Why David Beckham’s famous free-kick cost England the World Cup

Where were you when the Berlin wall fell? I was penniless, naked and spent the majority of that day evacuating my bowel. I was two. For so many seminal moments in World History, I have no answer to give regarding my whereabouts when Kennedy was shot, when Armstrong walked on the moon or when Dirty Den handed Angie the divorce papers in Eastenders. As is the case for many of us, “where were you when David Beckham scored that free kick against Greece?” will have to suffice

Picture the scene: it’s 2001, England have demolished Germany 5-1 in Munich and now stand a single point against lowly Greece away from qualification for the World Cup in Japan and Korea. Shockingly, England have failed to show up for their big day and trail 1-2 heading into injury time. If you weren’t aware, that bloke who models tighty whities for H&M, was a footballer back then. David Beckham was probably the best we had at the time, certainly the best that day and it is he who finds himself standing over the ball, 30 yards from Greek goalkeeper-cum-George Clooney lookalike Antonis Nikopolidis. Beckham was known for his trademark swerving free kicks, yet curiously, only scored a small percentage of them.

Still, there is no one else the England fans would rather have with a sight on goal in this moment. The ink is still wet on the morning headlines that read ‘Greek Tragedy’ when deafening silence suddenly turns to pandemonium as a deft ball is curled around a wall of blue and into the top corner. David Beckham’s name was etched into sporting folklore and the fans left Old Trafford eternally grateful that day… but should they have been?

How’s this for a theory? David Beckham’s free kick was the worst thing to happen to the English national team since Graham Taylor. Consider the fact that if England had lost that day, they would have faced a two-legged play-off against Ukraine. An intimidating Kiev atmosphere aside, Ukraine certainly weren’t oozing talent and had just emerged as runners-up from a qualifying group containing Wales, Belarus, Norway and Armenia. Just as Germany did, England would have easily disposed of them over 180 minutes. Should that set of circumstances unfolded, England and Germany would have swapped places in the draw for the finals in 2002. Could this have been the alternate fate of Sven’s men?…

England v Saudi Arabia (Group E)

Sapporo Dome, Japan, 1st June 2002

Group E kicks off with England facing one of the worst sides to ever turn up to a World Cup. Haiti were rotten, El Salvador hummed but Saudi Arabia absolutely stunk. England manage to Sheik them off 4-0 without ever getting out of first gear. The perfect start.

Real score: Germany 8-0 Saudi Arabia

England v Rep Ireland (Group E)

Kashima Soccer Stadium, Japan, 5th June 2002

England go into their second match suffering from overconfidence. The fans at home have had this one circled on their wall charts for months. However, Mick McCarthy’s side boast a togetherness and spirit that makes them a match for anyone on their day. Sure enough, arrogance gets the better of England’s superstars and they find themselves 1-0 down at half time. A late surge sees England salvage a point thanks to Trevor Sinclair – because, you know, why not? Food for thought.

Real score: Germany 1-1 Rep Ireland

England v Cameroon (Group E)

Shizuoka Stadium, Japan, 11th June 2002.

With the score goalless at halftime, England have started the game against their African counterparts in cagey fashion after their Irish humbling. Qualification hangs in the balance but Beckham and Co hit their stride in the second half, eventually running out 2-0 winners. Failure to win the group would have meant facing Spain in the next round, but England will be quietly delighted that Paraguay lie in wait instead.

Real score: Germany 2-0 Cameroon

England v Paraguay (Round of 16)

Jeju World Cup Stadium, South Korea, 15th June 2002

A nice change of scenery as England swap Japan for Korea. The game proves to be an extremely drab affair without England looking in any real danger. 1-0 in extra time.

Real score: Germany 1-0 Paraguay

England v USA (Quarter Final)

Ulsan Munsu Football Stadium, 21st June 2002

Having conceded only once in the tournament so far and with only the USA and Spain/South Korea standing between England and a first World Cup final since 1966, expectation levels swell to boiling point. Thousands back home have pulled sickies at work and school assembly halls fill to the brim with hopeful, yet pessimistic children. “Surely, this is too good to be true?” a nation ponders. Thankfully, England find their groove at the perfect point in the competition and leave the Yanks seeing stars and stripes in a 3-0 rout.

Real score: Germany 1-0 USA

England v South Korea (Semi Final)

Seoul World Cup Stadium, Korea, 25th June 2002 

Matters only get better for England as the only surviving hosts; South Korea, emerge triumphant from a penalty shootout with Spain. Surely, there’ll be no repeat of our well-documented semi-final heartache this time? Holidays and weddings are cancelled as England march into a 2-0 lead with the efficiency and precision of a North Korean army. Remember, this is England after all. The Koreans, buoyed by the home support hit back after an hour before a controversial late equaliser is gifted to them by a linesman failing/refusing to spot an elbow on David Seaman in the build-up. With penalties looming, talk of witchcraft and curses are etched on the lips of England fans worldwide. Are the brave Three Lions really doomed to fall at this hurdle on penalties for all eternity? Not today! The final proves to be a step too far for the plucky Koreans and their team of linesmen. England have done it! Motson says something memorable but culturally inaccurate about dragons.

Real score: Germany 1-0 South Korea

England v Brazil (Final)

Yokohama International Stadium, Japan, 30th June 2002

Prior to kick off, the England players stalk the halfway line on the pitch of their 7th different stadium this tournament. Each take in the sights and smells of what could be the venue for the greatest day of their lives before it all becomes a dizzying blur. Their heads wish they were playing Turkey but their hearts know it has to be Brazil. This is how they imagined it. England have been impressive, even dazzling at times but neither the stats, nor the fact that they are playing the weakest Brazil team in generations, can prepare them for kick-off.

A frenetic opening few minutes sees Rivaldo give Brazil an early lead. Queen Elizabeth sheds a single tear. But England weather the storm and are fortunate not to be 5-0 down at half time. The second half sees the real England we’ve grown to know and love this summer emerge from the tunnel and put the Brazilians on the back foot. Eventually, the towering head of Sol Campbell meets the ball from a Beckham corner and England start to believe as a satisfying ripple is heard from the back of the net. Brazil are masters in the art of winning a World Cup and they refuse to submit as Ronaldinho causes England’s defence all kinds of problems. That is, until the 90th minute when the buck-toothed wonder proves his defensive qualities aren’t as potent as his attack and makes a rash challenge on the edge of the Brazil penalty box. Red card. Free kick. 30 yards. David Beckham….

Real score: Germany 0-2 Brazil

What happens next is irrelevant. England would have surpassed the achievements of any side since 1966. England may have lost to Brazil in real life but that was only because of a Seaman mistake and anything can happen in a final, especially against a side that scraped through qualification for that tournament by three points. Who knows? The scenario up until that point is more assured, based on the fact that Germany were a team reeling from a group stage exit at Euro 2000 and one that was finally dismantled after failing at the same stage in Euro 2004. They managed to reach the final but Sven Goran Eriksson had far more talent at his disposal. If England’s captain had saved his moment of magic for a slightly grander occasion, I wouldn’t mind betting that your children may well be asking you “where were you when David Beckham scored that free kick against Brazil?”

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