Search

Big Bend The master of the curving free kick is all the rage in England and the most popular athlete in the world. So why does Manchester United want to unload David Beckham?

June 23, 2003
June 23, 2003

Table of Contents
June 23, 2003

Sports Illustrated Bonus Section: Golf Plus

Big Bend The master of the curving free kick is all the rage in England and the most popular athlete in the world. So why does Manchester United want to unload David Beckham?

David Beckham cries. Always has. "I get it from my mum," he says.
"My dad's sort of a man's man, but I've got more of my mum's
personality. She's a lot softer, a lot more affectionate. We both
get really emotional." ¶ Beckham cried when his wife, Victoria,
the former Posh Spice, gave birth to their sons, first Brooklyn
and then Romeo. He cried that awful night in 1998 when he was
red-carded at the World Cup and became the Most Hated Man in
England. He cried a year later when he won back his nation's
affection. "I'll even watch films and cry," he says. ¶ Ask
Beckham to pick the most significant moment of his childhood, and
he doesn't hesitate. He was 11, a working-class kid from East
London who'd just finished playing a game for Ridgeway Rovers,
his Sunday League team: "My mum came up and said, 'It's good that
you've played well today, because Manchester United were watching
you, and they want you to come down and have a trial.' I just
stood there and cried." ¶ Stood there and cried. ¶ In
international soccer, if you survive the Darwinian winnowing
process, if you come up through the youth ranks and stay with
your team, the attachments run deep. Beckham began training with
Man United at 14, signed a contract at 16 and joined the starting
lineup for good at 20, in 1995. For the past 14 years Man U--the
world's most popular sports franchise, the team he grew up
supporting--has been the only professional home Beckham has ever
known. With more than 200 official fan clubs and an estimated fan
base of 50 million, Man U has helped turn Beckham into a global phenomenon. "There's no doubt that he's the biggest sports star in
the world now," says Nick Hornby, the British writer (Fever Pitch,
About a Boy) and devout soccer fan. "One of my friends at The New
Yorker thinks Shaq is the world's biggest sports star, but you can't
be if you play a game that several continents have only a passing interest in."

This is an article from the June 23, 2003 issue Original Layout

Beckham is not the planet's highest-paid athlete. (That would be
Tiger Woods.) Nor is he its finest soccer player. (That would be
France's Zinedine Zidane.) Yet he is undoubtedly earth's most
talked about sportsman, more Madonna than Maradona, a (mostly)
silent oracle whose all-purpose celebrity transcends race,
gender, nationality, sexual orientation and sports itself. From
Cardiff to Kuala Lumpur, every new Beckham haircut--a Mohawk, a
shaved head, even cornrows--sends acolytes scurrying to their
salons. "Whereas Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan are respected,
Beckham is loved, adored, worshiped in some parts of the world,"
says Ellis Cashmore, a Staffordshire University professor who has
written a book, Beckham, on the effect. "He has an almost godlike
status."

Almost? At a Thai monastery, Buddhist monks kneel before a
gold-plated Beckham. In Japan nightclubbers don plaster casts in
homage to their idol's recently broken right wrist. When Nelson
Mandela met Becks in Johannesburg last month, you'd have judged
by the coverage that the privilege was entirely Mandela's. Like
Kim Jong Il's mug in North Korea, Beckham's face is everywhere in
the U.K. Depending on your reading preferences, he "sets the
nation's emotional agenda" (The Observer of London) or inhabits
"the sentimental terrain once occupied by Diana, Princess of
Wales" (royal biographer Andrew Morton). It's a lot to ask of a
soccer player.

Let's make one thing clear, though. Beckham, for all his beauty
and all his endorsements, is not the male Anna Kournikova, a
winless wonder. Not when he's started on six championship teams
in eight English Premier League seasons. Not when the world's
national team coaches have twice voted him the second-best soccer
player on the planet (behind Rivaldo in 1999 and Luis Figo in
2001). Not when he possesses a physical genius for spinning an
inert ball into a remote corner of the goal, a skill that
inspired a movie to be made in his name.

Yet talent and looks can't explain everything. How do we account
for Beckham's unique appeal, his transformation into the icon of
Cool Britannia? Is it because of his remarkable resurrection from
his costly gaffe in '98? His pop-star wife? His peacock-dandy
fashion sense? Is it his rejection of Europe's macho soccer
culture? Or his decade of success with Manchester United?

