Fourteen minutes later Beckham scores again on a tap-in. It's not enough for Man United to win the two-game series, not when Ronaldo has scored three searing goals of his own, but here at Old Trafford, on soccer's most memorable night of 2003, it does make you wonder. What about that benching, Sir Alex?
For Sir Alex Ferguson, a 61-year-old taskmaster raised in the shipyards of Glasgow, old school isn't a marketing catch-phrase. It's standard operating procedure. Not long ago he read When Pride Still Mattered, David Maraniss's biography of Vince Lombardi. "I saw myself," says Ferguson, taking a break after an April practice at Man United's Carrington training compound. "Obsession. Commitment. Fanaticism. It was all there."
Like Lombardi, he is ruthless, maintaining iron-fisted control of his team despite his players' rising salaries. "I never have a problem with egos," says Ferguson, who has been the Man U coach for 17 seasons. "You know why? Because you have to win. You can't escape the field. And if the money has affected them, they have to go. Easiest decision ever made." Imagine a hybrid of Joe Torre and George Steinbrenner. No wonder everyone calls Ferguson the Boss.
When Man United announced last week, after months of speculation, that it had conditionally agreed to sell Beckham to Barcelona of the Spanish league for $50 million, it sent the expected convulsions through the English media. By now Britons are so Beckham-addled that they can think about him only in hysterical terms. But the real news wasn't that he was headed to Barcelona. (Beckham's handlers indicated he'd veto the move, as is his right.) The real news was this: The Boss doesn't want David Beckham anymore.
Why on earth would Man U consider selling its most valuable asset? And why now, just as the club is set to embark on a highly anticipated U.S. tour meant to boost its image in the States? Four reasons:
Because Beckham has two years left on his contract, Man U can sell his rights to the highest bidder so long as Beckham is willing to join the new team and agrees to salary terms. Beckham's market value is as high as it will ever be, and Man United can use the money from his sale to fill needs at several positions, such as goalkeeper, defense and the central midfield.
In the one-forward alignment the Red Devils introduced last year, they rely far less on crossing the ball—Beckham's forte—than they did when two forwards were roaming the penalty box. The system values dribblers who can beat defenders one-on-one, hardly Beckham's strong suit. As if to prove Beckham was dispensable, Ferguson kept him out of the starting lineup for last season's two most important games, against Real Madrid and Premier League archrival Arsenal.
Though Manchester United won the Premier League title for the sixth time in eight years, the club has floundered in the Champions League, failing to appear in the final—Ferguson's Holy Grail—since the Treble four years ago. Changes must be made.
?Fergie versus Becks
In the end, though, Beckham's likely departure can be attributed to the bitter unraveling of what Beckham calls "a father-son relationship." The tabloids feasted on a locker room accident in February, in which Ferguson, livid after a loss, kicked a boot in anger, dinging his star in the forehead and opening a gash above Beckham's left eye. But there's more to it than that. To hear Ferguson discuss the teenage Beckham is to hear a tale of youthful innocence and talent corrupted—or at the very least distracted—by fame. "He was blessed with great stamina, the best of all the players we've had here," Ferguson says. "After training he'd always be practicing, practicing, practicing. So there's a foundation there that never deserted him. And then...."