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Reinventing himself again

He has been up and down in the public eye, but his transformation into global star makes L.A. a logical choice.

January 12, 2007|Mike Penner | Times Staff Writer

His swerving free kick of a career was launched in Manchester, England, soaring about as high as a soccer player can climb, before bounding into an unplayable position at Real Madrid.

But all the while, sooner or later, one way or another, David Beckham seemed destined for Hollywood.

That it happened now, with a soon-to-be-32 Beckham ranking as the world's most expensive and renowned benchwarmer, makes sense from the Los Angeles perspective.

In this mecca of shopping malls and fashion boutiques, we know a bargain when we see one. With Beckham, marked down from his prime years of 1999-2003, the Galaxy is just another smart customer cashing in on a post-Christmas clearance sale.

Beckham comes to Los Angeles more famous for being famous than his now-fading soccer skills. To call him a midfielder at this point in his story is about as pertinent as calling him the son of a kitchen fitter and hairdresser from Leytonstone, East London.

Beckham's reputation transcended the chalked confines of a soccer field long ago. Fifteen years after making his debut with Manchester United, Beckham comes to the Galaxy equal parts pop star, comic-book superhero and global marketing icon -- with a knack for banging in the occasional useful corner kick.

Along the way, he has been pariah and messiah, fey pretty boy and charismatic England captain, proud carrier of the country's soccer banner and an affront to its old-school bulldog tradition.

He also possesses a magician's touch when it comes to public relations, pulling off one of sport's most miraculous image reversals -- transforming himself from national disgrace in 1998 to runner-up for FIFA world player of the year in 1999.

At the 1998 World Cup, Beckham was whistled for a senseless red card during a second-round match between England and hated rival Argentina. Never mind that the punishment was more severe than the crime -- a petulant flick of the leg that grazed the calf of Argentina's Diego Simeone while a frustrated Beckham lay on the ground. Because of the ejection and England's subsequent defeat in a shootout, Beckham was vilified in the British media and hung in effigy by angry fans.

He endured a season of abuse that culminated in unprecedented triumph, his Manchester United club becoming the first English club to claim Europe's "treble" -- winning the domestic league and cup championships and the Champions League, all in the same season.

Manchester United defeated Bayern Munich, 2-1, in one of the most memorable Champions League finals ever played. United trailed, 1-0, at the end of regulation but, incredibly, scored two goals in stoppage time, both coming off Beckham corner kicks.

Beckham was, and remains, a dead-ball specialist. His 2001 free kick to earn England a draw against Greece and qualification for the 2002 World Cup cemented his reputation as a set-piece maestro, inspiring the 2002 movie, "Bend It Like Beckham."

By the spring of 2002, his popularity in England reached its zenith. In an April Champions League match, Beckham broke a bone in his left foot, jeopardizing his chances to participate in the World Cup -- a mishap England treated as a national disaster.

One tabloid printed a "prayer mat" and told readers how to use it while praying for Beckham's quick recovery. Other newspapers printed photos of Beckham's foot and asked readers to touch or kiss it for good luck.

Hysteria ebbed when Beckham declared himself fit for England's World Cup opener against, of all teams, Argentina. There, he found redemption, scoring the match's only goal on a penalty.

England made it to the quarterfinals against Brazil, where Beckham's injury played a role in England's elimination. Rather than aggressively tackling a ball at midfield near the end of the first half with England leading, 1-0, Beckham made a play-it-safe bunny-hop over the ball. Brazil kept possession and flung the ball downfield for an equalizing, and momentum-shifting goal. When Ronaldinho scored on a second-half free kick over the head of England's goalkeeper, it was over.

From there, Beckham's soccer descent began.

2003: Injured again, Beckham lost his place in United's starting lineup and feuded with the team's manager, Alex Ferguson. In June, Beckham was awarded an Order of the British Empire medal for "services to football." In July, he was sold to Real Madrid for $48 million.

2004: Despite adding Beckham, Real Madrid finished fourth in the Spanish league. England reached the quarterfinals at Euro 2004 but lost a shootout to Portugal after he skied his attempt into the stands. Afterward, he would blame the miss on the turf.

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