During a trophy-laden career at boyhood club Manchester United, David Beckham announced himself as one of the best-loved players to ever grace the Old Trafford turf. For all of those magical memories in a Red Devils shirt, however, the iconic No.7’s greatest moment at the Theatre of Dreams was one that propelled him from club hero to national treasure in one fell swoop; simultaneously exorcising the demons of the infamous Saint-Etienne nightmare of three years earlier.
October 6th 2001: a date that is forever etched into the brains of the 66,000 fans lucky enough to have witnessed one of the greatest climaxes in English football since 1966. With one beautiful sweep of his magical wand of a right-foot, the Three Lions captain would send Old Trafford (and the entire nation) into raptures as England sealed their place at the 2002 FIFA World Cup. Fifteen years to the day, it could be strongly argued that the Three Lions have failed to deliver a single moment to rival the sheer ecstasy of that 93rd minute winner. Coincidentally, however, it’s one that shouldn’t have be necessary.
Just five weeks previously, England had seized control of Group 9 as an unforgettable hat-trick from Michael Owen – supported by Steven Gerrard’s first international strike and completed by Emile Heskey’s tidy finish – had seen the Three Lions roar to a famous 5-1 victory in Munich.
England’s magical performance against their arch rivals had erased the memory of falling to Dietmar Hamann’s free-kick in the last ever game at Wembley earlier in the campaign and, after beating Albania 2-0 at St James’ Park four days later, simply needed to match Germany’s result on the final day to guarantee a place at the first World Cup of the 21st century. In under 10 months, Sven-Goran Eriksson had instilled a sense of confidence that had largely vacated the Three Lions since Beckham’s moment of madness on the Stade Geoffrey-Guichard turf – a backstory that makes that amplifies the importance of the subsequent tale.
Beckham had entered the 1998 World Cup as an already established star who was on the cusp of greatness. The Manchester United youngster had grabbed the headlines by scoring from his own half at Selhurst Park and stepped into his first major tournament as a two-time Premier League champion. The midfielder had also started every qualifier en route to France while a trademark free-kick in the group stage win over Colombia had only further confirmed his obvious ability to perform on the greatest stage of all. Football can be a cruel game, though, and the 23-year-old’s life on the pitch was about to reach rock bottom.
A petulant kick at Diego Simeone early into the second-half resulted in a second yellow and an early dismissal for the England No.7. As the brave Lions subsequently crashed out on penalties, the tabloid headlines had already been written. Paul Ince and David Batty were off the hook, because Beckham was public enemy number one.
Inexperience and immaturity had cost Beckham and England dearly in Saint-Etienne, but the ensuing hatred was nothing short of disgraceful. Taunts throughout the following season were to be expected; hanging effigies of his image were not. For months, Beckham and future wife Victoria were met with abuse at virtually every turn. Lesser men could have easily caved in, quitting the international scene to concentrate on a club career that would soon deliver a historic treble; Beckham’s pride in wearing the famous white shirt meant that was simply not an option.
England’s downturn under Kevin Keegan didn’t help. Despite a win over Germany, the Three Lions crashed out at the group stage of Euro 2000 as the baton of national hate was passed onto Phil Neville, who had conceded the decisive penalty against Romania. Keegan duly tendered his resignation immediately after the final Wembley defeat. Following a frustrating 0-0 draw in Helsinki just days later under caretaker boss Howard Wilkinson, the prospect of missing out on a second World Cup in three appeared almost inevitable.
The national team was on it’s knees and England needed a hero. In his one game as interim manager, Peter Taylor handed the armband to Beckham. The violent animosity had subsided while marriage had propelled him into the world of A list celebrity. Nevertheless, the Manchester United midfielder was still far from Mr Popular with the nation’s football fraternity. Taylor’s call had been massive, and would pave the way for Golden Balls to complete his astonishing ascent from villain to hero.
Taylor wasn’t the only key figure to have undiluted trust in the England No.7. Following his appointment at the start of 2001, Eriksson immediately confirmed Beckham as his skipper. The new permanent captain stepped up to his new responsibilities with the winner in Eriksson’s first competitive match, against Finland, before playing a crucial role as the Three Lions produced three away wins on the bounce, culminating with the unforgettable night in Munich. Ironically, the Manchester United man had curled in a splendid late free-kick to seal a 2-0 win in Athens too. Less than four months later, that strike would be cast into the abyss of forgotten heroics.
Led by Beckham, England stepped onto the Old Trafford in the reverse clash knowing that just 90 minutes separated them from a place in Japan and South Korea. The turnaround under Eriksson had been nothing short of spectacular, and the football-loving nation was ready to rekindle their trust in the team. Beckham’s reckless behaviour in France hadn’t been forgotten; by full-time, however, it would become forgiven.
England failed to cope with the pressure, putting in what was easily their worst performance under Eriksson. The play was dominated by poor decisions, wayward passes, and a lack of energy. When Greece took the lead shortly after the half-hour through Angelos Charisteas, the dark cloud of a potential play-off loomed.
Beckham, though, was displaying maturity. The lost boy of Saint-Etienne had grown into a talismanic leader; his passion-fuelled inspiration was the only thing stopping Greece from running away with the contest. But every hero needs a sidekick, and the introduction of Teddy Sheringham would prove to be the turning point.
Having just entered the action, Sheringham created an instant impact by meeting Beckham’s free-kick to draw the scores level. With over 20 minutes to play, destiny was back in England’s hands. Just seconds later, though, the Three Lions were dealt a bitter blow as the visitors retook the lead as an unmarked Themistokolis Nikolaidis poked home past a helpless Nigel Martyn. Joy had turned back into despair, and England were staring back the barrel a gun.
England looked abject and dejected, but the skipper wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. Beckham’s last 20 minutes were arguably his best in England shirt as he tried everything to inspire a fightback. With Germany failing to beat Finland in Gelsenkirchen, a draw would be enough to send the Three Lions to the World Cup. But the elusive strike just simply wouldn’t come – at least, not until the 93rd minute.
For all of his attempts from open play, his trademark curling free-kicks remained the sharpest tool in Beckham’s arsenal. Over the course of course of the game, the captain had been afforded several sighters. When Sheringham won a free-kick heading into the last minute of injury time, the stage was set. Beckham’s shot at redemption had arrived.
Few moments in life can be considered true perfection, but the images of Beckham’s stunning free-kick hitting the net is one of them. It had to be Old Trafford. It had to be the last minute. And it had to be a free-kick. It even had to be John Motson’s iconic commentary to provide a soundbite that will stay with every England fan until they die.
Above all else; it had to Beckham.
Watching that goal 15 years on, and it still generates the same feeling of elation as it did back then. Very few sporting moments have the ability to do that, but Beckham’s free-kick isn’t simply about the perfection of the moment itself. It’s one of those iconic incidents that transcends sporting achievement to strike a chord with anyone that’s ever overcome any challenge.
In celebration, Beckham leapt back into the hearts of a nation. Captain fantastic had been England’s saviour, and the memories of Saint-Etienne were no longer the defining moment of the skipper’s international career.
The iconic No.7 underlined his transformation at the World Cup by netting the crucial penalty against Argentina in the Sapporo Dome. Four years later he would become the first Englishman to score in three World Cups, and would end his career as England’s most capped outfield player.
However, even the man himself has openly picked the euphoric free-kick against Greece as the standout moment of his 115 caps. For fans, the Germany game five weeks previously will stand out as England’s most accomplished performance of the 21st century.
As far as a single moment of pure sporting drama is concerned, though, nothing comes close to Beckham’s redemption.