“I felt the ball on my boot,” David Beckham wrote in his autobiography about the freekick against Greece. “And, in that strange way that sometimes happens in football, I knew instantly… When you get it right, you hardly feel the impact. It is like kicking a feather.”
The boy who had practised bending a ball around his dad on a park in Leytonstone, hour after hour, day after day, had lived a whole life that lived up to that moment. Beckham to take, he said. The 93rd minute, it was. Fate, or something like that, you could start to believe in. A whole country; his teammates, fans in the ground, people in front of televisions and next to radios in lounges, kitchens, pubs, cars, moved from silence to chaos as ball kissed net and limbs and mouths and hearts went wild.
It’s one of those moments that people’s lives are interrupted by forever, a bookmark on the banality of life’s pages, one of those rare times that everyone remembers where they were, what they were doing, and who they were with. So we asked a bunch of them, Greece fans, United fans, and the man who, actually, quite fancied taking it himself...
Teddy Sheringham—Fancied taking it himself
“When I won the free kick through my clever centre forward play, I wanted to take it, as Becks had already ballooned six or seven over the bar from every angle. “Let me have this one,” I said, “you’ve had enough chances.”
“Ted,” he replied, “you can’t even reach from here.” So I walked off in a huff but still wanted to do my bit for the free kick, and plonked myself directly between the ball and the goalkeeper’s line of vision. The rest is history—Becks stepped up, took all the acclaim from me, and curled a delightful free kick over the wall and into the top corner of the net to become our nation’s hero.”
“Tell us where you were when Beckham scored that free kick, they said. The one against Leicester, first game of the Treble season, effigies still swinging outside East End pubs, dying seconds? That one? The one against Villa later that season, just after half-time, keeping the dream alive, laughing at the lad next to me who flopped back into his seat, oblivious, just after play got back underway? That one? The one that settled the 2000 derby at Maine Road? Watched that in a hotel room in Wales, wondering how I’d explain to my future wife why I’d just missed her being Chief Bridesmaid at the wedding I’d travelled 180 miles not to bother attending. That one? Oh, the Greece one. Beckham, wasn’t it? Didn’t doubt him for a second.”
Nassia Matsa—Model and Writer
“You know that feeling when you know that you have won, and you are just waiting for the final confirmation? I first experienced this feeling, age 13, right in front of my TV watching England v Greece.
“In October it’s still warm in Athens, and we were watching the game on our balcony. As per tradition, everyone’s screens were turned to face outside, and you could hear the multiple echoes of the commentator coming from the neighbours’ balconies. And at the time, as per tradition, it was almost obligatory to be in love with Nikopolidis, Greece’s goalkeeper.
“You know that feeling when you thought that you have won, but your ignorance was taken advantage by someone else?
“David was that someone else, leaving Nikopolidis a heartbroken heartbreaker.
“And this is what a football icon does, humiliates you so gracefully that the defeated has no choice but to accept his colossal virtuosity. And for the above, David, remember that Greece loathes you, but bows before your excellence.”
James Kirkham—Defected Records
“I’m a United fan and was in my early twenties sat in the opposite end to where the goal was scored. That day lives in my memory for the individual performance, and the subsequent aftermath of adoration, more even than the goal itself. It wasn’t even Beckham who we expected to be our goal scoring hero; Sheringham’s name was chanted continually on his home turf, and we all thought it would be Teddy who’d step off the bench to be our saviour.
“Beckham was having a game like I’d never seen anyone play. Part Roy of the Rovers, part Superman. He tackled, tracked back, burst forward, made passes, swung crosses, headed clearances. I don’t recall him ever playing better than that in his whole career.
“After winning the free kick, it was deathly silent. We’d already been hoping and nail-biting before that on countless dead balls, and it hadn’t happened. The silence felt like a fog cloaking the stadium. Which made it all the more explosive when the ball hit the net. Mayhem, absolute mayhem.
“After the final whistle, Beckham walked around every single corner of the ground on his own, and every fan to a man stood cheering. It’s giving me goose bumps as I write this, but there can be no better feeling in football than the feeling he felt at that moment.”
“I was in bed with twelve staples in my knee after a reconstruction. I’d moved back into my childhood bedroom, had developed an eye twitch from Championship Manager abuse and was listening mostly to The Strokes Is This It and Dr Dre’s 2001. It wasn’t a great time. So David’s performance was a bloody beacon. The reason I love David Beckham, the reason Roy Keane loves David Beckham, and the reason most people love David Beckham is because he worked so fucking hard. Alongside Steven Gerrard’s performance in the second half in Istanbul, Beckham’s entire 90 minutes that night is one of the most exceptional I’ve seen because of the sheer desire to make it happen. Fuck discipline, sod tactics, I’m taking the throw-ins and give me that fucking ball. In it went. I couldn’t jump about, but I screamed a massive yes and cracked the biggest smile I had in months. Cheers Becks.”
“It happened on my 6th birthday. I don't remember much, except I got the full England kit—my first one, socks and everything. My mum remembers that my dad had the footy on the radio, and when Becks scored he turned to me and said something like ‘That's the best present you've gotten all day'.”
“I was at university in Manchester at the time and had half a mind to go to the game, but my student loan had already run out, so had to settle for a few cans on the sofa in our student house in Fallowfield.
“Among our housemates, was a Welshman called Nathan who, true to his heritage, had a deep dislike of the England football team. As the match panned out, and England laboured, he was obviously more vocal than the rest of us. He was perhaps at his most loudest when THAT free kick was awarded, and he was absolutely right, it was never a free kick. But as much as he hated England, there was something even he could admire about Beckham and his performance that day, and as he lined it up, he knew we were going to have the last laugh. Of course we did, and despite all being very skint students, the precious beer went everywhere.
“Post match, we soon forgot the relief of actually getting to the World Cup, and instead talked of winning it. With Beckham playing like that and very much at the forefront of what was on paper an excellent side, anything was possible. But a few months later I was in attendance at the same ground, and an Argentinian called Aldo Duscher broke something in his foot called a ‘metatarsal’, and the dream began to fade away…”
Ben Machell—The Times
“I was 19 years old and in the University of Birmingham student union, watching on the big screen. When Beckham scored, I cheered reflexively, but I felt a bit dirty afterwards. He was a Man U player. And, as a Leeds fan, I had always made a point of not liking Man U players, even if they scored vital goals for England. In fact, especially if they scored vital goals for England. I guess it represented a turning point. When it came to England, I'd been sliding into cynicism for a while, but this was the moment I properly realised that I cared about my club far, far more than I did about my country. By the time the World Cup rolled around, I made a point of only cheering Ferdinand, Mills, or Fowler. I'm a petty man. But that goal helped me on my way.”
This is an excerpt from our Issue 11 cover story, which was all about David Beckham being exceptional at football. You can get yourself a copy of that here.