It’s the second leg of the 2003 Champions League semifinal. Manchester United is trailing by two, facing a true Galácticos in Real Madrid, and Beckham, multi-talented superstar, United’s usual starting midfielder, has been benched. Biggest game of the season and that Übermensch, Sir Alex Ferguson, dusts off Juan Sebastian Veron, a guy who’s been on the pine for seven weeks, puts him in the game, and all Becks gets to do is sit and look sharp in his blue jumper.
After the game, Ferguson said benching Beckham was a “straightforward decision”. This is as big as the stage gets; Old Trafford, they’re going into the game trailing, and the decision is “straightforward”? Beckham is a cornerstone of Ferguson’s legacy. The relationship was symbiotic, which just adds sentimentality, so “straightforward”? Nobody should believe that.
A few months before, Ferguson kicked a cleat at Beckham. They had a blowup and the cleat sliced Beckham above his eyebrow. Ferguson said that Becks was acting like he was bigger than the manager. So he kicked a shoe at him. Now tonight, on the night of the biggest meal of the year, while everyone is inside eating, Ferguson keeps Becks in the kennel. How is the coach trying to get to his star? Treat him like he’s nothing.
Beckham had to sit there and watch Madrid toss his team up against the ropes and beat the hell out of them. Fat man, (Brazilian) Ronaldo — still an easy argument for the best striker in the world at the time — was making the United defense look ridiculous. They gave him way too much space. He was beating them to spots, and not because he was quicker, the fat fuck, just smarter. He had a hat-trick. Zinedine Zidane — aka Lex Luther, the smoothest guy out there, World Cup champion — was moving Madrid like a six-stroke engine. It wasn’t hard. He had guys like Luis Figo and Roberto Carlos running up alongside him. Madrid’s roster stays world class pretty deep. They’re Ferraris. They’re Greek Gods. They’re dominating. They’re a spectacle. They’re nearly perfect, just, missing a guy named Beckham.
Beckham is nothing but a Galáctico, but for all his celebrity, he works his ass off. Whether it’s soccer or looking sexy in underwear, he wants to win and is winning.
He runs up and down the right side of the field, sending balls in diagonally or to the corner, high over the defense, whipping some in low, skipping them across the net. He’s a great attacker in general. They named a movie after his free kicks. The path, the angle, the velocity, all are military-grade. Get your fucking protractor out and measure some of these.
So he’s sitting on the bench for the game against Madrid? And the decision was “straightforward”?
The 63rd minute:
“You’re going in.”
“You're sixty-three minutes late, old man.”
I’ve spent my whole life at this club. I won them a lot. I’m not saying that earns you impunity, but it should at least guarantee that nobody will kick a shoe at you. I’m through.
But if I go out and act pouty, he wins. He’ll say, “Look at the pretty one.” And it would seem he was right to leave me on the bench, and he’s gonna tell them that I’m a bitch, that I’ve changed, and that the sport doesn’t mean to me what it used to.
That I’m about underwear now.
Bollocks. I sleep next to a pop singer.
I look smashing in my underwear.
I can still play.
Becks takes a squirt of water.
I deserve to be at the biggest club, with the best players, and not because I am who I am, but because I play the way I play.
The kid picks up Beckham’s sweats and folds them neatly, excited to do it.
I’m a star.
Real Madrid understands stars.
Look at who’s out there. World-class all around.
They are sculpted. They are ‘David’.
I am David.
The assistant referee punches into the machine the number seven, then the number four.
Then that’s where I’m going. To Spanish royalty.
They’ll treat me properly.
It’s like Rey Arturo’s Knights of the Round Table over there.
They let their stars shine.
I don’t belong under the cloud of a Scot.
Veron is jogging to the sideline.
Beckham bends for a stretch.
Ferguson wants to darken my shine?
