Fifteen years after David Beckham’s brilliant free-kick against Greece, James Dutton looks back at the moment that defined the England captain…
In English football there has always been a fascination with the individual. From the cult of the manager to the star player, the influence of one has often been viewed as greater than the collective.
It is why the job of England manager continues to be sold as among the biggest in world football; the idea that one man can turn around years of infrastructural complacency and negligence.
The Roy of the Rovers phenomenon that has gripped English football for over 50 years still dominates. It is why Manchester United ‘owe it’ to Wayne Rooney to fit him into the first eleven, why dropping Steven Gerrard in his final season at Liverpool became such a seismic issue.
All-action super-heroes and chest-thumping talismanic captains are what England specialise in. And yet, it is a country without a major honour in 50 years, who haven’t since defeated a major nation at the knockout stage of a tournament in normal time.
Individualism does not work, and yet it remains revered. The influence of Diego Maradona in Argentina’s World Cup 1986 victory has been immortalised, yet exaggerated.
How did Liverpool win the Champions League final in 2005? Gerrard, of course. Who is Manchester United’s best player? Captain Rooney, of course.
Great players can raise the level of their team-mates, they can not do it themselves. If they try to do it themselves, they often fail.
Fifteen years ago today, David Beckham delivered a masterclass in the art. England needed to match Germany’s result against Finland to ensure automatic qualification for the 2002 World Cup.
A situation that looked to be plucked from a fantasy novel when Kevin Keegan resigned in the toilets of the old Wembley a year earlier was very much in the grasp of Sven-Goran Eriksson’s revolutionised England.
Greece were the opposition at Old Trafford. A limited, agricultural side, their remarkable triumph at Euro 2004 was less than three years away, but felt as remote as at any point in their history. England were heavy favourites to seal passage to Japan and South Korea.
After all, they had blown away Germany in Munich just a month earlier, delivering a stylish performance unmatched since Holland at Euro 96, and that the national side has managed in mere flashes ever since.
But England struggled to break down obdurate opposition, they were not afforded the open spaces and opportunities to counter that had been the hallmark of the 5-1 win a month beforehand. Old Trafford was tetchy and the players panicked.
None panicked more so than the captain. Beckham had been understated in that win over Germany, sticking to his position on the right hand side of midfield, drifting infield when it was called for and orchestrating possession.
England’s hat-trick hero that day was missing in Manchester. Michael Owen was felled by injury. Sol Campbell and David Seaman, too, were sidelined, with Nigel Martyn and Martin Keown deputising.
The 20-year-old Owen, in the form of his life, was sorely missed. In his absence, Beckham felt obliged to step up. It was the typical response of a captain, taking on the responsibility to lead the team.
At 26, Beckham was at the height of his powers. Memories of Saint Etienne – ’10 brave Lions and one stupid boy’ – had been vanquished as the Manchester United winger became the symbol of the national side and the biggest celebrity footballer on the planet.
The international retirements of Alan Shearer and Tony Adams post-Euro 2000 had left a leadership vacuum that Beckham was only too happy to fill. England allowed him to show off a side of his game that he could not fulfil at club level ever since he took the armband for the first time under caretaker boss Peter Taylor in a friendly defeat against Italy in October 2000.
He was the superstar of a young and new England side. Bristling with potential they would later become the ‘Golden Generation’, and their failure would be exploited to highlight the avarice of a sport and an age cut off from the norm.
Beckham’s celebrity led to his Manchester United exit in 2003, but at this stage he could do no wrong. He would go on to win the BBC’s Sport Personality of the Year award, back when the prize held some merit and when footballers had not become the persona non grata in the realm of sporting appreciation in this country; when you could watch the Olympics without being bombarded with comparisons between humble athletes and hubristic footballers.
Yet Beckham’s crowning glory of 2001 was distilled into one moment. Five seconds of brilliance. The sustained consistency, the redemption of his reputation, were not factors enough to bring him that public recognition he so craved.
A text-book free-kick, bending into the top corner in the 94th minute to send England into the World Cup. It doesn’t get more Roy of the Rovers. If English football was to script its own mythology, this would be its piece de resistance.
That single moment was seen as the deserved culmination of a talismanic performance from England’s captain.
‘Brilliant Beckham averts Greek tragedy’ screamed the Telegraph:
‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man.’ Beckham had played a ‘captain’s innings’ according to the broadsheet.
‘At times the captain was almost playing Greece on his own’ claimed Paul Wilson in the Guardian. Beckham, he wrote, ‘deserved a goal for his ceaseless inspiration.’
But within the report, Wilson makes an alarming admission, that Beckham had sacrificed England’s width by ‘repeatedly leaving his wing to come inside and help out.’
Beckham’s herculean effort against the Greeks was precisely that. Vacating his position on the right hand side of midfield, clogging up space in central areas and attempting to dictate by spraying 50-yard Hollywood passes.
It was one man against the world. Was it one man taking responsibility, or one man panicking and undermining the team effort? Were central midfield duo Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes so peripheral because they felt obliged to cede the impetus to their captain?
As a 10-year-old at school I was told that Beckham’s performance against Greece was one to look up to. One to aspire to. ‘He covered every blade of grass’, was the defining message.
Something is up with the footballing education in this country when that is the message. Run around, anywhere you can and as many times as is feasible. The hours of practice that Beckham put in perfecting his technique was the right message, not a performance that was, on the whole, selfish, and redeemed by his own right boot.
Overlooked, too, is that that free-kick was his twelfth of the match. It was his eighth attempt at goal from a deal ball situation. One of the four crosses was flicked home by Teddy Sheringham to draw England level for the first time. There is no doubt Beckham took responsibility, but did he give his team-mates a chance?
Fifteen years have passed and the message hasn’t really changed. Beckham vs Greece stands, unchallenged, as one of the great performances in an England shirt. It is hard to imagine other footballing cultures would share this perspective.
Beckham’s free-kick deserves to be applauded, the execution, the narrative and the jubilation are what immortalise it in the hall of fame. That it was ever needed is due to England fulfilling its own footballing mythology.
England: Martyn, Neville, Ferdinand, Keown, Ashley Cole (McManaman 78), Beckham, Gerrard, Scholes, Barmby (Andy Cole 45), Fowler (Sheringham 66), Heskey
Goals: Sheringham 68, Beckham 90+3
Greece: Nikopolidis, Patastzoglou, Dabizas, Vokolos, Konstantinidis, Fissas, Zagorakis (Basinas 55), Kassapis, Karagounis, Charisteas (Lakis 72), Nikolaidis
Goals: Charisteas 36, Nikolaidis 69