By all accounts, though, theirs is a strong, stable marriage, which makes Beckham a welcome contrast to such previous British soccer stars as Paul Gascoigne (who beat his wife and spent his free time getting hopelessly drunk with a sidekick named Five Bellies) and George Best (the Man United playboy star of the late 1960s who once famously quipped, "I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered"). Their travel schedules be damned, the Beckhams have chosen not to hire nannies for Brooklyn (age four) and Romeo (nine months), relying on their parents when necessary. "David is a model dad," Victoria says. "If I leave him with the children, he'll look after them just as well as I can."
Naturally, Beckham's New Age family-man side appeals to housewives and grandmothers. Yet by pursuing so many non-traditional sports demographics, he has long run the risk of alienating hard-core soccer fans, to say nothing of Ferguson, his no-nonsense Man U coach. For no matter how gorgeous he may be, the sportsman must constantly prove his superiority in the arena. Beckham certainly has his flaws: ordinary speed, weak heading skills, not much of a left foot. But for someone regarded as a pretty boy, his capacity for work is breathtaking. Simply put, he runs his butt off. Nor can any other player on the globe serve a bending, 30-yard cross on the run better than Becks. And don't forget those free kicks. Oh, those glorious free kicks.
Time for a set piece: Manchester, England. April 23, 2003. Champions League quarterfinal. Real Madrid versus Manchester United.
This is David Beckham's signature moment, when it becomes instantaneously clear why his free kicks inspire such singular awe (and, for that matter, why there are no films called Bend It Like Blyleven). His teammate Ruud van Nistelrooy has been fouled just outside the penalty box, to the right of the Real goal. A hush falls over the 67,000 fans in Old Trafford, then morphs into a pulsating, expectant thrum. 'As soon as a free kick is given and it's anywhere near the box, I get excited," Beckham says, his eyes closed as he recalls the scene. "The crowd lifts theirself, and there's a buzz around the stadium. I know it's my turn for everyone to watch me. I practice this 30, 40, 50 times a day in training, and when I do get the chance, I like to hit the target."
The charged tableau packs even more drama than usual. This is Europe's game of the year, an elimination match pitting its two most popular soccer teams, and Man U is desperate, needing four goals in the final 20 minutes to survive. All week the tabloids have been filled with rumors that Beckham will move to Real Madrid, which already boasts three former world players of the year (Ronaldo, Zidane and Figo). Yet when the opening whistle blew at this match, Beckham was not on the field. Ferguson had benched him. Benched him! "When you're not in the starting lineup of any games, especially the big games, you're disappointed," Beckham says. "I just have to prove that I should be playing."
Here's his chance. Eight minutes earlier Beckham had trotted onto the field, the world's highest-paid sub. Now this. Beckham places the ball gently, as if he's laying a wreath on a loved one's grave, then takes six steps backward and to his left. He sucks in two quick, deep breaths. A pair of human barriers loom before him. The Real goalkeeper, Iker Casillas, crouches 22 yards away, his 6'2" frame coiled in the goalmouth's lefthand side. Lined up 10 yards away is a five-man Madrid wall, its purpose to block the goal's righthand side.
"I don't really concentrate much on what side the keeper is on," Beckham says, "because I always think that if I catch it as well as I can, then I can beat him whichever way he goes." And the wall? "I do see them. Some walls, they jump, so some players hit it under the wall. But that's sort of lazy. I like doing it the hard way."
He springs forward. At the moment before impact Beckham is a picture of serenity and balance, his legs splayed, his right arm pointing straight down, his left arm extended like a traffic cop's. All angles and energy, he looks like a Keith Haring drawing come to life. Physicists from Europe to Japan have spent hundreds of hours studying his free kicks, the perfectly calibrated mix of forces—angle, speed, spin and direction—that conspire, as one researcher puts it, to achieve "optimal turbulent-laminar transition trajectory." Or, as Beckham says, he knows precisely how "to get as much whip on it as possible," to strike the side of the ball with his right instep, sending it screaming over the wall, then dipping, improbably, thrillingly, under the crossbar, past the helpless keeper's outstretched hands.
A million little things can go wrong, of course. "If you don't catch it right, it can end up in Row Zed," Beckham says. "It's happened to me a couple of times, when my boots or my standing foot give way. That's pretty embarrassing."
This is not one of those times. "As soon as I hit the ball, I know it's in," Beckham says, a smile cleaving his face. "I know it's in. Even before it reaches the wall." Roberto Carlos, Real's gnomic Brazilian defender, jumps skyward, only for his bald dome to get buzzed by a Becks flyby. Poor Casillas is doomed. In a flash the ball is droppingdroppingdropping...in. With a kiss off the crossbar for good measure.