Coming full circle

Special to The Times

LONDON -- Some claimed the effigy wore a sarong.

Definitely it wore a No. 7 David Beckham shirt, and reportedly it hung by a noose outside the Pleasant Pheasant pub in South London until police ordered it down, and absolutely it's the telltale detail from England's livid summer of 1998.

It's the bygone flash point that illustrates Beckham's extreme reputation upgrade across 10 summers, from roughly as popular as bubonic plague to deeply appreciated while returning to Wembley Stadium tonight for the England-United States soccer friendly.

That long-long-long-ago summer featured pretty much your basic widespread sports conniption as thugs threatened his parents' northeast London house, his parents hired security, fans wrote mean letters, a soccer website implored fans to taunt him for as long as possible, up went the dummy, and it all got so ornery that the Mirror tabloid started a "Stop the Hate" campaign.

"This is the worst moment of my career," said Beckham, then 23. "I want every England supporter to know how deeply sorry I am."

On the melodramatic night of June 30, 1998, in the World Cup round of 16 in France, Argentina's Diego Simeone had fouled Beckham, and Beckham had flicked his shoe at Simeone, and the referee had rummaged around for a red card, and England had played the last 75 minutes of normal-plus-extra time with 10 players.

Argentina won on penalty kicks, England went home, Beckham jetted to New York to join his fiancee, and Beckham reportedly stayed gone for two weeks.

A banner outside West Ham's Upton Park reportedly forecast "Hell" for Beckham for when his club, Manchester United, would visit that Aug. 22. A Pleasant Pheasant regular told the tabloid Evening Standard, "Everyone in the pub has been fuming at Beckham's behavior." The overmatched England coach, Glenn Hoddle, had chimed in with, "I am not denying it cost us the game."

Even Beckham's wife-to-be, "Posh," would tell writer Vicky Ward she did go "Ooh!" at his blunder.

It all looked grim and when Beckham's Manchester United played Arsenal in a preseason game Aug. 8, Arsenal fans booed Beckham's every touch and chanted, "Off! Off!"

Then two weeks later, at Manchester United's first road game of the season, boos poured out of West Ham fans, who might've resented Beckham then anyway as a fellow East Londoner who'd joined a northern club. When he appeared to injure his neck, they jeered. Some fans harassed the bus of the visiting team.

"I was at the match and I can remember there being some pretty vocal singing about Beckham's wife," said political commentator and West Ham fan Iain Dale, who later edited "singing" in favor of "aggressive chanting."

Beckham soldiered on, with game reports claiming the air at the 0-0 tie less ugly than anticipated.

"What he did was just get his head down, and just play his superb game, and just carried on playing, and carried on playing," said Colin Hendrie, vice chairman of the Independent Manchester United Supporters Assn.

As Manchester United fans started backing him against the backlash -- much as they had their Eric Cantona, who kicked a Crystal Palace fan in 1995 -- their respect for Beckham's resolve gathered, Hendrie said.

The rest of the nation would require some time plus some of Beckham's everyday unbelievably spectacular free kicks.

In addition to other adroit performances for England, Beckham provided a spectacular 93rd-minute goal on a free kick on the tense afternoon of Oct. 6, 2001, in Manchester, tying England with Greece and qualifying for the 2002 World Cup.

By the next June, when that World Cup began, the Daily Star had gone to the Pleasant Pheasant and interviewed a roofer who said, "I had to admit I hated him then. . . . Things have changed since then and now I feel a bit of a wally. I love him. He is the king as far as I'm concerned."

Of course, when you've won the roofers, you've won the nation.

"I suppose part of the answer might be that football fans can have short memories and when things go wrong then right, they can be quite forgiving," said the chairman of the national Football Supporters Federation.

By 2006, as Beckham edged toward leaving Real Madrid, many West Ham fans pined away for his presence. "If he came and played a game at Upton Park now," Dale said, "I think he would actually be cheered."

By May 2008, he'll be cheered tonight way up in northwest London, just as English fans cheered him when he played for England in Paris in March.

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