Beck­ham: Pub­lic en­emy No.1

FFT re­mem­bers how Eng­land’s poster boy turned into a pariah

FourFourTwo - - CONTENTS - Words Chris Flana­gan

On June 30, 1998, one pe­tu­lant flick of a right foot changed David Beck­ham’s life. His red card against Ar­gentina sparked out­rage across Eng­land. Well, ev­ery­where but Old Traf­ford...

David Beck­ham looked out of the win­dow and spot­ted a man star­ing back at him. It was late at night, and Beck­ham was alone in­side his home in Greater Manch­ester. He’d been fast asleep when a loud noise out­side had roused him, send­ing his dogs into a bark­ing frenzy. The man stood out­side his house: arms folded, mo­tion­less, ex­pres­sion­less. Beck­ham stared at him, and he stared back – for five min­utes. “What do you want?” Beck­ham even­tu­ally shouted out of the win­dow. But there was no re­ply, the man just kept star­ing. At that mo­ment in 1998, Beck­ham was the most hated man in Eng­land. Even in his own home, he no longer felt safe.

A few weeks ear­lier, the 23-year-old had been the vil­lain of Eng­land’s World Cup de­feat to Ar­gentina. He’d stood in the car park out­side the Stade Ge­of­froy-guichard, sob­bing un­con­trol­lably into the arms of his fa­ther while the Ar­gentina squad de­parted on their team bus, twirling shirts above their heads in cel­e­bra­tion.

For Ar­gentina, the next stop was a World Cup quar­ter-fi­nal with the Nether­lands. For Beck­ham, what lay ahead was the most chal­leng­ing 12 months of his life. He’d be sub­jected to the big­gest hate cam­paign any Eng­land player has ever had to face.

As it turned out, it was an ex­pe­ri­ence that helped to de­fine him. In the space of a year, he trans­formed him­self from the most de­spised fig­ure in the coun­try to a Treble win­ner.

A day be­fore the last 16 tie with Ar­gentina, Beck­ham had been in the toi­let on Eng­land’s team coach, jump­ing up and down with de­light. En route to Saint-eti­enne, he’d popped into the loo to phone fiancée Vic­to­ria, who had some news for him: she was preg­nant with their first child. Ev­ery­thing seemed to be fall­ing into place, af­ter a dif­fi­cult start to the World Cup.

The Manch­ester United mid­fielder had gone into the tour­na­ment as Eng­land’s main man – Adi­das pro­jected his face onto the White Cliffs of Dover, ac­com­pa­nied by the words ‘Eng­land Ex­pects’. His form for club and coun­try, plus his en­gage­ment to a Spice Girl, had turned him into a megas­tar, and even the man him­self was strug­gling to get his head around it all.

“The other day I was round at Vic­to­ria’s house and the post­man rang the bell to de­liver some­thing,” Beck­ham told Four­fourtwo shortly be­fore that World Cup. “I an­swered the door and his jaw dropped. He said, ‘Blimey, I never thought I’d see a leg­end this early in the morn­ing’. That’s just daft – I’m no leg­end. I can’t be­lieve this is all hap­pen­ing to me.”

Beck­ham at­tracted more at­ten­tion a week be­fore the World Cup, when he hol­i­dayed with Vic­to­ria at El­ton John’s house on the French Riviera and stepped out in a sarong – de­signed by Jean-paul Gaultier.

Eng­land boss Glenn Hod­dle was grow­ing in­creas­ingly unim­pressed by the me­dia cir­cus sur­round­ing his star man. Beck­ham was the only player to fea­ture in ev­ery qual­i­fy­ing match, but when Hod­dle named his team for the open­ing game of the World Cup against Tu­nisia, he de­liv­ered a bomb­shell. The mid­fielder was dropped. “I don’t think you are fo­cused,” Hod­dle told a be­mused Beck­ham. “How can you think that?” Beck­ham replied, in­sis­tent his celebrity sta­tus hadn’t dis­tracted him from his foot­balling du­ties.

Beck­ham had been even more con­fused when he’d been or­dered to at­tend the pre-match press con­fer­ence, with the line-up still a se­cret. “Ev­ery­body could see he wasn’t happy,” re­calls Stu­art Mathieson, who trav­elled out to that World Cup as the Manch­ester United re­porter for the Manch­ester Evening News. “I got to know him pretty well. My first

pre-sea­son tour was in 1995 and David was on it – I didn’t know a lot about him then. He was just the pleas­ant young lad I’d sat next to at break­fast one morn­ing in the team ho­tel.