What's all the fuss about? And if Beckham is so worthy of our
attention, then why is Man United's knighted manager, Sir Alex
Ferguson, trying to get rid of him?

To understand Britain's hysteria over Beckham is to realize how
closely it's tied to the fanatical hatred of him in 1998. When
Beckham was ejected from a second-round World Cup match for
kicking Argentina's Diego Simeone, contributing to England's
elimination, the public onslaught that followed went beyond your
ordinary media lynching. Rallied by the tabloids, punters hanged
Beckham in effigy outside a London pub. An Islington butcher put
two pigs heads in his front window, one labeled david and the
other victoria. For months Beckham was subjected to death
threats, chants wishing cancer upon his son, even a piece of "fan
mail" bearing a bullet with his name inscribed on it.

Though Beckham returned to Manchester United later that summer,
ending speculation that he might have to join a team on the
Continent, he kept his head down, his mouth shut. "It was hard
concentrating on football," he recalls. "It was like, I'm a
soccer star. Nobody was killed. This isn't right."

Truth be told, he wasn't just another gifted midfielder. From the
moment Beckham began dating Victoria Adams, at the height of the
Spice Girls craze in 1997, they had been daily gossip fodder.
After the period of national grieving over Diana's death in
August 1997, the royal family appeared drab next to the new pop
couple. (The tabs dubbed their 24-acre spread outside London
Beckingham Palace.) Introduced by Posh to the fashion world,
Beckham embraced its trappings; he was photographed wearing a
sarong while staying at Elton John's vacation house in France.
"Kids love each change of hairstyle, and I think he has taste,"
says Hornby. "Maybe not your taste or my taste, but a real
instinct for keeping himself looking cool in the eyes of five-to
20-year-olds. And he's actually pretty sweet and likable."

Beckham's detractors tried hard to spin the hype machine into
reverse after the World Cup debacle, seizing on anything at hand:
his wife, his fashion forays, his high-pitched Essex patois. "But
they were flailing about a bit, to be honest," says Hornby.
"That's why the hatred of him was so inflated. People wanted to
loathe him, but they couldn't get a handle on anything. A brief
moment of indiscipline against Argentina, and people are hanging
effigies? If it had been any other English player, all the focus
would have been on Simeone. Kicking Argentines is generally
approved of, but not in this specific case."

Then something odd happened. Through a combination of p.r. savvy,
quiet dignity and, above all, unimpeachable play, Beckham turned
the media coverage on its head. Running tirelessly, serving
exquisite crosses into the penalty box, scoring timely goals, he
helped lead Man United to an unprecedented Treble in 1999,
winning the English Premier League, FA Cup and European Champions
League trophies. Within two years he'd be named captain of
England--forcing fans to suspend all hostilities in the name of
national pride--and would preside over a stunning 5-1 win against
Germany in a World Cup qualifier. When Beckham buried a penalty
kick to beat Argentina at last year's World Cup, his
transformation from pariah to paragon was complete.

Redemption has proved lucrative. Beckham's annual income of close
to $30 million ($8.8 million from his Man U salary and upwards of
$20 million from such endorsers as Adidas, Pepsi and Brylcreem)
makes him the world's highest-paid soccer player. The key to his
popularity is his ability to function as a one-size-fits-all
vessel for his fans' hopes and dreams. It's revealing that he
doesn't say a word in the film Bend It Like Beckham, serving
instead as a listening post--in the form of bedroom wall
posters--for the deepest secrets of a teenaged Anglo-Indian girl.

"He's this phantom of the imagination," Cashmore explains.
"Because he doesn't actually come out and say anything, he gives
the people carte blanche to construct their own David Beckham."
To claim that Beckham doesn't say anything is a bit uncharitable.
Granted, like Woods and Michael Jordan, he's not Muhammad Ali
refusing induction into the Army. "I try to stay away from as
much politics as possible," says Beckham, who admits he doesn't
vote in elections. Yet his open-mindedness often features a
candor you'd never expect to hear from Tiger or Michael.

Consider his stance on homosexuality. Beckham happily speaks out
against the raging taboo of male locker rooms worldwide. "Being a
gay icon is a great honor for me," says Beckham, who posed
suggestively for the cover of the British gay magazine Attitude
last year. "I'm quite sure of my feminine side, and I've not got
a problem with that at all. These days it's the norm, and it
should be. Everyone's different, everyone's got their thing."

