David Beckham celebrating his goal against Colombia at France '98.

The four days in France that made David Beckham

Tuesday 03 July 2018 13:59

Colombia and England have met just once before in the World Cup. Tonight, the football-crazed populaces of each country will stop, as that figure doubles to two in Moscow. But the sides’ one previous meeting, on a hot summer’s night in Lens, France, some 20 years ago, stirs plenty of memories.

It was the night David Beckham announced himself on the international stage, by sending a stunning free-kick arcing into the Colombian net.

The boy from Leytonstone had made his debut for the national side in 1996, but this was a first goal for the Three Lions; his first goal at a World Cup. It sent Glenn Hoddle’s men through to the knockout stages of the tournament, and had the entire nation swooning before Beckham’s boyish good looks.

But, far from being the climactic moment in Beckham’s journey to the heart of the English public’s affections, the Colombia match was merely the first chapter in the most tumultuous summer of Beckham’s career. What followed would define not only him, but the tone for the United season that was to come.

Next up for England was Argentina, in the round of 16.

The game was locked at 2-2, after a rip-roaring first-half, but its most decisive moment arrived midway through the second period, when Beckham was dismissed for lashing out at Diego Simeone, after the combative Argentinean midfielder had crashed into him with a late challenge.
Beckham's red card against Argentina made him the scapegoat for England's World Cup exit.
England would have a late Sol Campbell header dubiously disallowed, and still managed to take the game to penalties, where misses from Paul Ince and David Batty condemned them to a frustrating exit.

But, for the public and the press, Beckham was the fall guy.

“10 heroic lions, one stupid boy” lambasted the Mirror. The Daily Mail decried the sending-off as “a moment of lunacy”.

With his popularity at an all-time low, Becks retreated to United where, with typical strength of purpose, Alex Ferguson set about restoring his confidence.

“The first person to call me was Ferguson,” recalled our former no.7. “He said, ‘Son, get back to Manchester, you’ll be fine.’ That gave me strength to actually get through probably the toughest time in my life.”
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Beckham’s rebirth began on the first day of the Premier League season, when he struck home a free-kick in the dying moments of our opening match against Leicester City to earn a crucial point. But the road to redemption was far from smooth.

United’s first away game was at Upton Park – home to the famously patriotic West Ham fanbase. An effigy of Beckham was captured dangling from a makeshift hangman’s noose, and the team bus was hammered with stones, amid chants of: “We hate Beckham”.

Beckham was no stranger to boos. United had won four of the last six Premier League titles, which stimulated jealousy and bitterness from the fans of other clubs, and members of the Class of '92 had been regularly jeered by England fans for several years, simply because of the club they played for.

But the red card intensified the anti-Beckham angst to delirious, ridiculous levels. Pleasingly, for United fans, Beckham, Ferguson and their colleagues weren’t the kind to lie down like meek lambs.
West Ham fans lay into Becks at Upton Park, 1998.
With characteristic resilience, and galvanised by the siege-savvy Ferguson, United responded in classic fashion: embarking on the greatest season in English football history, which ended with an unprecedented and still-unmatched Treble.

And who was it, in the final moments of that epic season, dragging United forward when everything seemed to be going against them? 1-0 down against Bayern Munich in the Champions League final, it was Beckham’s spirit and heart that hauled United towards the promised land.

Already shorn of Roy Keane and Paul Scholes for the club’s first European Cup final since 1968, it was Beckham who picked up the slack and moved into central midfield. It was Beckham whose surging run led to the cross that won the corner before United’s equaliser. Beckham who took the corners that created the two most earth-shattering goals in United history.
David Beckham says

“The first person to call me was Ferguson. He said, ‘Son, get back to Manchester, you’ll be fine.’ That gave me strength to get through the toughest time in my life.”

It was a glorious, heroic finale to the greatest season in United history – but also a fitting end to one of the great individual campaigns.

Only the Brazilian sorcerer Rivaldo denied Beckham the 1999 Ballon d’Or award. No United player had placed higher in the voting for European football’s most prestigious accolade since George Best, 31 years earlier.

The Treble belonged to everyone associated with Manchester United but, for Beckham, the whole season was a very personal triumph. The journey to those two corners, to those late, lung-busting runs, started on the fields of France, 11 months earlier. What followed came from somewhere deep within; a place of unvarnished will-power and defiance. 

France '98 came close to crushing David Beckham. In the end, it made him.