Defining moment for Beckham
A brief moment of madness, an act of petulance instantly regretted, proved a defining moment for David Beckham.
Brought down in a second-round match between England and Argentina at the 1998 World Cup, Beckham kicked out at the offender Diego Simeone. He could hardly have picked a worse moment. The incident occurred right under the nose of Danish referee Kim Milton Nielsen. Off went Beckham and out, after heroic resistance, went England.
"I went through every emotion," Beckham said. "For a good 10 minutes, I just lost it. I didn't cry anything like that again until I heard I was going to be a dad."
At that stage of his career Beckham was regarded outside Manchester United with suspicion. His extraordinary dipping, swerving shot from just inside his own half to beat Wimbledon goalkeeper Neil Sullivan at the start of the 1996-7 season was testament to a talent beyond the ordinary.
But, partly due to a burgeoning romance with Victoria Adams of the Spice Girls, then at the height of her transitory fame, Beckham was regarded by deeply conservative English football followers as possessing more style than substance.
The doubters included then England coach Glenn Hoddle, even though he had been similarly derided a generation earlier for exquisite ball skills his detractors said were displayed at international level most when they mattered least.
Hoddle left Beckham out at the start of the 1998 campaign, accusing him of being unfocused. The implication, which followed photographs in British newspapers of Beckham dressed in a sarong, was clear. Beckham was more concerned with the celebrity lifestyle than giving his all for Queen and country.
The incident which led to Beckham's expulsion against Argentina may have been determination on his part to show Hoddle as wrong.
Unfortunately it was against a team who stirred atavistic passions in England. Memories did not linger so much as fester of the vicious encounter at the 1966 World Cup and Diego Maradona's "Hand of God" goal 20 years later, complicated by overtones from the 1982 Falklands War, Britain's last imperial flourish.
Back home the reaction to Beckham's dismissal was extraordinary and, to any neutral observer, deeply disturbing. In an editorial, the conservative Daily Telegraph fulminated that Beckham personified everything wrong with modern youth. A London butcher put two pigs' heads in his window symbolising Beckham and Victoria.
The reaction outside Old Trafford in the new season was often vicious. Chants detailing Victoria's alleged sexual preferences, Beckham could ignore. Foul lyrics about his baby son Brooklyn, anger him still. Personal insults he endured stoically.
"On the pitch it wasn't bad at all," he said. "It was only when I got to the touchline that it became horrendous. People were standing up, swearing, spitting and throwing things at me. They still do."
DEPTHS OF DESPAIR
Yet from the depths of professional despair, Beckham emerged as a key player in United's treble year when they won the premiership, FA Cup and, for the first time since 1968, the European Cup.
Even his most bitter critics were forced to concede that, far from being a dilettante playboy, Beckham was in fact what he had always been, a thoroughly dedicated and totally admirable professional.
Born 27 years ago this week and raised in Chingford, Essex, the overspill area for the aspirational London working class, Beckham values nothing so much as his family and the standards instilled by his parents.
His masterly passing skills, which still draw gasps of astonishment as he crosses the ball unerringly from one side of the field to the other, result from the similar combination of passion for the game and desire to succeed which inspired the great Brazilians.
Beckham's rehabilitation became complete last year when, promoted to national captain, he singlehandedly forced England into the World Cup finals with an awesome display against Greece.
Beckham did not so much conduct the orchestra as play each of the instruments. He combined the energy of Allan Ball in the 1966 World Cup final with the grace and power of Bobby Charlton before converting the free kick which ensured England's place in Japan.
A broken bone in his foot last month put Beckham's appearance in the forthcoming World Cup in jeopardy but he was optimistic of recovering in time for England's first match, against Sweden on June 2 in Saitama, Japan.
The doubters, including the northern Irish genius George Best whose wizardry lit up the 1968 European Cup final, believe Beckham is too one-dimensional to rank with the true greats.
"He can't kick with his left foot, can't tackle, can't head and doesn't score many goals, apart from that he's all right," Best once said, tongue only half in cheek.
Beckham seems unworried. His autobiography is bland even by present debased sporting standards and is sometimes risible, as when he says that he has not made up his mind yet whether or not to believe in a God. He has also set himself up for potential mockery with a series of photoshoots in celebrity magazines, slavishly reproduced in the British tabloid press.
Beneath the glitz, though, is a player as dedicated as any of those past England heroes who travelled on buses and trains and tried to make ends meet on meagre wages.
Whatever unrealistic goals his country expects from a limited team, Beckham will do his utmost to deliver.