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Beckham's Popularity Unbent

Manchester United midfielder is king of cool, but soccer star still enjoys life at home as well as trendy fashions and haircuts.

June 01, 2003|Michael McDonough | Associated Press

LONDON — He loves to shop, looks good in a sarong and spends almost as much time at the hairdresser's as he does on the playing field. Occasionally, he wears women's lingerie.

But for millions of English men and women, soccer star David Beckham is the king of cool, a golden-haired national treasure whose famously curling kicks have inspired boys and girls across the world to "Bend it Like Beckham" -- as in the current hit film about a Sikh girl in Britain with soccer dreams.

Beckham is reputed to be the world's best-paid soccer player, earning an estimated $17 million a year in salary and endorsement deals as a midfielder for the Manchester United.

His thumb fracture May 22 dominated British headlines, and speculation he might be thinking of moving to Spain to join Real Madrid's fabulously expensive squad had Britons in a froth of anxiety until he issued a denial.

Oh, he's also married to a former Spice Girl.

In the United States, many only know Beckham as Mr. Posh Spice, the husband of singer Victoria Adams. But in Britain -- and much of the rest of the world -- it's the captain of England's national team who gets star billing, while Mrs. Beckham picks up the crumbs of media attention.

"It's always nice to be liked," Beckham once said. "I think it's great."

He's not fussy about who does the liking. As well as being a mainstream male role model and a pinup for women, the dashingly handsome "Becks" is comfortable with his sex symbol status among Britain's gay community.

"He's a big flirt and he loves it," says his wife. "He walks around the kitchen going: 'I'm a gay icon. I'm a gay icon.' "

Indeed, there's little about Beckham that is normally associated with the super-macho world of English soccer and its hooligan undercurrent -- other than the ability to score goals and his tattoos, including the names of toddler sons Brooklyn and Romeo on his back.

A devoted husband who prefers time with his wife and children to partying with friends, the 28-year-old Beckham lavishes attention on his appearance, wearing designer outfits, eye-catching jewelry and, on at least one occasion, bright pink nail polish. He has been mocked for donning a sarong, and Posh says he likes to wear her skimpy underclothes.

Beckham -- whose mother ran a hair salon -- sends scissors snipping across Britain every time he adopts a new hairstyle, such as the modified Mohawk he wore in last year's World Cup. Currently, his blond locks are in braided cornrows.

A favorite of fashion magazines, Beckham once caused a sensation by appearing in a glossy spread with reddish-brown soy sauce dripping from his shaved head, as if he were bleeding.

"A lot of kids will follow it," he said of the fashion shoot. "But then, a lot follow by wearing a Manchester United shirt with 'Beckham' on the back."

There was a time, however, when the name was far from popular.

Born in London's Leytonstone district near the East End, Beckham joined Manchester United at 16 and rose to fame as an outstanding scorer of free kicks and penalties, earning a spot on the national team for the 1998 World Cup in France.

But what should have been the 23-year-old's moment of glory turned into disaster. During a white-knuckle second-round match against England's archenemy, Argentina, Beckham was expelled for a petulant kick against the opposing team's captain, so he missed the penalty kick shootout that sealed England's elimination.

Back in Britain, outraged soccer fans burned and hanged effigies of Beckham, who underwent a media lynching for his outburst.

Even Prime Minister Tony Blair got involved.

"I should think no one feels worse about it than David Beckham does," Blair said, as some called for the player to be banned from representing his country. "He is obviously going to have to learn from that."

For months, Beckham met with loud jeers when he entered a stadium. He slowly regained his popularity by leading Manchester United to a fantastic winning spree from 1999 to 2001, then sending England into the 2002 World Cup with a stunning free-kick goal against Greece in qualifying.

Beckham buried the memory of his 1998 humiliation by scoring the winning penalty shot against Argentina in an opening-round match, sparking huge celebrations across England.

He has rarely been absent from British newspapers since.

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