net in 2001, fans began to warm to him, accept him as one of their own. Their captain. Different hairstyle every week? Popstar wife? New clothing range and aftershave? It doesn’t matter. It’s David Beckham, one of England’s finest football players, the only one with a pair of golden balls.
By Edd Norval @EddNorval