And Beckham's thing is, well, everyone. Race? One British TV
show, citing his cornrows and chunky jewelry, recently dubbed him
"an honorary black man." Religion? He's one-fourth Jewish.
Women's soccer? "Someday I'd like to have soccer schools for
girls and boys," Beckham says. "People always say to me, 'Why
girls?' And I say it's important that girls get involved in
sports."

The person who has the biggest influence on Beckham is his wife,
whose own fallen star has caused U.K. pundits to suggest she's
using her husband as a prop to boost her career. (Or, as The
Guardian's Julie Burchill none-too-delicately put it last week,
"Beckham has been grotesquely, massively p----whipped by his
talentless ambition-hound of a wife.") Ask Victoria how she has
changed David's life, and she steers clear of such trivial
matters as love, family and maturity. "I've changed his dress
sense," she says, munching on a strand of grapes. "Drastically."
Her face is blank. Is she in on the joke? Or is that really all
there is to it? It's impossible to tell.

By all accounts, though, theirs is a strong, stable marriage,
which makes Beckham a welcome contrast to such previous British
soccer stars as Paul Gascoigne (who beat his wife and spent his
free time getting hopelessly drunk with a sidekick named Five
Bellies) and George Best (the Man United playboy star of the late
1960s who once famously quipped, "I spent a lot of money on
booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered"). Their
travel schedules be damned, the Beckhams have chosen not to hire
nannies for Brooklyn (age four) and Romeo (nine months), relying
on their parents when necessary. "David is a model dad," Victoria
says. "If I leave him with the children, he'll look after them
just as well as I can."

Naturally, Beckham's New Age family-man side appeals to
housewives and grandmothers. Yet by pursuing so many
nontraditional sports demographics, he has long run the risk of
alienating hard-core soccer fans, to say nothing of Ferguson, his
no-nonsense Man U coach. For no matter how gorgeous he may be,
the sportsman must constantly prove his superiority in the arena.
Beckham certainly has his flaws: ordinary speed, weak heading
skills, not much of a left foot. But for someone regarded as a
pretty boy, his capacity for work is breathtaking. Simply put, he
runs his butt off. Nor can any other player on the globe serve a
bending, 30-yard cross on the run better than Becks. And don't
forget those free kicks. Oh, those glorious free kicks.

Time for a set piece: Manchester, England. April 23, 2003.
Champions League quarterfinal. Real Madrid versus Manchester
United.

This is David Beckham's signature moment, when it becomes
instantaneously clear why his free kicks inspire such singular
awe (and, for that matter, why there are no films called Bend It
Like Blyleven). His teammate Ruud van Nistelrooy has been fouled
just outside the penalty box, to the right of the Real goal. A
hush falls over the 67,000 fans in Old Trafford, then morphs into
a pulsating, expectant thrum. "As soon as a free kick is given
and it's anywhere near the box, I get excited," Beckham says, his
eyes closed as he recalls the scene. "The crowd lifts theirself,
and there's a buzz around the stadium. I know it's my turn for
everyone to watch me. I practice this 30, 40, 50 times a day in
training, and when I do get the chance, I like to hit the
target."

The charged tableau packs even more drama than usual. This is
Europe's game of the year, an elimination match pitting its two
most popular soccer teams, and Man U is desperate, needing four
goals in the final 20 minutes to survive. All week the tabloids
have been filled with rumors that Beckham will move to Real
Madrid, which already boasts three former world players of the
year (Ronaldo, Zidane and Figo). Yet when the opening whistle
blew at this match, Beckham was not on the field. Ferguson had
benched him. Benched him! "When you're not in the starting lineup
of any games, especially the big games, you're disappointed,"
Beckham says. "I just have to prove that I should be playing."

Here's his chance. Eight minutes earlier Beckham had trotted onto
the field, the world's highest-paid sub. Now this. Beckham places
the ball gently, as if he's laying a wreath on a loved one's
grave, then takes six steps backward and to his left. He sucks in
two quick, deep breaths. A pair of human barriers loom before
him. The Real goalkeeper, Iker Casillas, crouches 22 yards away,
his 6'2" frame coiled in the goalmouth's lefthand side. Lined up
10 yards away is a five-man Madrid wall, its purpose to block the
goal's righthand side.