“The sea­son af­ter, he was at the Mid­land Ho­tel in Manch­ester to pick up a lo­cal award he had won. I went to the toi­let and the next minute he was stood next to me ask­ing, ‘What am I sup­posed to say, Stu­art?’ I said, ‘Well, just thank ev­ery­one who’s helped you and that kind of thing’. When­ever I see him now, all of the speeches he gives and the com­pany he’s in, think­ing back to then, it’s quite re­mark­able re­ally – he pro­gressed more than I did!

“I thought David han­dled him­self ex­tremely well when we sat down with him for that press con­fer­ence in France, but I know Alex Fer­gu­son was quite an­noyed when he found out that he’d been put in front of the me­dia in that sit­u­a­tion.”

A few days later, the Red Devils supremo used a na­tional news­pa­per col­umn to cas­ti­gate his Eng­land coun­ter­part.

Beck­ham was on the sub­sti­tutes’ bench again against Ro­ma­nia, but started against Colom­bia – curl­ing in a free-kick to help Eng­land avoid early elim­i­na­tion. Back in the team af­ter the press had de­manded his re­call, he was be­ing lauded as a hero.

But against Ar­gentina in Saint-eti­enne, ev­ery­thing changed. Adi­das’ pre-match promo, ac­com­pa­nied by im­agery of Beck­ham, proved to be prophetic in a dif­fer­ent way than they’d ever in­tended. “Af­ter tonight, Eng­land vs Ar­gentina will be re­mem­bered for what a player did with his feet,” it said, ref­er­enc­ing Diego Maradona’s 1986 Hand of God.

Sadly, they were right. Two min­utes into the sec­ond pe­riod came the barge in the back from Diego Sime­one, and the pe­tu­lant flick with the right foot that earned Beck­ham a red card and a place in Eng­land’s hall of shame. “I can’t con­trol what hap­pens on the pitch – that’s the way I’ve played ever since I was 12,” Beck­ham had told FFT be­fore the tour­na­ment, dis­cussing the pe­tu­lant streak that Hod­dle and oth­ers had warned him about.

This time there was in­stant re­gret as he trudged to the dress­ing room, seek­ing con­so­la­tion by phon­ing Vic­to­ria, watch­ing in a New York bar dur­ing the Spice Girls’ world tour. He stood by the mouth of the tun­nel as Eng­land went out of the World Cup on penal­ties – had he still been on the field, he would have been one of the Three Lions’ first five tak­ers.

Beck­ham was largely greeted by awk­ward si­lence when his team-mates re­turned to the dress­ing room, bar a few brief words of com­fort from Manch­ester United team-mates Gary Neville and Paul Sc­holes. Then Tony Adams put a hand on his shoul­der. “What­ever’s hap­pened here, you’re an ex­cel­lent young player,” Adams told him. “You can be stronger for this.”


He would need to be. In­side the press room af­ter Eng­land’s exit, the at­mos­phere was toxic. “You could sense there was a groundswell of ‘Let’s have a go at him’,” re­mem­bers Mathieson. “These tour­na­ments are so great to cover and you want an Eng­land World Cup fi­nal on your jour­nal­is­tic CV. Peo­ple get car­ried away. A lot of the English re­porters thought the rest of the tour­na­ment had been spoiled by him. As the Manch­ester Evening News’ cor­re­spon­dent, I was writ­ing some­thing more bal­anced – I didn’t think it was a send­ing-off. But I sup­pose in a dif­fer­ent job I might have been sim­i­lar to the oth­ers. You do tend to look for the scape­goat and he was the easy tar­get.

“I re­mem­ber be­ing in the mixed zone af­ter­wards wait­ing for him to come through. Gary Neville gave me a few quotes and said he didn’t think David would stop to talk. When David even­tu­ally walked through, he didn’t stop and that was un­der­stand­able. His eyes were red and it was clear that he’d been cry­ing.”

The news­pa­per head­lines wouldn’t make him feel any bet­ter. “Ten heroic lions, one stupid boy,” was how Piers Mor­gan’s Daily Mir­ror put it. Two days later, it pub­lished a full-page ‘David Beck­ham dart­board’, with Beck­ham as the bulls­eye sur­rounded by other un­pop­u­lar fig­ures in­clud­ing Ar­gentina’s leader dur­ing the Falk­lands War, ref­eree Kim Mil­ton Nielsen... and Jeremy Bea­dle.

Beck­ham would spend lit­tle more than an hour back on English soil on the squad’s re­turn from France, fly­ing by Con­corde to meet Vic­to­ria in New York. Even that hour of­fered him a glimpse of what lay ahead: chased through Heathrow Air­port by the me­dia. “How does it feel to let your coun­try down?” one re­porter asked him. “Do you re­alise what you’ve done?” Beck­ham just kept walk­ing.

