He doesn't deserve to be the most hated man in Britain," railed
Posh Spice last summer in defense of her fiance. Midfielder
David Beckham is the highest-paid star on Manchester United, the
most prominent soccer club in the world, and, yes, he is also
engaged to one of the Spice Girls. Yet instead of being a symbol
of Cool Britannia, Beckham is regarded in his own country as a
kind of traitor. From a distance his punishment for being
ejected midway through England's World Cup loss to Argentina
seems as exaggerated and draconian as Jean Valjean's for
stealing a loaf of bread. "I've never seen anything like it,"
says 60-year-old Bobby Charlton, the Joe DiMaggio of English
Last month, on the opening day of the English Premier League,
Beckham officially launched his comeback from national ignominy
at an age--23--when most players are still finding their way. On
a bright and crisp Saturday in his home stadium, famous Old
Trafford, Beckham was ridden mercilessly by a few thousand
visiting fans of Leicester City, who occupied one sliver of a
corner grandstand yet dominated the afternoon. Every time
Beckham touched the ball, they quickly launched into a heartfelt
boo. It was as if they were booing the entire game from behind a
door, and when Beckham took the ball, the door was thrown open
to expose their hatred. The instant he released the ball, the
door was slammed shut again, and the booing stopped.
"Beckham's going to hear this all season," said Allan Starkey, a
season-ticket holder at Old Trafford who sits a dozen rows from
the field. "It'll be a bit of sport for the fans around the
country. They're going to be competing to see which of them can
do him the worst."
For most of the afternoon the vocal minority was having its say,
as Leicester led 2-0 with 12 minutes to go. Suddenly, as if
waiting to achieve maximum effect, Beckham took over. He
launched a shot that his teammate Teddy Sheringham deflected off
the top of his head for United's opening goal. Then, in the last
moments of stoppage time, Beckham stood behind a free kick from
25 yards, his specialty. He hooked it over the defensive wall
and inside the near post, then stood before his people throwing
victory punches like an orchestra conductor. "One David Beckham,
there's only one David Beckham," the United boosters bellowed to
the tune of Guantanamera after the 2-2 tie, pointing derisively
at the silenced Leicester fans. At midfield Beckham turned and
waved to every grandstand, like the rock star he seems to be.
America can hardly fathom a scourge as infamous as David
Beckham. When Jackie Smith dropped a crucial touchdown pass in
the 1979 Super Bowl and Bill Buckner let a ground ball clean
through his legs in the '86 World Series, there were as many
fans celebrating the mistakes as there were commiserating over
them--and millions upon millions who really couldn't have cared
less either way. Smith and Buckner weren't playing or fighting
in the uniform of their country against the rest of the world.
So take the negative reaction to Buckner's silly error and
multiply it by 10 to appreciate the breadth and depth of anger
and humiliation England felt about the mistake Beckham made.
Then multiply it by three to account for the other reasons to
resent Beckham: his income, a reported $13 million a year from
salary and endorsements; his fiancee, with whom he was
photographed, while wearing a designer sarong, before the World
Cup; and his team, the most commercialized club in the sport, a
love-'em-or-hate-'em force as divisive across England as the New
York Yankees used to be in the U.S. Last year Manchester United
grossed close to $140 million, more than any other soccer club
in the world, and almost half of that total came from sales of
merchandise. In this context Beckham is the handsome face, the
performer who helps to move product. In English papers he is
referred to occasionally as Spice Boy.
For all of these reasons fans throughout England were jeering
Beckham, now in his fourth season with United, long before he
became the scapegoat of the World Cup. Not even his loudest
enemies, however, anticipated what would happen as he lay
facedown in the grass on June 30 in France. The second-round
match between England and Argentina in Saint-Etienne was tied at
2-2 in the opening minutes of the second half when Beckham was
flattened by a shot from behind. In his white trunks and
blond-dyed hair he seemed as unthreatening as a sunbather--until
his right leg, like a groggy cobra, reared up and kicked out
petulantly in the general direction of Diego Simeone, the
Argentine midfielder who had fouled him.
Beckham's cleated foot merely grazed Simeone's leg. Simeone,
unsurprisingly, went down as if shot in the back. The referee,
arriving like the cop in a silent movie, responded by holding up
a red card in front of Beckham. (Simeone's original foul merited
only a yellow card, a warning.) England would wind up losing on
penalty kicks, but in Beckham's absence the team displayed an
old-fashioned courage that succeeded in marginalizing him all
the more. The Times referred to him as "a spoiled brat." The
Daily Mirror declared, 10 HEROIC LIONS, ONE STUPID BOY. Read the
headline in The Daily Star, WHAT AN IDIOT.
He was hanged in effigy outside a London pub. Billboards of him
were torn down or plastered over by Adidas, one of his sponsors,
even as the shoe company promised to continue its relationship
with him. Threats were made against his life. The message board
at a Baptist church in Mansfield said GOD FORGIVES EVEN DAVID
BECKHAM. "He is obviously going to have to learn from this,"
said British prime minister Tony Blair.
At least three clubs in Europe reportedly offered asylum to
Beckham in the hope that he would be chased out of England like
a scoundrel. Manchester United made sure, however, that Beckham
will be staying put in England for the time being, announcing on
the eve of the Premiership season that it had extended his
contract through 2002-03.
"I will always regret my actions," said Beckham in July, in a
Nathan Hale sort of declaration. "I want every fan to know how
deeply sorry I am."
Those have been his last words on the subject. Manchester United
coach Alex Ferguson has banned all interviews with Beckham,
hoping the incident will fade away. "He's a normal, likable,
straightforward boy," says Ferguson.
Beckham grew up in northeast London. He was working-class, a
Cockney, and grew up with the Cinderella dream of playing for
Manchester United. When he was 11, he won a national soccer
skills competition similar to the Punt, Pass & Kick. The next
year a United scout came to visit the Beckham home.
Last month, on the second week of the season, Beckham arrived in
the East End to play against West Ham United, whose fans have
long been critical of Beckham for leaving their side of town to
travel up the social ladder to Manchester United. On the eve of
this "homecoming" it emerged that he was going to be a father.
Posh Spice, the front pages of the tabloids reported, was three
months pregnant. The British bookmaker William Hill immediately
posted odds of 1,000 to 1 against the baby's playing soccer for
England, and 10,000 to 1 against his ever being sent off against
A fan at West Ham had announced plans to distribute 10,000 red
cards with which to greet Beckham, but the police talked him out
of it. The British press hyped the anticipated confrontation
between Beckham and the fans so much that, thankfully, it never
"went off," to use the hooligans' term. The match was a
scoreless draw, and while Beckham was jeered, his treatment was
no worse than what other visitors to West Ham have endured. The
greeting for him is likely to be far more outrageous when he
travels to Arsenal, Liverpool or Chelsea, for those clubs are
expecting to contend with Manchester United for the
championship, and the supporters might see in their barracking
of Beckham a tactical advantage.
As Manchester United's bus came crawling up the narrow East End
road toward West Ham's ground before the match, Beckham squinted
stoically at the crowd. He didn't react until near the end of the
road, when a group of fans sang to him: "Are you sure, are you
sure, are you sure the baby's...."
At that, Beckham cracked the slightest smile. "What did they
say?" a teammate asked. Beckham's lips could be read through the
window. Without moving a muscle otherwise, Beckham muttered,
"Are you sure the baby's yours."