"I don't really concentrate much on what side the keeper is on,"
Beckham says, "because I always think that if I catch it as well
as I can, then I can beat him whichever way he goes." And the
wall? "I do see them. Some walls, they jump, so some players hit
it under the wall. But that's sort of lazy. I like doing it the
hard way."

He springs forward. At the moment before impact Beckham is a
picture of serenity and balance, his legs splayed, his right arm
pointing straight down, his left arm extended like a traffic
cop's. All angles and energy, he looks like a Keith Haring
drawing come to life. Physicists from Europe to Japan have spent
hundreds of hours studying his free kicks, the perfectly
calibrated mix of forces--angle, speed, spin and direction--that
conspire, as one researcher puts it, to achieve "optimal
turbulent-laminar transition trajectory." Or, as Beckham says, he
knows precisely how "to get as much whip on it as possible," to
strike the side of the ball with his right instep, sending it
screaming over the wall, then dipping, improbably, thrillingly,
under the crossbar, past the helpless keeper's outstretched
hands.

A million little things can go wrong, of course. "If you don't
catch it right, it can end up in Row Zed," Beckham says. "It's
happened to me a couple of times, when my boots or my standing
foot give way. That's pretty embarrassing."

This is not one of those times. "As soon as I hit the ball, I
know it's in," Beckham says, a smile cleaving his face. "I know
it's in. Even before it reaches the wall." Roberto Carlos, Real's
gnomic Brazilian defender, jumps skyward, only for his bald dome
to get buzzed by a Becks flyby. Poor Casillas is doomed. In a
flash the ball is droppingdroppingdropping ... in. With a kiss
off the crossbar for good measure.

Fourteen minutes later Beckham scores again on a tap-in. It's not
enough for Man United to win the two-game series, not when
Ronaldo has scored three searing goals of his own, but here at
Old Trafford, on soccer's most memorable night of 2003, it does
make you wonder. What about that benching, Sir Alex?

For Sir Alex Ferguson, a 61-year-old taskmaster raised in the
shipyards of Glasgow, old school isn't a marketing catchphrase.
It's standard operating procedure. Not long ago he read When
Pride Still Mattered, David Maraniss's biography of Vince
Lombardi. "I saw myself," says Ferguson, taking a break after an
April practice at Man United's Carrington training compound.
"Obsession. Commitment. Fanaticism. It was all there."

Like Lombardi, he is ruthless, maintaining iron-fisted control of
his team despite his players' rising salaries. "I never have a
problem with egos," says Ferguson, who has been the Man U coach
for 17 seasons. "You know why? Because you have to win. You can't
escape the field. And if the money has affected them, they have
to go. Easiest decision ever made." Imagine a hybrid of Joe Torre
and George Steinbrenner. No wonder everyone calls Ferguson the
Boss.

When Man United announced last week, after months of speculation,
that it had conditionally agreed to sell Beckham to Barcelona of
the Spanish league for $50 million, it sent the expected
convulsions through the English media. By now Britons are so
Beckham-addled that they can think about him only in hysterical
terms. But the real news wasn't that he was headed to Barcelona.
(Beckham's handlers indicated he'd veto the move, as is his
right.) The real news was this: The Boss doesn't want David
Beckham anymore.

Why on earth would Man U consider selling its most valuable
asset? And why now, just as the club is set to embark on a highly
anticipated U.S. tour meant to boost its image in the States?
Four reasons:

*MONEY Because Beckham has two years left on his contract, Man U
can sell his rights to the highest bidder so long as Beckham is
willing to join the new team and agrees to salary terms.
Beckham's market value is as high as it will ever be, and Man
United can use the money from his sale to fill needs at several
positions, such as goalkeeper, defense and the central midfield.

*TACTICS In the one-forward alignment the Red Devils introduced
last year, they rely far less on crossing the ball--Beckham's
forte--than they did when two forwards were roaming the penalty
box. The system values dribblers who can beat defenders
one-on-one, hardly Beckham's strong suit. As if to prove Beckham
was dispensable, Ferguson kept him out of the starting lineup for
last season's two most important games, against Real Madrid and
Premier League archrival Arsenal.