Not 10 minutes in, Beckham gets his first chance to show Madrid he’s still got it. Ruud van Nistelrooy is chopped down about 25 yards out, just right of center. The referee brushes off the complaints of the Madrid players, while Beckham quietly collects the ball.
Madrid’s goalkeeper, a young and colicky Iker Casilas, calls for five men in the wall. It doesn’t matter how many he lines up, Beckham has too much to prove and too much talent. He can make the ball move around what anybody can build out of men.
Is Beckham thinking of Ferguson as he lines himself up? Is he imagining life in Madrid? Hoping an in-person view of the swerve would ensure Madird comes calling? Most likely he’s thinking about nothing.
When there’s a moment to perform, nearly everything goes away. There’s peace. Your fans chanting, the whistle blows, then for a moment even they go.
Beckham’s run-up to the ball is long, but he does it quick. He gets great whip out of his leg, that’s where the power comes from. The angle his foot cuts across the ball generates the curve and the topspin that will make the ball loop, make it swerve, give it its elusiveness. He makes contact then the ball goes whizzing by the right edge of the wall, by Roberto Carlos who has cheated out of the wall and jumped up at it.
The ball starts above the goal frame, but once it’s cleared the wall and there is nothing left but the goal, it’s flight flattens out, maybe dips. Casilias, the Madrid goalkeeper, only leans toward the ball, he doesn’t move. The ball kisses off the underside of the crossbar, makes a ping, then sends Casilas into a tantrum.
For you, Fergie.
The goal is proof that no matter what a coach thinks or what he’s done, a player can become bigger than him. That's a reality that some coaches believe they cannot allow their players to see. A coach’s influence cannot reach the game but through a player, a player’s brilliance can show independent of the coach. The only thing a player cannot get bigger than is the club. Take Beckham’s free kick, it had to be won by a teammate, a teammate that was brought in by the club’s management, trained by its coaches, pampered by its staff. There is no moment where a player is independent of the club, so all players, even the stars, must show dedication and servitude to their club or risk their stock dropping. By benching Beckham, Ferguson is signaling, “Becks is not dedicated to his club. He’s pop, not football. Not football.” Beckham has proven that he still has his famous right foot, but now he must show Madrid that Ferguson’s benching was nothing but the petty move of a power-hungry coach, not punishment for big-headedness. That chance comes in the 79th minute.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wins the ball back for United and a break is on. They have nearly the length of the field to go. Ole to Ryan Giggs, one vertical pass, and the trip starts. Van Nistelrooy gets on his horse and gallops into the open field, up Giggs’ left side, Beckham is on the right, trailing*.
Giggs has the space to carry the ball to about 30 yards out where a Madrid defender engages him. Giggs starts one of his typical winding runs — he likes to suddenly cut at sharp angles, get defenders turning as they backpedal — but just as he kicks into gear, and hops the first defender, up runs van Nistelrooy, whose gallop hasn’t slowed. The Dutchman takes the ball over. He skins one defender, Casilas comes out of the goal, then he bangs a shot off him. lt hits Madrid’s Fernando Hierro, then heads towards the goal.
Beckham trails the play. There’s a Madrid guy there, Roberto Carlos. He might not get to it, but he’s a sneaky fuck. I’m slamming it in.
Beckham sprints for the ball, launches himself at it, sending himself on a collision course with, at the very least, the ground and the ball, a sharp set of cleats, maybe the goalpost. The game is virtually over. Why do it? Why chance harm?
I’m a footballer. That’s all.
Beckham gets there first. He knocks the ball in, then picks it up and runs it back to midfield.
Madrid’s men upstairs take note.
They've seen enough.
They will buy him that summer.
* There’s a science to being the trailer. He’s usually not the fastest guy on the field, but he’s got to be a hard worker. He runs the length of the field. It’s his sub-par speed and no-quit attitude that puts him in the right place, at the right time. It’s very blue collar. As a player, Beckham fits this description. While his image off the field is glamorous, on the field, he’s the child of a carpenter and a hairdresser.