During his 14 years as an England international, David Beckham experienced almost every emotion conceivable. From the despair of being dropped by Glenn Hoddle against Tunisia at the 1998 World Cup, and then held responsible for his country’s premature exit, to the unbridled joy of being named captain and reaching 100 caps, he seemed to feel it all so keenly.
In an age when international football is widely considered an afterthought or an inconvenience, Beckham embraced it with a peculiar intensity. He loved representing his country and wasn’t shy about showing it. Yet throughout a decorated and uniquely high-profile career, Beckham had a complex relationship with England supporters and the World Cup.
The fluctuations in his international fortunes were often mirrored by those of the England team that he was so closely identified with. At times they appeared inextricable. In many ways Beckham’s career trajectory can be plotted out through his World Cup appearances. They acted as significant staging posts on his journey from villain, to hero, to world star and, finally, respected elder statesman.
The haircuts, the free-kicks, the tabloid scandals, the injury crises, the big moments – Beckham was at the centre of it all. For so long the England team – the way it saw itself and was perceived by others – was almost an extension of one man’s all-encompassing celebrity. He was a player and a brand like no other there has been before or since.
Although it’s become fashionable to question his ability in recent times, the revisionism that surrounds Beckham can only go so far. He undoubtedly had some limitations – particularly his lack of pace and sometimes excessive fondness for a killer pass – but they were mitigated by some exceptional strengths: an unrivalled work rate and willingness to improve, as well as some of the best crossing and dead-ball delivery there has ever been.
Beckham played in three World Cups, and would have become only the second England player to be involved in four (after Bobby Charlton) if injury hadn’t ruled him out of Fabio Capello’s squad for South Africa. Although he never officially retired from international football, that tournament marked the end. Beckham watched on from the bench as an unofficial part of the backroom team, and never featured again.
Way back in 1996 he made his England debut in Hoddle’s first match in charge, a routine 3-0 win over Moldova. Beckham was a regular during the qualifying campaign for the 1998 World Cup, starting every game on the right side. Yet by the time the squad arrived in France, Hoddle sensed Beckham had lost focus and succumbed to the temptations of his newfound fame.
Devastated to be dropped from the team for the opening match against Tunisia, Beckham fought back to play a central role – for better and worse – in France. He scored a superb free-kick against Colombia to help seal England’s progress to the second round; the rest, unfortunately, is history – and the sort he’d no doubt rather forget.
Regardless of what went before, Beckham’s entire World Cup was defined in the minds of the nation by a petulant flick of the right boot towards Diego Simeone while lying prostrate on the turf. England were reduced to 10 men and, despite an impressive rearguard action, lost to Argentina on penalties. Led by the tabloid press, he was pilloried as the ‘stupid boy’ who had let his country down.
Coming back from that incredibly isolating experience required tremendous mental strength and force of character. Thankfully Beckham had both. He survived the storm of vilification that spilled into the domestic season and emerged all the more influential for it.
First awarded the captain’s armband by caretaker manager Peter Taylor, he retained it under Sven-Goran Eriksson. By 2002 Beckham had emerged as the undoubted star of English football and the man on whom the country pinned its hopes. His tireless performance in the final qualifier against Greece, capped off with a textbook free-kick, became iconic. His status as a footballer and media personality soared. He was increasingly seen as the face, body and spirit of the Three Lions.
Yet unexpected events threatened to derail what promised to be Beckham’s World Cup. A wild tackle by Deportivo La Coruna’s Argentine midfielder Aldo Duscher in a Champions League tie fractured a bone in his foot and left the nation sweating on his fitness. Bizarrely, the very newspapers who had previously been so critical of him now prayed for a quick recovery, encouraging their readers to do the same.
Beckham didn’t play for Manchester United for the rest of the season but was still named in Eriksson’s squad and received a hero’s welcome in Japan and South Korea. His appeal was going global. Still far from full sharpness, he set up Sol Campbell’s header in a 1-1 draw with Sweden and then delivered a redemptive strike from the penalty spot against Argentina.
Four years on from being sent off against the same opponents, Beckham crashed home his spot-kick to hand England victory and exorcise some personal demons in the process. Drilling the ball hard and low past Pablo Cavallero, the relief was etched on Beckham’s face as he ran towards the corner flag, manically grasping at his shirt in celebration. A nation started to believe.
