England, Colombia and the two David Beckhams


It’s seventeen years to the day when Michael Owen tore through the Argentinian defence in St Etienne, which means it’s also seventeen years since David Beckham received the poorly-timed red-card that would ultimately change his career.

Enough has been written about Beckham, Diego Simeone and the subsequent aftermath for it not to warrant further discussion, but that moment was pivotal for many reasons and while it unwittingly began the future captain’s ascent to the status which he would later occupy, it also seemed to alter his playing personality forever.

The young Beckham is remembered for a lot of different reasons.  Primarily, he was a supremely eye-catching player who, despite never being blessed with an abundance of any one attribute, did magical things with a football.  His early years in the Manchester United side were littered with long-range goals and match-winning moments, many of which have been forgotten, but they were framed by what was ultimately a petulant, antagonistic character.

Between 1995 and 1998, Beckham was a liability.  His statistical record suggests that, superficially, his reputation was unblemished prior to that kick out at Simeone’s calf, but truthfully he had been heading for a big-game dismissal for some time.

In his early twenties, he was as much a menace as he was gifted.  The sepia-toned obituaries of his career may have forgotten this, but those first few years were punctuated by darker antics and France 1998, at the time, felt like a righteous punishment for all that he had gotten away with up to that point.

Beckham loved the spotlight - he adored it.  The hatred which descended upon post-Argentina may have been a different proposition entirely, but as a young player he seemed to enjoy being the object of acrimony.  He encouraged it, too, because nobody played to the crowd or milked the jealousy more than David Beckham did.  The provocative celebrations, the self-promoting posturing and the floppy, bleached hair betrayed a concentration of self-regard and superiority that ultimately made him both very dislikeable and very engaging.

In the beginning, we watched Beckham because we didn’t know what he would do next - in a general sense, too, because whether by finding the top-corner, cupping his ear to hostile fans, or leaving his foot in on an opponent, he had a habit of barging his way onto centre-stage in most of the games he played in the mid-to-late 90s.

France ’98 didn’t end that completely, but it chastened him and it exposed him for the first time to consequence.

Beckham the Younger died at that tournament.  Argentina was the literal full-stop, of course, but the Colombia game - the last group match in France - was probably the last time Beckham’s youthful fire raged so fiercely.

Watching it now, that free-kick (from 1.50 onwards) has an eery quality.  Beckham’s goal essentially secured England’s passage into the knockout rounds, but nobody knew at the time that it would be the apex of his initial surge through the game.  He would go on to win many more trophies and he would mature as a player over the next five years, but that match marked the end of his vertical, pure ascent.

That’s what’s pertinent, here.  While it’s generally accepted that Beckham organically developed into the the revered figure he would be in his latter years,  it’s arguably more accurate to depict him as two entirely separate players.  It was less an evolution and more a sea-change; a conscious abandonment of the course he had been on prior to that tournament.

Who he was before the 1998 World Cup and who he would be after it were dramatically different people.  Post-Argentina, Beckham would periodically show his teeth, but he generally existed within the margins from that point onwards - as such, it was less a waypoint in his career and more a T-junction.

It was as if his imperfections were burnt away by the controversy.

The reality is perhaps not quite that neat, but there’s at least some merit in saying that the goal against Colombia - with the typically swaggering celebration - was the last time Beckham was seen in his original form.

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1 Comment on "England, Colombia and the two David Beckhams"

  1. The ultimate reason why Beckham changed his behaviour was purely down to money. His agent telling him that if he wanted to rake in the millions from merchandising his name he had to stop his bad behaviour. Did England ever look like winning the Euros or World Cup with Beckham, answer NO. He was rarely a game changer.

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