On this very day 20 years ago, a proud nation was dug out of a deep hole by a man they had persecuted and burned effigies of in the streets only three years earlier.
It was a moment that taught us all some very valuable lessons: the importance of forgiveness, of how a true sporting hero will overcome any obstacle to save his people, and most crucially – how to bend it like Beckham.
On 6 October 2001, the English public were sat on the edge of their sofas, fingernails bitten down to the quick, staring glumly into an ever-evaporating pint with feel-good tones of Steps’ then number one banger Chain Reaction bopping away in the background.
Sven-Goran Eriksson’s men were looking down the barrel of an unthinkable failure to qualify for World Cup 2002, despite boasting some of the world’s most celebrated superstars, and having already battered Germany 5-1 in the qualifying process.
All they needed was a point against Greece at Old Trafford and their place in Japan and South Korea was booked. Yet, in classic English fashion, the Three Lions were on the cusp of mucking it all up something special.
Angelos Charisteas set the nerves jangling around the country when he opened the scoring with a rasping drive from the edge of the box. Substitute Teddy Sheringham thought he was going to be the nation’s hero when he came on as a substitute and flicked a header towards goal, which looped over the keeper and into the net.
But much like Pablo Zabaleta’s opener in Manchester City’s famous 3-2 win over QPR on the final day of the 2011/12 campaign, that goal was very, very quickly forgotten. Demis Nikolaidis put Rio Ferdinand on his backside and fired beyond Nigel Martyn, leaving England with it all to do once more.
The Three Lions were out of ideas and looked set to be heading towards a dreaded World Cup playoff with Ukraine, but in their time of need, a hero stepped up. Now, I don’t know who Mariah Carey was thinking about when she wrote the song Hero in 1993, but I like to think she had already envisaged Beckham’s career arc, foreshadowing the dramatic events that would unfold in 1998.
“So when you feel like hope is gone, look inside you and be strong. And you’ll finally see the truth, that a hero lies in you…”
– Mariah Carey on David Beckham (1993)
His needless red card in the defeat to Argentina, which ultimately sent England home, made him the enemy of English football, as fans took to the streets to burn his shirt, booed him at every match and generally made the life of one of the country’s biggest future stars a living hell.
That sounds familiar.
Anyway, three years on, and he was having the game of his life. Beckham, now captain of his country, was winning every tackle, covering every blade of grass and inspiring every English attack. It was his delivery that caused the equaliser, but he needed to delve deep into his box of tricks once more.
And so the chance for Beckham to rewrite history and and his own future came in the 93rd minute of England’s final World Cup qualifying match for the 2002 tournament. The Three Lions were awarded a free-kick around 30 yards from goal, and as central as they come.
Not an easy angle or distance even for a specialist, but if there was one man in world football you’d have wanted standing over this dead ball, it was David Beckham.
For many, he was the cause of their heartache three years earlier. Yet again, the nation’s fate rested on his shoulders, as he would decide whether England’s journey in a major competition would continue or go up in flames.
It was a moment for millions of people around the country to say a quick prayer, apologise for everything bad they’d ever said about England’s number seven, and cross their fingers.
It had to be perfect. There was only one place Beckham could put that ball where the goalkeeper wouldn’t have the time or wingspan to reach it – in his top right hand corner. With the crowd in stunned silence and the nation watching on, the then-Manchester United star stepped up to the ball.
He hit it with such whip and pace that only he knew how to generate, and the ball soared through the air for what felt like both an eternity and a zeptosecond. His strike arrowed into the one postage-stamp sized pocket of space that was deemed unsaveable, and did so with such speed and accuracy that Greek goalkeeper Antonios Nikopolidis didn’t even move.
The shot-stopper enjoyed the best view in the house as the ball hit the top corner, and Old Trafford erupted. Beckham raced off towards the corner flag, leapt into the air and spread his arms and legs wide, like a proud starfish.
The winger was quickly mobbed by his mere mortal teammates, while the rest of the country partied on in disbelief. England had done it.
It, in this case, was simply qualifying for a World Cup. In the grand scheme of the sport and English football history, the goal should hold little significance. The Three Lions were knocked out of the tournament at the quarter-final stage, rendering the goal meaningless in terms of future consequential trophies or glory.
But it was far from meaningless. Much like Steps predicted, it set off a wonderful chain reaction. Beckham was handed his true shot at vindication at the 2002 World Cup, banishing his demons by scoring the clutch penalty against Argentina, the team that began his living nightmare in 1998.
He went on to become one of the country’s most loyal servants, receiving 115 caps, the second highest of any outfield England player. In 2021, he is a national treasure and is loved by several different generations – football and non-football lovers alike.
In truth, he probably wouldn’t have needed that iconic moment to become a hero for his nation, with him being one of the greatest footballers England has ever produced. But he did it anyway – because he’s David Beckham.