But that was as good as the tournament got from an England perspective. As the draw opened up, a semi-final against Turkey or Senegal awaited if the Three Lions could see off Brazil. Despite going ahead through Michael Owen, England’s lead was overturned and Beckham was arguably culpable for the equaliser. In a decision that has since been cast as an act of self-preservation, he leapt out of a challenge with Roberto Carlos as the ball looked to be rolling out of play. It enabled Brazil to sweep up the pitch and level the scores on the stroke of half-time. Ronaldinho then swung in the winning goal from an outlandish free-kick, with a backpedalling David Seaman slow to respond.
A narrow exit to the eventual champions at least showed that England were heading in the right direction, though, and the squad matured in the intervening years. Wayne Rooney emerged as the latest boy wonder, while John Terry and Frank Lampard came to prominence.
By 2006 there weren’t as many obvious weak spots in the team. Aside from an embarrassing defeat by Northern Ireland, England qualified for the next World Cup at a canter. Boasting a squad packed with talented players at leading Premier League clubs, they were among the favourites to win the tournament. Beckham once again led his country out.
Progress through the group stage was serene if unspectacular, but external issues bubbled away beneath the surface. WAG culture was at its height and Beckham, the most extreme example of the celebrity footballer, was seen to encapsulate a star-studded but underperforming team driven to distraction by wealth, fame and outside interests. Many feared that things were getting out of hand.
The team’s performances on the pitch were arguably undermined by Eriksson’s desire to shoehorn in world-class players at the cost of team balance and cohesion. The partnership of Lampard and Steven Gerrard in midfield was a notorious problem that he never quite resolved. Although Beckham scored in his third World Cup, curling in a free-kick during a tepid 1-0 win over Ecuador in the second round, England again bowed out at the quarter-final stage.
Deprived of Beckham (due to a first-half injury) and Rooney (sent off for stamping on Ricardo Carvalho), there was a lack of cutting edge on show as the game against Portugal drifted to a 0-0 draw and penalties. Three of England’s first four takers missed and the Eriksson era was over. So was Beckham’s supremacy and seemingly untouchable status.
In a press conference after England’s elimination he announced his decision to step down as captain in order to provide a clean slate for incoming manager Steve McClaren, who had previously been Eriksson’s assistant. Beckham described leading his country as the “greatest honour of his career” and was visibly upset at surrendering his position. He vowed to continue playing but it briefly looked as if his international career was over.
Keen to assert his authority and provide a symbolic break from the past, McClaren culled Beckham from the squad. It was a power play which backfired badly. The midfielder was left in the wilderness for almost a year before earning a surprise recall. England were struggling badly and failed to qualify for Euro 2008 despite Beckham’s efforts to rescue the situation as an impact substitute during that infamous loss against Croatia.
By 2010, he was the squad’s wise old head, desperately clinging on into his mid-30s. Having earned a reprieve under McClaren, he remained heavily involved once his former Real Madrid manager Fabio Capello was appointed. Beckham reached 100 caps on an emotional night in Paris, becoming just the fourth player to do so in the history of the national team.
Although his standing in the squad was much diminished compared to the Eriksson years, Beckham limped on to a total of 115 caps, often coming off the bench for brief cameos. A desire to prolong his international career saw him twice embark on loan moves from LA Galaxy to Milan in the MLS off-season. Doubts persisted but he remained one of Capello’s favourites.
Beckham looked destined to appear in a fourth World Cup until he was cruelly ruled out through injury. Tearing his Achilles tendon against Chievo in March 2010, he was sidelined for six months and would play no part in South Africa. Instead he travelled as a symbolic member of Capello’s backroom staff, forced to watch on powerlessly as England were eliminated in the second round after a particularly meek showing.
Even then Beckham refused to retire from international football, although he never again played for his country. Still regarded as a heroic figure and a national treasure, he didn’t have the high-profile send-off his status seemed to demand, but he was loved all the same – a far cry from the traumatic events in Saint-Etienne.
From the young and impetuous pariah who many thought shouldn’t pull on an England shirt again after his mistake against Argentina, to the revered veteran who gamely clung on far longer than many expected, it was a remarkable transformation.
More than his contributions to Manchester United or Real Madrid, it was Beckham’s flawed yet compelling international career which established him in the public eye and kept him there. Centring on those four consecutive World Cups, from 1998 to 2010, his place in our shared popular consciousness tied in with the performances of the national team. During that period, England and Beckham often felt like one and the same thing.