For the best redemption stories, look no further than sports. Just ask David Beckham: the man who was considered the chief villain behind England’s 1998 World Cup exit at the hands of Argentina.
The winger who saw red in the round of 16 defeat was villified by the English press and fans for years after the loss with The Daily Mirror even sending its readers dart-boards with Beckham’s face in the middle.
Beckham, who of course went on to become one of England’s best players, might just have had the burden of that night on his shoulders for long.
After their failure at Euro 2000, there was no redemption in sight for England who were struggling to even qualify for the 2002 World Cup. Knowing how the English media functioned, the blame for failing to reach the World Cup finals by default might have once again fallen on Beckham who was captaining the team.
Needing a draw against Greece at Old Trafford, a nervy England side fell behind to an Angelos Charisteas goal in the 36th minute.
Even after the break, it was the visitors who looked the better side but England managed to equalise through second-half substitute Teddy Sheringham in the 68th minute to settle the nerves.
However, the relief was short-lived as Greece regained the lead just a minute later.
Rattled by the visitors’ quick response, England failed to get any rhythm into their play as the clock ticked closer to the full-time whistle.
The England players looked largely lethargic apart from Beckham who was tracking back, winning tackles, dribbling past opponents and shooting at the Greek goal. It seemed only he wanted to force England back into the game. Perhaps, his need was the greatest. Perhaps, he wanted to get the monkey off his back.
England looked set to be forced into a tough World Cup playoff against Ukraine, as Greece led when the game entered stoppage time.
The Three Lions won a free-kick in a promising position in the third minute of stoppage time. It was in the Beckham territory. Only he seemed capable of rescuing England from there. But with an expectant Old Trafford holding their breath, there was immense pressure.
“I could hear the banging of a drum. The rest of the stadium seemed completely silent as if every single fan knew that the next kick of the ball would decide the match,” Beckham was quoted as saying by The Daily Mail.
“Teddy tried to pick up the ball and place it on the spot. Nothing was going to stop me from taking that free-kick. I felt confident, calm, certain. I knew I could make it,” he added.
And he did, in signature David Beckham style. Stepping up and curling the ball with his right foot in the top corner as the goalkeeper stood still helpless. Everyone knew what Beckham was going to do when he took charge of the free-kick but no one in the Greek jersey could stop him from doing what he did.
For Beckham, it was a goal of destiny. After being the man responsible for their last World Cup exit, it was Beckham who single-handedly ensured they took part in the next one.
“The kick was about drawing a line under four years of abuse. Four years of bitterness,” he said.
“Four years of England fans — not all of them, but enough to make it hurt — shouting the most horrible things at me while I was playing for my country,” he added.
Beckham was an England hero again. He was the perfect role model for England fans again. It was perhaps the zenith of an international career. A Metatarsal injury and departure from Manchester United after a bust-up with Sir Alex Ferguson meant Beckham never quite hit the same notes again.
He couldn’t manage to win the big trophies with England, but even those who criticised him after the 1998 World Cup defeat could argue against the fact that he played his heart out for England.
More than a decade on from his international retirement, when one thinks of Beckham in an England shirt, one remembers that free-kick against Greece and not the red card against Argentina. For Beckham, perhaps, it’s no less than an international medal.
Watch Gareth Southgate, the current England manager, reflects on that David Beckham performance in 2001:
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