Mike Gibbons

Mike Gibbons is an aspiring young journalist from the UK who has followed the World Cup with passion from an early age. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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Redemption man

    As I write it is now an hour and a half after England have beaten the mighty Argentina 1-0 in Sapporo. I have just walked through Manchester where I live and the scenes of joy are unconfined (I have never seen so many people off work on a weekday in my life). When the draw for the World Cup was made way back in December, everyone was looking forward to this game. After the uninspiring game against Sweden on Sunday, everyone was living in fear. Diego Maradona came out publicly and stated that England were terrified. Idiots like Juan Sebastian Veron made reference to the Falklands War and insensitive British TV stations showed documentaries about it two nights ago. What worried England most of all though was the heart-breaking game in St Etienne four years ago, and what rankled most in the memory was the sight of the Argentinian players cavorting like drunken tourists in the face of their vanquished foes. A lot of things went on that night, but the sending off of David Beckham made him the scapegoat for that defeat. We all know the story from there Ė he was publicly vilified in the press and at football grounds all over the country, effigies of him were hung outside public houses in London.

    If anyone was ever in any doubt about whether he would rifle home that penalty today, they need only have considered Beckhamís reaction to all that. In the season following France 98 he turned in more match winning performances for Manchester United than any other player, helping them to the treble. Shortly after Euro 2000 he became England captain, from where his already rising star has shot into orbit. In his first meaningful game as captain, a World Cup qualifier against Finland at Anfield, home of Unitedís arch rivals Liverpool, he scored the winning goal. Amazingly, the Kop sang his name, and applauded him when he returned the following week for a league game there. Unless you live in Manchester or Liverpool, you will never fully comprehend the depths of the rivalry between the two. That just does not happen.

    Later in 2001 he was sublime again as England laid the ghosts of the past to rest with the 5-1 epic in Munich. He then followed that with maybe the greatest performance in an England shirt by anyone ever against Greece. He took them on virtually on his own, and sent England through to the World Cup with a trademark free-kick in the very last minute. England fans by now had now taken their captain to their hearts, everyone was now on his side, he was the spearhead of a vibrant, young England team. It appeared he had exorcised all of his demons, but one remained.

    When he broke his foot a mere eight weeks ago, it appeared his World Cup dream could be over. The outpouring of national grief was incredible, at points ludicrous. Yet again though in the face of adversity his sheer will brought him through, to the point where he was on the pitch against Sweden last week, a scenario thought impossible weeks earlier. He was substituted on the hour, did not look fully fit and England played terribly. There was talk in some areas of the media that Beckham may not be able to play a full match in the tournament, certainly not against Argentina, one of the favourites for the title. Should he then be dropped?

    Events since then will only serve to fuel the Beckham legend even more. The game against Argentina was by no means his best game for England, and he was outshone in the midfield by his club colleague Nicky Butt. However when Owen repeated the same trick of St Etienne (slight touch, down you go), there was only one man to take the penalty. The goalkeeper was in his face straight away, trying to put him off, Diego Simeone tried to shake his hand. Some would call this gamesmanship, and say that Simeone is the ultimate professional. He is certainly the ultimate something.

    And so up he stepped. All season, for United and England, he has driven his penalties with force down the middle. Cavallero must have known this, and held his position in the middle expecting as much. Beckham instead kept it low and slightly to the side of him, and it flew in. His celebration sent shivers down my spine. Racing to the corner clutching the England crest on his shirt, he was screaming with joy, as if saying to England fans in front of him "this is for you, for four years ago". Since that night in St Etienne, Beckham has always played with an added edge, as if he owed England something. As if it wasnít against Greece, the debt is now fully paid. As he was mobbed by Sol Campbell and Rio Ferdinand, you could see the tension released from his body. His eyes were flickering. He was crying.

    That is what it means to score in the World Cup, but also to lay to rest whatever has haunted you in the past. I donít think anyone had ever fully realised until today just what a weight on his mind that whole affair had been. In the second half, as England came increasingly under pressure, you wondered if Beckham would be substituted Ė after all, he was drained after an hour against Sweden. I donít think he would have left the field at gunpoint. As if to prove the point he was still sprinting to charge down a cross as late as the ninety-first minute.

    David Beckham is a comic book character. He exceeds the expectations of everyone more than is humanly possible. How does he keep doing it? There seems almost no limit to him. If he can keep his star on itís current trajectory, he will slot easily into the company of England greats like Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton. He may even surpass them all.

    No doubt now there will be expectation that England can win the World Cup Ė and why not, after having so comprehensively outplayed one of the best teams in the world? They still need a result against Nigeria to get through, it will not be as easy as everyone now thinks, but that is all for the future. Today is Beckhamís day.



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