On 12 July 1998, France were celebrating after winning the FIFA World Cup final 3-0 against an out-of-sorts Brazil side, but over in England, young midfield player David Beckham was going through the worst period of his professional career.
Back in training
The golden boy of English football returned for pre-season training at Manchester United FC with the weight of the world on his shoulders after his dismissal in England's second round World Cup game against Argentina had all-but cost his side their place in the tournament and earned the then 23-year-old midfield player the contempt of millions of English supporters.
It was 2-2 two minutes into the second half in Saint Etienne when Beckham was shown the red card for a petulant kick at Diego Simeone after the Argentinian had sent him sprawling with a challenge from behind. England struggled on gamely for over 70 minutes without Beckham, but eventually succumbed to defeat in a penalty shoot-out, with Carlos Roa saving the decisive effort from David Batty.
'He should be ashamed'
The reaction in England, where supporters had a genuine belief that then manager Glenn Hoddle's side were potential world champions, was furious. Over 20m fans had watched the game on television, and the Sun newspaper spoke for many when it wrote of Beckham: "He should be ashamed."
It is easy to forget that in his first seasons as a player, Beckham's reputation as a brilliant footballer were almost eclipsed by questions over his temperament. Hoddle had warned Beckham about his tendency to become involved in niggly incidents on the pitch, as had his United manager Sir Alex Ferguson.
'He doesn't always keep control'
"I have tried to ram it home to him that it's a physical game where players of talent will always be singled out for a hard time," said Sir Alex. "I have told him that the only way to get back at opponents who do that is by showing he is better with the ball than they are. But in the heat of the contest he doesn't always keep control."
'The worst moment of my career'
Unfortunately for Beckham, he did not heed that warning but he was quick to apologise, issuing a press statement as the Concorde carrying England's players returned to London on 2 July. "This is without doubt the worst moment of my career," he said. "I will always regret my actions. I have apologised to the England players and management and I want every England supporter to know how deeply sorry I am."
'I had let them down'
Later he told The Sun: "I stood in the tunnel and watched the last few minutes and the terrible tension of the penalty shoot-out. That was worse than anything else. It was then I fully realised what I had done. I kept thinking to myself that, if I had been out there, I would have been one of the penalty takers. The rest of them had done so much without me and I had let them down desperately."
Thrown to the wolves
Major figures in the English game were quick to rally round the distraught Beckham, with England and United legend Sir Bobby Charlton saying: "You cannot throw him to the wolves. I saw him after the match and he was terribly affected by it. He realised what he had done. He is a young man who was very much affected by it, I know that, and he will have other World Cups where he can put that right."
The public were not exactly quick to forgive Beckham. A radio poll in Manchester revealed that 61 per cent of listeners never wanted to see Beckham play for England again, an effigy of Beckham was hung in the centre of London and popular tabloid newspaper the Mirror printed a special David Beckham dartboard so that fans could take out their frustrations on their fallen hero in the privacy of their own homes.
For a while, it looked like Beckham would not recover from the incident. Lucrative sponsorship deals were put on hold and moves abroad to Italy and Spain were mooted, but salvation was round the corner. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey led calls for Beckham to be forgiven and his United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson was quick to leap to his defence.
'Foolish and unprofessional'
"What David did was foolish and unprofessional," said Sir Alex. "He has to live with the damage his action did to England's chances of reaching the quarter-finals of the World Cup. But I was sickened by much of the cruel nonsense produced about Beckham last week."
The road to recovery
That support would be invaluable in the coming months as, chastened by his experiences in Saint Etienne, Beckham began to rebuild his life. There were isolated incidents of temper in the coming years - not least among them a particularly ripe gesture to supporters after England's 3-2 defeat against Portugal at EURO 2000™ - but the harsh lessons were learned, and Beckham was on his way to becoming a true gentleman footballer and an inspirational leader of his country.
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