When David Beckham was the most hated man in England – and had the greatest season of his life
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.
Circus and the storm
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’re 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.
“You can be stronger...”
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’s 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 FourFourTwo 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.”
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