David Beckham's red card redemption
Yesterday marked David Beckham’s 42nd birthday and though there wasn’t much fanfare around it, he remains one of the world’s most recognisable football stars. And while he didn’t feature for his country after 2009, he’s one of the rare footballers who is seemingly more synonymous with playing for his country than any club, unlike compatriots like Steven Gerrard, John Terry and Frank Lampard.
It’s hard to believe that around 18 years ago, he was the most hated footballer – arguably the most hated man in fact – in the country. And it all stemmed from one simple red card.
The early days
Credit: foued jaidane
After he broke into the Manchester United first team in the 1995/96 season, Beckham really began to rise to fame in the early part of 1996/97. His goal from the halfway line against Wimbledon was the moment that really earmarked him as a superstar in the making. Not long after that, he made his England debut in a 1998 World Cup qualifier against Moldova.
By 1997, Beckham was a mainstay in the England side – he played in all of the qualifiers for the World Cup – and he was also, thanks to his burgeoning relationship with Spice Girl Victoria ‘Posh Spice’ Adams, one of the most famous footballers in the country. He seemed to have the world at his feet.
When the World Cup came around though, England boss Glenn Hoddle apparently lost faith in Beckham, preferring Darren Anderton on the right side of midfield. The word from Hoddle was that he was concerned about Beckham’s focus; that he was more inclined towards his growing fame and relationship with Victoria, but others suggested Hoddle was somehow jealous of the young star.
After a loss in their second group game against Romania left them needing a win against Colombia to qualify for the knockout stages, it was clear England needed a change. Beckham was re-introduced as a central midfielder and scored a classic Beckham free-kick – his first goal for England – and the Three Lions ran out 2-0 winners. Becks was back in business.
Ten heroic lions, one stupid boy
England squared off against old enemies Argentina in the second round of the tournament, and the game got off to a flying start. With the game at 1-1 following two early penalties, Beckham picked up the ball on the edge of the Argentina half and played a long pass to Michael Owen, who sprinted through the Argentina defence to score one of the World Cup’s classic goals.
Argentina equalised on the stroke of half-time though, and the game was on a knife-edge going into the second half.
Just two minutes into the half, things changed for Beckham. Sent sprawling by a rough tackle from Diego Simeone, Beckham’s response was to lash out with a petulant flick. Simeone naturally made a meal out of it, going down like he’d been shot, and the whole thing happened right in front of the referee. Moments later Beckham was shown the red card.
England went on to lose the game in a penalty shootout, despite Sol Campbell’s apparent winner being mistakenly ruled out by the ref. But despite Paul Ince and David Batty missing the crucial penalty kicks, in the eyes of the fans and media only one man was to blame – Beckham.
“Ten heroic lions, one stupid boy” was the headline in one newspaper. Even Hoddle seemed to throw him under the bus, stating that it was the red card that had cost England the game.
Public enemy #1
Upon returning from the World Cup, Beckham was greeted with hatred never before seen in English football. Effigies of him were hung at grounds across the country and he took a phenomenal amount of abuse at every game. Somehow though, Beckham was undeterred – the “stupid boy” was more thick-skinned than people had imagined.
And he kept plugging away for England too, now a mainstay in the team as the likes of Anderton and Paul Ince slowly faded away. I think a lot of people forget how long the anti-Beckham movement went on, in fact – he was arguably England’s best player at a poor Euro 2000 showing – setting up three of England’s five goals - and yet he received abuse from his own fans there, finally retaliating following a loss to Portugal by giving the crowd an obscene gesture.
A dismal Euro 2000 followed by a loss to Germany in a World Cup 2002 qualifier saw the end of Kevin Keegan’s England reign and caretaker manager Peter Taylor decided to roll the dice and made Beckham his new captain.
When Sven-Goran Eriksson took over, Beckham remained in the role and slowly but surely, as he scored more goals and took more responsibility, the fans began to get back on his side.
O captain, my captain
It helped that every time he pulled on an England shirt, Beckham seemed to deliver the goods. A stunning goal against Finland in a qualifier won England the much-needed three points, and a free-kick goal against Greece to result in a 0-2 win followed.
Beckham also starred in England’s crazy 1-5 away victory against Germany although he didn’t get on the scoresheet. But his crowning moment was yet to come.
England went into their final qualifier against Greece needing at least a point to qualify without needing the playoffs, but for most of the game, that point seemed beyond them. Greece took the lead in the first half and while Teddy Sheringham seemed to have rescued it late in the second, the Greeks scored again to put England back in jeopardy.
It was one of the worst England performances in a long time but Beckham simply would not give in. At times it seemed like he was the only England player on the pitch as he tried to do everything himself, shooting from distance and even going on rare dribbles through the Greek defence.
With seconds remaining on the clock, England were given a free-kick on the edge of the box. Nothing less than a goal would do.
What happened still doesn’t feel quite real, even sixteen years on. Beckham hit probably the greatest free-kick in his career, bending the ball around the Greek wall and into the top corner of the goal, leaving the keeper standing still. England had qualified for the World Cup and Beckham had gone from the most hated man in the country to the conquering hero, the saviour of a nation.
Watching it again now still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand. And although Beckham went on to plenty more highs – and admittedly, a handful of lows too – with England, the free-kick remains his defining moment. But strangely enough, I’d argue that maybe it couldn’t have happened had he not been sent off against Argentina in the World Cup.
It sounds crazy, but without the chip on the shoulder that the red card – and the subsequent abuse he suffered – gave to Beckham, would he have worked so hard to get back into the nation’s good books? Or would he, like future teammates Lampard, Gerrard and Terry, have stayed more focused on his club career, almost treating his England career like a side project? Maybe I’m doing him a disservice by suggesting so but it still feels to me that it was his quest for redemption that led Beckham to such a moment of greatness.
We’re closing in on a decade of England without Beckham now and yet his red card against Argentina – and redemption against Greece – still weighs heavy on the memory.
It’s why – to me at least – is the most important sending off in football history. It may not have changed which team won a World Cup, but it changed the career trajectory of a man and allowed him to become an icon. It doesn’t get any bigger than that.