How David Beckham Went From Hero To Zero After Seeing Red At France ‘98

On Beckham's 49th birthday, we remember the nadir from which he would bounce back with grace
07:00, 02 May 2024

David Beckham turns 49 today, and having previously chronicled his finest moment in a Three Lions jersey we now turn our attention to the nadir from which he so elegantly bounced back. It is a true testament to Beckham's spirit that he went on to captain his country and was still playing for England 11 years later.

The 1998 World Cup was something of a learning curve for the young David Beckham. He scored a brilliant free-kick against Colombia in the group stages, before being made a scapegoat for England fans and the press following his side’s dramatic elimination against Argentina in the knockout stages.

Rather than being notable for the heartbreaking fashion in which England crashed out of that summer’s World Cup in France, the events of June 30th, 1998, are best remembered for David Beckham’s moment of madness which would see him become a hate figure for years to come.

England exiting a major tournament on penalties is nothing new, and by the time they lost on spot kicks to Argentina that night following an epic 2-2 draw in St Etienne it would be the third time in four tournaments that they would taste defeat in such a painful fashion.

But that night will always be etched in the memory of Three Lions fans, not because of 18-year-old Michael Owen’s wonder-goal or another major competition that offered so much that promised so little, but for what happened in the 47th minute involving one of the country’s most promising young talents and most famous faces.

After being fouled by Diego Simeone just after half-time, Beckham, who was lying face down on the ground, vented his frustration with a cheeky little flick of his right-leg, tripping over Simeone right under the nose of the referee.

Seeing it as an unlawful act of petulance, Kim Milton Nielsen wasted no time in showing Simeone a yellow and Beckham the red card; leaving England a man down early in the second period with the game locked at 2-2 and almost half of the match remaining.

Glenn Hoddle’s side managed to hold out for a penalty shootout despite their numerical disadvantage, and David Seaman even denied Hernan Crespo from the spot. However, Argentina ‘keeper Carlos Roa saved from Paul Ince and David Batty to seal a third shootout defeat for England in a decade.

At the height of his newfound fame, the nation’s sweetheart, who had recently started dating a Spice Girl, became enemy number one literally overnight as, not for the first time, the English fans back home were left angry and upset after an early World Cup exit.

In a pre-social media age the press crucified him while effigies were burnt outside London pubs with the headline in The Daily Mirror the following morning describing the England team as: "10 Heroic Lions, One Stupid Boy." If that wasn’t enough, Beckham would be voted 91st in Channel Four's poll of the 100 Worst Britons.

He reportedly received death threats and was even taunted by a group of England supporters during a 3-2 defeat against Portugal in Euro 2000 while the reaction of some of his teammates left him feeling isolated and disappointed in his moment of need.

“It’s probably harsh to say I still feel let down by that,” Beckham later revealed. “I look back at the moment, and we were young. Yes, I made a mistake, but there are certain people in teams and in football that you expect to get behind you and expect to support you no matter what.

“I didn’t know what to actually think at that moment. I didn’t know what to expect; I don’t think I have ever been as emotional as I was coming out of that ground and seeing my mum and dad. I was uncontrollable, like sobbing, which is slightly embarrassing.”

Though the public outrage was inexcusable, some felt that his punishment on the night was slightly harsh given the timing of the offence, with the man he floored, Diego Simeone, later admitting to getting Beckham sent off by over-reacting to the kick and then, along with other members of his team, urging the referee to show the red card.

In the years that followed, Beckham would set about repairing his fractured relationship with the English public as time and a number of high-profile on-pitch performances proved to be a great healer.

His injury time free-kick against Greece at Old Trafford in October 2001 to secure a place at the 2002 World Cup would win-over all but his most ardent of haters, while his penalty against, of all teams, Argentina, at the following summer’s finals not only avenged the defeat of four years earlier, but once again elevated him to Three Lions hero status.

David Beckham would eventually play 115 games for England, making him the third most-capped player in the nation’s history, scoring 17 times while captaining his country on 59 occasions between 2000 and 2006.

However, the events of June 30th, 1998, demonstrated in the cruellest way possible how quickly a player can go from hero to zero overnight before eventually being regarded as something of a national treasure - a journey which Beckham himself believes ultimately shaped his legacy.

"When I look back on my career and talk about regrets, I wish that never happened,” he later admitted. “But on the flip side, if it didn't happen, I might not have had the career that I had.”

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