England’s greatest World Cup moments: David Beckham kills the ghost that haunted him

To get the juices flowing ahead of England’s adventure in Russia each week in Football FanCast we’re going to be looking back at a unforgettable moment from the Three Lions’ World Cup canon.

This time out we revisit an act of personal redemption blasted home from the penalty spot.

“A good act does not wash out the bad, nor a bad act the good. Each should have its own reward”.

That bearded fella responsible for the Game of Thrones tomes wrote that. And he was very much wrong to make such a claim.

Because life is not a series of unconnected events judged entirely on their own merit and football certainly doesn’t work like that. Lash out as a teen and you’re a hothead for the rest of your career. Score a screamer from thirty yards and fans will urge you to shoot from distance thereafter. Petulantly flick your left leg at Diego Simeone in the last 16 of a World Cup and you’re a national hate figure destined to be cast as the villain for evermore.

Except events are connected, remember. Therefore it is possible for a good act to wash out the bad and David Beckham’s road to redemption was already well underway by the time the 2002 World Cup kicked off in Japan and South Korea. Against Greece at Old Trafford in their final qualifying game England needed something, anything, with just minutes remaining to secure automatic passage and with a sculptured free-kick executed a million times before on the training pitch Beckham became ‘Becks’ again to most of the country. He was forgiven.

England's David Beckham scores against Greece in qualification for 2002 World Cup

In truth his atonement had begun much earlier, with a series of brilliant displays in his first season as the nation’s bete noire and all to a backdrop of resounding boos every time he touched the ball at away grounds. Say what you like about us Brits but we love a comeback story and especially when it’s achieved through perseverance and stoicism.

Even so, Beckham needed that free-kick v Greece. He needed it as much as we did.

Onto the World Cup itself and Sven-Goran Eriksson’s men were placed in an incontestable ‘group of death’. First up was a very decent Swedish side and a 1-1 draw was a glass half full or half empty eventuality depending on your disposition. Then came Argentina and five days later Nigeria with the latter also ending in a stalemate. Which meant – in hindsight and very much felt at the time – that a draw at the very worst was required against England’s international nemesis, an arch foe complete with Veron in his pomp and the deadly Gabriel Batistuta up front.

In the Sapporo Dome it was England who started the brightest, intent on revenging two fundamentally damaging World Cup defeats in living memory. Chances were scarce but Beckham was at the fore, relishing the freedom his playmaker role afforded him while Michael Owen looked to repeat his tormenting from four years earlier. Argentina mopped up the pressure with their customary calm but such was the experience in their squad they would have known that England weren’t going anywhere. This was no opening burst

Then, just before the break Owen cut inside close to goal and took advantage of a stray leg to exaggerate a fall. The world’s most respected ref Collina bought it instantly.

Everybody watching knew who England’s penalty taker was. Everybody knew what this would mean to him. With one dramatic pointing to the spot what we had now was a national drama and an entirely personal one.

Beckham exhaled his lungs of air before stepping back for his run up. Simeone, the architect behind his downfall in 1998, looked on. John Motson made a poor reference to cups and glasses because the game was being played in the morning here in the UK.

“You can smash them now. Beckham has scored for England,” he intoned nasally as the mohawked midfielder did some smashing of his own, smacking the ball hard and central, exorcising four years of pain and suffering with a wallop that the keeper actually anticipated but could do nothing about.

Beckham raced to the corner flag. He emitted a primal scream and grabbed his shirt, forcibly kissing the badge. Another scream, up to the fans, the same contingent that once hated on him for a young man’s mistake.

It was a penalty that helped England progress to the final 16. For David Beckham it was redemption that had its own reward.

What happened next?

A comprehensive 3-0 win over Denmark in the last 16 had a nation believing, if briefly, that something special might be afoot. Brazil in the quarter finals saw to that with Ronaldinho scoring a 40-yard wonder-lob.

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