The pa­parazzi were there to greet him when he ar­rived in Amer­ica, too. “I thought, ‘This is New York, this shouldn’t be hap­pen­ing’,” he later wrote in au­to­bi­og­ra­phy My Side. Un­til then, Beck­ham had been able to travel to the US in peace. Not any more.

Due to spend the next 11 days fol­low­ing the Spice Girls around North Amer­ica on their tour bus, David headed straight to Madi­son Square Gar­den where Vic­to­ria was pre­par­ing for a con­cert. Within min­utes of his ar­rival he met the Queen of Pop, Madonna – life was never bor­ing for Becks. But he was well aware that, back home, the hate cam­paign wasn’t go­ing away.

At the Pleas­ant Pheas­ant pub in south-east Lon­don, reg­u­lars had ac­quired a mas­cot for the tour­na­ment – a life­size dummy dressed in a sarong and an Eng­land shirt with ‘Beck­ham 7’ on the back. At first it was an homage to the Man United star, but things took a turn for the worse af­ter his dis­missal against Ar­gentina. Pub-go­ers de­cided to sus­pend the £400 man­nequin from scaf­fold­ing out­side the es­tab­lish­ment as an ill-ad­vised prank. “The pun­ters are just do­ing what ev­ery­body in Bri­tain feels,” said the land­lord. Swifty re­moved by the po­lice, the ef­figy would prove to be the defin­ing im­age of that sum­mer – the sym­bol of a cam­paign that had been stirred up by the me­dia and was now spiralling out of con­trol. The press camped out­side the home of Beck­ham’s par­ents for days – even set­ting up a ta­ble and chairs on the pave­ment to sit down for tea and cof­fee.

When Beck­ham ar­rived back at Heathrow in mid-july, half a dozen po­lice­men were wait­ing at the gate to of­fer pro­tec­tion.

With Vic­to­ria’s tour con­tin­u­ing, his par­ents had been en­cour­aged by po­lice to stay with him in Greater Manch­ester, so he wasn’t at home alone. The con­cerns were jus­ti­fied: Beck­ham re­ceived death threats and bul­lets de­liv­ered through the post. Then a few weeks later, when his par­ents were back in Lon­don, the stranger star­ing silently out­side his home. Beck­ham called the po­lice, but by the time they ar­rived, the man had dis­ap­peared.

The morn­ing af­ter the Ar­gentina clash, Beck­ham re­ceived a call – it was Alex Fer­gu­son. “Don’t worry, son,” his man­ager told him. “You’re a Manch­ester United player. We’ll look af­ter you.”

Many felt Eng­land had not done enough to pro­tect Beck­ham. Gary Neville crit­i­cised the FA for ‘rub­ber-dinghy man­age­ment: they chuck you over­board and look af­ter their own’, while Beck­ham later claimed that Hod­dle ‘fed the frenzy’ by ap­pear­ing to put the Ar­gentina de­feat down to him in post-match in­ter­views.

As the days went on, Hod­dle made stronger at­tempts to de­fend his player – even sug­gest­ing he needed coun­selling, per­haps from faith healer Eileen Drew­ery. But in Beck­ham’s eyes, the dam­age was done.

At Manch­ester United, things were dif­fer­ent – peo­ple were an­gry at how he’d been treated. “The me­dia were a joke,” com­plained Neville. Fer­gu­son wasn’t too happy either. “He could hardly have been more vil­i­fied if he’d com­mit­ted mur­der or high trea­son,” he later said. The club ral­lied round Beck­ham, just as he was start­ing to fear he’d have to leave the Pre­mier League and seek refuge in Spain or Italy.

“We all sup­ported him,” says de­fender Hen­ning Berg, a mem­ber of that United squad, re­call­ing Beck­ham’s ar­rival back for pre-sea­son at The Cliff. “Ev­ery­body knew how David was as a per­son, so it was very easy to help him and be nor­mal around him. He was well liked among the squad be­fore the World Cup, and af­ter­wards too. If he had been some kind of big-time su­per­star who didn’t speak to other play­ers it might have been dif­fer­ent, but he was never like that. Even though he was fa­mous, he’d al­ways just been one of the boys, work­ing hard and do­ing the best he could.”

