History likes snapshots, images frozen in time that serve as an aide memoire for a much more significant event, a more comprehensive story. The 93rd minute of the 2002 World Cup qualifying game between England and Greece played at Old Trafford on 6 October 2001 with a white-shirted England player receiving the adulation of the crowd is such a snapshot.
Seconds earlier, the ball had ripped into the Greece net, stamping England’s passport to the Finals. David Beckham, once so widely denigrated for a petulant red card against Argentina became a national hero. Redemption, as ‘Goldenballs’ is born. The player himself acknowledged the significance. “The kick was about drawing a line under four years of abuse. Four years of bitterness. 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.” That snapshot though, for all its portrayal as seminal moment has almost come to hide the immense contribution throughout the game that Beckham committed to his country’s cause, almost camouflaging the definitive captain’s performance.
Not so long before the game took place, England’s qualification hopes looked as likely to spark into life as Kevin Keegan’s career as an international manager did. The iconic player had declared himself ‘not up the job’ and walked away from the manager’s chair following the home defeat to Germany in the final game at the old Wembley. Enter Sven-Göran Eriksson and a Phoenix-like revival, culminating in the famous 1-5 victory in Munich and all England needed to do was match Germany’s result at home to Finland to win the group. Beat the Greeks – a team that had displayed a shockingly inept ability to achieve anything of significance in games away from home in the group – and there was nothing the Germans could do. Beware Greeks supposedly bearing gifts!
An ebullient crowd blasted out the national anthem with gusto, expecting a ‘walk in the park’ victory, but as the game got underway, the Greeks showed that they weren’t merely here to wave England aboard the ‘plane to the Far East. England pressed and a Beckham free-kick saw Nikopolidis scrambling across to save, but gradually, the fluent play of the visitors started to threaten, the crowd became a little more cowed, and out on the field Beckham hurried around chivvying and inspiring his troops with earnest endeavours. Then, the unthinkable. Greece scored, and to be honest it had been coming.
Had England been complacent, swayed by the dominant mood of an expectant comfortable win? If so, all of that was now dispelled. Ten minutes ahead of the break, they were losing. The goal had a galvanising effect on the England skipper though. Adopting the persona of perpetual motion. Time and again, he charged around the field to regain possession, and prompted and probed when it was regained, refusing to be harried off the ball. It was a tour-de-force, but the others around him seemed hesitant in comparison.
Half-time came and went. Surely England weren’t going to blow it at the last hurdle. After the break, others joined in with the skipper driving the game forward. Gerrard came to the party and England looked dangerous as the Beckham-inspired home team pushed the Greeks back. Another devilish Beckham ball into the danger area was deflected towards goal by Scholes, but Karagounis reacted to save. England needed a goal, and it would come from the bench – aided and abetted by Beckham’s right foot of course.
Eriksson sent Sheringham on as a substitute for the ineffective Robbie Fowler as a free-kick was awarded to the home team. Beckham stood over the ball, just inside the Greece half as the Manchester United striker trotted past him to take up a forward position. Hardly had the veteran striker reached the penalty area when the captain’s laser-accurate delivery found Sheringham’s head and the scores were level.
Any relief was short-lived however as within two minutes the visitors rained on England’s parade once more. Nikolaidis firing past Nigel Martyn to quieten the home crowd once more. England needed a hero, and in the guise of the man wearing the number seven shirt, they found their salvation. Now pumped up to the ‘eleven’ position on a Spinal Tap amplifier setting, he tore around the pitch in a one man show of denial to quietly “walk into that good night.’”He would not be denied; not on this day. He simply wouldn’t allow it to happen. Germany were being held by Finland to a goalless draw. A point would suffice for England, but they needed to score.
Free-kick opportunities came and went. One late in the game, One even later. “My turn next,” insisted Sheringham. Then, with time almost drained away, Dutch referee Dick Jol decided that the slight nudge by Konstantinidis into the back of Sheringham as they tussled for a high ball was worthy of a free-kick. Thirty yards out and dead central. It was final orders in the Last Chance Saloon.
Sheringham walked over to take his turn. Beckham turned him away. Sheringham persisted, Beckham demurred. “Teddy tried to pick up the ball and place it on the spot. Nothing was going to stop me taking that free-kick. I felt confident, calm, certain. I knew I could make it,” Beckham later explained. Eventually, the Manchester United striker realised there was no point in debating the matter with his club mate any further and walked away. Cometh the hour – well, the 93rd minute anyway. Cometh the man.
A moment’s silence as the ball arced towards the net, then eruption. Beckham cavorted around the pitch evading the grasps of his team-mates before standing in that iconic pose. Job done. The free-kick gave history that moment, and it called ‘smile’ as the shutter clicked, capturing the image for posterity. ‘A picture paints a thousand words’ or so the saying goes. In this case though, although it celebrates the moment, we mustn’t let it hide all that went before, when David Beckham delivered the virtuoso performance to take England to the World Cup Finals.
(This article was originally produced for the ‘Virtuoso’ series on ‘These Football Times’ website).