*EUROPEAN STRUGGLES Though Manchester United won the Premier
League title for the sixth time in eight years, the club has
floundered in the Champions League, failing to appear in the
final--Ferguson's Holy Grail--since the Treble four years ago.
Changes must be made.

*FERGIE VERSUS BECKS In the end, though, Beckham's likely
departure can be attributed to the bitter unraveling of what
Beckham calls "a father-son relationship." The tabloids feasted
on a locker room accident in February, in which Ferguson, livid
after a loss, kicked a boot in anger, dinging his star in the
forehead and opening a gash above Beckham's left eye. But there's
more to it than that. To hear Ferguson discuss the teenage
Beckham is to hear a tale of youthful innocence and talent
corrupted--or at the very least distracted--by fame. "He was
blessed with great stamina, the best of all the players we've had
here," Ferguson says. "After training he'd always be practicing,
practicing, practicing. So there's a foundation there that never
deserted him. And then...."

It's a long pause, one of those times when silence communicates
more than words ever could. Suddenly you realize, in this
fleeting moment, how deeply Ferguson longs for the schoolboy
Beckham, for a simpler era, for a time when his star wasn't
spending his free hours with Jean Paul Gaultier and the Naked
Chef.

"...his life changed when he met his wife, really," Ferguson
finally continues. "She's in pop, and David got another image.
And he's developed this fashion thing." (He says "fashion thing"
in the bewildered way you'd expect to hear from, say, Vince
Lombardi.) "I saw his transition to a different person. So long
as it doesn't affect his football side, it doesn't bother me at
all." Clearly, in the past three months Ferguson has decided: The
glitz has indeed affected Beckham's football side. You can't
escape the field.

For his part, the boy who cried with joy for Man U as an
11-year-old wants to stay. "At the moment I'm contracted to
Manchester United, and as far as I'm concerned, I'm happy with
that," Beckham says. Yet he is keenly aware of one thing: If and
when he leaves Man United this summer, it will be up to one man,
a cranky but altogether charming Scotsman whose other kindred
spirit, Yank Division, is John Wayne. "I've got all the Duke's
movies," Ferguson says proudly. "I always pictured John Wayne as
a man you could bring on if you needed a last-minute goal. Know
what I mean? He's a battler. Always winning every fight, every
shootout."

Beckham won't win this gunfight. But someday soon, when he's
wearing the jersey of Real Madrid or AC Milan or some other fancy
European team, he'll meet Ferguson again on the soccer field.

Sounds like the basis for another epic redemption story.

COLOR PHOTO: HOWARD SCHATZ (BECKHAM) [COVER INSET] SPEND IT ON BECKHAM The Soccer King Of England Is For SaleCOLOR PHOTO: HOWARD SCHATZ [T of C] A REIGN IN SPAIN? David Beckham may leave Manchester for Barcelona or Madrid (page 60).COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY HOWARD SCHATZ BECKS' FOOT FORWARD Physicists the world over have done intensive studies of Beckham's mind-bending free kicks.COLOR PHOTO: HOWARD SCHATZCOLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN IN STYLE Beckham draws attention not only for his play but also for his every new 'do.COLOR PHOTO: IAN HODGSON/REUTERS/CORBIS [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: DAN CHUNG/REUTERS/CORBIS [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: BEN RADFORD/GETTY IMAGES [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: AP PHOTO/DENIS DOYLE HEADLINER From his World Cup carding to his dustups with Ferguson to his Spice Girl wife, Beckham is tabloid fodder.COLOR PHOTO: THE SUN NEWSPAPER [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: KEVIN WINTER/GETTY IMAGES [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD PELHAM/THE SUN NEWSPAPER OVER AND IN The Real Madrid wall couldn't deny Beckham in what may have been one of his last matches for Man United.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: BOB MARTIN PRICE OF FAME Beckham's celebrity has made Sir Alex less interested in holding on to him.
Beckham has "a real instinct for keeping himself looking cool in
the eyes of FIVE-TO 20-YEAR-OLDS," Hornby says.
"BEING A GAY ICON is a great honor for me," says Beckham. "I'm
quite sure of my feminine side."
By pursuing so many nontraditional sports demographics, BECKHAM
HAS RISKED alienating the hard-core soccer fan.
"His life changed WHEN HE MET HIS WIFE, really," says Ferguson.
"She's in pop, and David got another image."