United sup­port­ers had chanted Beck­ham’s name dur­ing their first pre-sea­son friendly against Birm­ing­ham. Hav­ing been af­forded ex­tra time off fol­low­ing the World Cup, the mid­fielder’s first match back in a Red Devils jersey came on tour in Nor­way against Valerenga, where United-sup­port­ing lo­cals gave him a hero’s wel­come. On the open­ing week­end of the 1998-99 Pre­mier League cam­paign, home fans raised the roof when Beck­ham fired home a dra­matic late equaliser against Le­ices­ter at Old Traf­ford.

“There had al­ways been a huge anti-eng­land thing among United’s sup­port­ers,” ex­plains Stu­art Mathieson. “They had al­ways been club rather than coun­try – some­times they be­lieve they have been treated badly by Eng­land over the years, and that sit­u­a­tion took it to an­other level. The fans be­came very anti-eng­land and pro-beck­ham – peo­ple re­ally got be­hind him.”

United shielded him from the me­dia spot­light, too. “Fergie was very pro­tec­tive – he wouldn’t let peo­ple speak to him,” re­calls Mathieson. “Later in the sea­son Beck­ham started com­ing out and talk­ing, but it was pretty much ra­dio si­lence at the start. I can’t re­mem­ber talk­ing to him about that sit­u­a­tion at all. I would ring Fergie ev­ery morn­ing and I don’t re­mem­ber him say­ing much about it either – he thought that the less said about it, the bet­ter.”

United couldn’t shield Beck­ham from op­po­si­tion sup­port­ers, how­ever. Dur­ing Au­gust’s Char­ity Shield at Wem­b­ley, Arse­nal fans had un­veiled a ban­ner brand­ing him ‘Beckscum’ (top right). United’s first away game of the cam­paign was against West Ham at Up­ton Park.

Just three miles from his Ley­ton­stone birth­place, the back cover of one fanzine car­ried the mes­sage ‘You are not for­given’, and he had to be es­corted off the team coach by an armed guard amid re­ports he’d be tar­geted by the Ham­mers’ no­to­ri­ous In­ter City Firm. “Peo­ple were wait­ing for me in the car park – hun­dreds of them, anger all over their faces,” Beck­ham later said. The vit­riol con­tin­ued through­out the 0-0 draw, his ev­ery touch booed as home fans chanted ‘We hate Beck­ham’ and ‘You let your coun­try down’. “I’ve got this photo at home that still spooks me,” ex­plained Beck­ham. “I’m tak­ing a cor­ner and you can see the ex­pres­sion on peo­ple’s faces in the crowd. It wasn’t, ‘You’re a crap foot­baller who cost us the World Cup’. It was way past that – it was, ‘If we could, we’d have you, Beck­ham’.”

Ham­mers mid­fielder Steve Lo­mas didn’t show him much sym­pa­thy either: floor­ing Beck­ham with a chal­lenge, then stand­ing over him and scream­ing at him. “The op­po­si­tion tried to wind him up,” Berg tells FFT. “When the me­dia makes it out to be a big thing, fans will be in­flu­enced by that and op­po­nents will try to psy­che him out on the pitch. But he was very level-headed. He let his foot­ball do the talk­ing.”

Beck­ham didn’t re­spond to the abuse as United drew for the sec­ond Satur­day run­ning. “He wasn’t a shrink­ing vi­o­let in that game – he was as de­mand­ing of the ball as he’d al­ways been,” ex­plains Mathieson. “His re­ac­tion was one of great courage. The me­dia had re­ally hyped that game up but I ac­tu­ally re­mem­ber com­ing away from it think­ing, ‘It isn’t that bad’. I thought, ‘If this is the worst he’s go­ing to get, he’s go­ing to cope with this no prob­lem’.”

Beck­ham did in­deed cope, and en­joyed one of the great­est sea­sons of his ca­reer. That de­spite be­ing in the eye of the storm once again in Novem­ber, af­ter be­ing in­volved in an al­ter­ca­tion that led to Black­burn mid­fielder Tim Sher­wood’s dis­missal. “Beck­ham still pe­tu­lant as ever,” was the news­pa­per head­line, some­what over­look­ing Sher­wood’s role as the ag­gres­sor at Old Traf­ford.

His stand­out dis­plays were start­ing to put United in con­tention for a his­toric Treble. A trade­mark free-kick in a 3-3 with Barcelona helped them progress from pos­si­bly the hard­est group in Cham­pi­ons League his­tory, also fea­tur­ing Bay­ern Mu­nich. Their op­po­nents in the quar­ter-fi­nals? In­ter Mi­lan and Diego Sime­one. All eyes were on the pre-match hand­shake – best

de­scribed as frosty, as Paul Sc­holes and Jaap Stam glared at Sime­one in sol­i­dar­ity. Two as­sists and a 2-0 home vic­tory later, ret­ri­bu­tion was Beck­ham’s – he even went over to swap shirts with the Ar­gen­tine.

