He doesn't deserve to be the most hated man in I Britain," railed Posh Spice last summer in defense of her fianc�. Midfielder David Beckham is the highest-paid star on Manchester United, the most prominent soccer club in the world, and, yes, he is also engaged to one of the Spice Girls. Yet instead of being a symbol of Cool Britannia, Beckham is regarded in his own country as a kind of traitor. From a distance his punishment for being ejected midway through England's World Cup loss to Argentina seems as exaggerated and draconian as Jean Valjean's for stealing a loaf of bread. "I've never seen anything like it," says 60-year-old Bobby Charlton, the Joe DiMaggio of English soccer.
Last month, on the opening day of the English Premier League, Beckham officially launched his comeback from national ignominy at an age—23—when most players are still finding their way. On a bright and crisp Saturday in his home stadium, famous Old Trafford, Beckham was ridden mercilessly by a few thousand visiting fans of Leicester City, who occupied one sliver of a corner grandstand yet dominated the afternoon. Every time Beckham touched the ball, they quickly launched into a heartfelt boo. It was as if they were booing the entire game from behind a door, and when Beckham took the ball, the door was thrown open to expose their hatred. The instant he released the ball, the door was slammed shut again, and the booing stopped.
" Beckham's going to hear this all season," said Allan Starkey, a season-ticket holder at Old Trafford who sits a dozen rows from the field. "It'll be a bit of sport for the fans around the country. They're going to be competing to see which of them can do him the worst."
For most of the afternoon the vocal minority was having its say, as Leicester led 2-0 with 12 minutes to go. Suddenly, as if waiting to achieve maximum effect, Beckham took over. He launched a shot that his teammate Teddy Sheringham deflected off the top of his head for United's opening goal. Then, in the last moments of stoppage time, Beckham stood behind a free kick from 25 yards, his specialty. He hooked it over the defensive wall and inside the near post, then stood before his people throwing victory punches like an orchestra conductor. "One David Beckham, there's only one David Beckham," the United boosters bellowed to the tune of Guantanamera after the 2-2 tie, pointing derisively at the silenced Leicester fans. At midfield Beckham turned and waved to every grandstand, like the rock star he seems to be.
America can hardly fathom a scourge as infamous as David Beckham. When Jackie Smith dropped a crucial touchdown pass in the 1979 Super Bowl and Bill Buckner let a ground ball clean through his legs in the '86 World Series, there were as many fans celebrating the mistakes as there were commiserating over them—and millions upon millions who really couldn't have cared less either way. Smith and Buckner weren't playing or fighting in the uniform of their country against the rest of the world.
So take the negative reaction to Buckner's silly error and multiply it by 10 to appreciate the breadth and depth of anger and humiliation England felt about the mistake Beckham made. Then multiply it by three to account for the other reasons to resent Beckham: his income, a reported $13 million a year from salary and endorsements; his fianc�e, with whom he was photographed, while wearing a designer sarong, before the World Cup; and his team, the most commercialized club in the sport, a love-'em-or-hate-'em force as divisive across England as the New York Yankees used to be in the U.S. Last year Manchester United grossed close to $140 million, more than any other soccer club in the world, and almost half of that total came from sales of merchandise. In this context Beckham is the handsome face, the performer who helps to move product. In English papers he is referred to occasionally as Spice Boy.
For all of these reasons fans throughout England were jeering Beckham, now in his fourth season with United, long before he became the scapegoat of the World Cup. Not even his loudest enemies, however, anticipated what would happen as he lay facedown in the grass on June 30 in France. The second-round match between England and Argentina in Saint-Etienne was tied at 2-2 in the opening minutes of the second half when Beckham was flattened by a shot from behind. In his white trunks and blond-dyed hair he seemed as unthreatening as a sunbather—until his right leg, like a groggy cobra, reared up and kicked out petulantly in the general direction of Diego Simeone, the Argentine midfielder who had fouled him.
Beckham's cleated foot merely grazed Simeone's leg. Simeone, unsurprisingly, went down as if shot in the back The referee, arriving like the cop in a silent movie, responded by holding up a red card in front of Beckham. ( Simeone's original foul merited only a yellow card, a warning.) England would wind up losing on penalty kicks, but in Beckham's absence the team displayed an old-fashioned courage that succeeded in marginalizing him all the more. The Times referred to him as "a spoiled brat." The Daily Mirror declared, 10 HEROIC LIONS, ONE STUPID BOY. Read the headline in The Daily Star, WHAT AN IDIOT.
He was hanged in effigy outside a London pub. Billboards of him were torn down or plastered over by Adidas, one of his sponsors, even as the shoe company promised to continue its relationship with him. Threats were made against his life. The message board at a Baptist church in Mansfield said GOD FORGIVES EVEN DAVID BECKHAM. "He is obviously going to have to learn from this," said British prime minister Tony Blair.
At least three clubs in Europe reportedly offered asylum to Beckham in the hope that he would be chased out of England like a scoundrel. Manchester United made sure, however, that Beckham will be staying put in England for the time being, announcing on the eve of the Premiership season that it had extended his contract through 2002-03.