It would be a happy few days for Becks: within 24 hours, he was in Lon­don to see the birth of his first child, Brook­lyn. Book­mak­ers of­fered odds of 10,000/1 that the baby boy would one day get sent off while play­ing for Eng­land against Ar­gentina.

As the weeks went on, the Treble dream edged closer. Their FA Cup semi-fi­nal win against Arse­nal was re­mem­bered more for Ryan Giggs’ solo ef­fort, but it was Beck­ham who’d fired United in front with a fine 25-yard strike. At full-time, the mid­fielder was car­ried off the Villa Park pitch on the shoul­ders of ju­bi­lant fans. Saint-eti­enne was start­ing to seem a world away.

Trail­ing Ju­ven­tus 2-0 in the sec­ond leg of their Cham­pi­ons League semi-fi­nal, it was Beck­ham who pro­vided the pin­point cor­ner for Roy Keane to head home and al­ter the course of the tie. On the fi­nal day of the Pre­mier League sea­son, need­ing a win at home to Tot­ten­ham to pip Arse­nal to the ti­tle, it was Beck­ham who turned the game back in United’s favour, curl­ing in a crack­ing lev­eller af­ter Les Fer­di­nand had si­lenced the The­atre of Dreams. With the Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal four days away, Fergie asked Becks if he wanted a rest for the FA Cup fi­nal. “No chance, boss,” Beck­ham told him. United de­feated New­cas­tle 2-0.

“He was a huge in­flu­ence that sea­son,” re­calls Berg. “He wanted to prove that no one was go­ing to stop him from play­ing foot­ball or from be­ing the best he could be.”

Beck­ham would start in cen­tral mid­field in the Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal against Bay­ern Mu­nich, moved from the right in the ab­sence of the sus­pended Keane and Sc­holes. Fer­gu­son would later de­scribe him as ‘the most ef­fec­tive mid­fielder on the park’ that night, and two of his ex­pert cor­ner-kicks changed the course of his­tory – Teddy Sher­ing­ham flick­ing on the sec­ond of them for Ole Gun­nar Sol­sk­jaer to poke home the most ex­tra­or­di­nary of win­ners. While the cam­eras fo­cused on the Nor­we­gian’s fa­mous knee-slide cel­e­bra­tion, Beck­ham was still by the cor­ner flag, leap­ing around like a tod­dler who’d just been in­tro­duced to a bouncy cas­tle. At the fi­nal whis­tle, he ran the length of the Camp Nou pitch, his arms out­stretched in sheer joy.


Hav­ing as­sisted eight Cham­pi­ons League goals in 1998-99, Beck­ham would be se­lected as the UEFA Club Foot­baller of the Year. And a few months later, he was of­fi­cially named the sec­ond best player on the planet – run­ner up to Ri­valdo in the vote for both the FIFA World Player of the Year and Bal­lon d’or.

“If Manch­ester United hadn’t had Beck­ham in their team that year, they wouldn’t have done any­where near as well as they did,” re­veals Mathieson. “He was the sup­ply line.

“Com­ing through what hap­pened against Ar­gentina strength­ened his re­solve. His char­ac­ter was built in that mo­ment in Saint-eti­enne.”

An hour or so af­ter the fi­nal whis­tle in Barcelona, Beck­ham car­ried the Euro­pean Cup out of Camp Nou and into the car park. There, he saw his fa­ther, just like he’d done in Saint-eti­enne 11 months ear­lier. He put the tro­phy down and they hugged, both think­ing back to that night against Ar­gentina, and how things had changed.

The red card at the World Cup could have de­stroyed David Beck­ham. In­stead it spurred him on to great­ness. Soon he was Eng­land cap­tain and a na­tional hero, thanks to his mem­o­rable free-kick against Greece. But it was the 1998-99 sea­son that truly de­fined him.

“It was the sea­son when I lived a night­mare and dream at the same time,” he later said. “In the end, the dream won.”

Clock­wise from be­low left Becks had to turn and face the mu­sic in 1998, af­ter get­ting his march­ing or­ders from ref Kim Mil­ton Nielsen; a Not­ting­ham church was will­ing to for­give and for­get; Beck­ham’s celebrity sta­tus didn’t en­dear him to Hod­dle

Clock­wise from left He’s still stand­ing: out and about with El­ton; swapping shirts with Sime­one af­ter beat­ing his In­ter side in 1999; Becks got both bar­rels from West Ham and Arse­nal sup­port­ers, on a road to re­demp­tion that ended with lift­ing the...

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