I remember vividly the overwhelming feeling of utter disappointment in June 1998 when the referee pulled out the red card, sending David Beckham off against Argentina just after the second half had begun. Disappointment for England, sure, but disappointment for Beckham, who was the hero of 15 year old me. Disappointment for knowing that our player was going to get blamed for England’s exit from the World Cup.
Somehow, England survived through the rest of the second half and extra time keeping the score at 2-2, and then came the penalty shoot out. Liverpool’s Paul Ince and Newcastle’s David Batty were the ones that missed, and England were out.
Nobody could predict the fall from grace that Beckham was about to experience. England ripped him to shreds. The press singled him out for the blame, fans of London clubs hung effigies and burnt them outside the pubs, Beckham was booed by opposition fans wherever he played. The United faithful stuck by him though, with banners of support seen at every game “They may hate you, but Beckham we love you”. Chants for him were sung over the booing and whistling he received when he touched or came close to the ball.
We had finished the season before empty handed, and lost 3-0 to current champions Arsenal in the Charity Shield. The first game of the season was at home to Leicester, where we went in 1-0 down at half time. Things were going from bad to worse when Leicester went 2-0 up with 15 minutes to play. We immediately made a substitution, and up stepped Teddy “went to Man United and he won fuck all” Sheringham (as he was known at the time) three minutes later making it 2-1. Then in the last minute, who else could it be who salvaged something from the game, but David Beckham, netting the equaliser.
A month later, Beckham scored our third goal in our 3-3 draw against Barcelona in the Champions League. Beckham’s goal against Wimbledon towards the end of the season earned us a valuable point, after going 1-0 down early on. In the FA Cup semi-final replay against Arsenal, where Ryan Giggs stole the headlines with his wonder goal, it was Beckham who netted our first. Beckham scored our winning goal against Villa with just 4 games left to play, and on the last day of the season, it was Beckham who scored our first against Spurs, before Cole scored the 2nd, crowning United as League Champions. Of course, that wasn’t the only trophy Beckham lifted that season, with the FA Cup and the European Cup following in the next ten days.
Now of course, I know most will be familiar with the story of David Beckham, with him being the most famous player in the game, but it’s only this season that we can liken his story with another United player. In the World Cup when Wayne Rooney got sent off against Portugal, I had the same feeling again. The same feeling of dread that yet again, another United player was going to get strung up by England. That the press were going to hound him, that the fans were going to boo and whistle him. However, I got it wrong when I thought the blame was going to be on Rooney’s head, as in the papers the next day, it was reported it was Cristiano Ronaldo’s fault England were out of the World Cup. Just like in 1998, it wasn’t those who missed the penalties, Lampard, Gerrard and Carragher who were blamed. It wasn’t the rest of the England team who had shown one spineless performance after another. It seemed irrelevant, just as in 1998, that the sent off player made little to no impact on the result. Sure, it could be argued that had Beckham and Rooney not been sent off, those players might have scored, but essentially, England were knocked out of the World Cup in 1998 and 2006 because they have players who can’t handle the pressure of penalty shoot outs.
So, as we’d seen before, an onslaught of criticism was directed at a United player. Ronaldo, who had been one of the four Portuguese players complaining to the ref, was handed the blame. Have you ever heard of anything more ridiculous? There were plenty of reasons to dislike Ronaldo in the World Cup, namely his diving and his winning penalty, but to blame him for England’s exit is absurd. Let’s change the situation around shall we. Had Ronaldo stamped on John Terry’s balls, and the surrounding England players ran over to the ref, and Wayne Rooney just stood there looking on, what would England fans have thought? Would England fans applauded Rooney for sticking by his Manchester United team mate, even though he was playing for England? Can you imagine a West Ham or Chelsea fan saying, “Well done Wayne, that’s it, stick up for Ronaldo. Don’t get involved. When representing your country at the World Cup, your loyalty to your club team mate is far more important.” Who are we trying to kid?
Regardless, it is Ronaldo who has now faced the Beckham treatment, even with the likes of Steven Gerrard trying to stir up the hate campaign. He is booed every match, there are cheers every time a player takes his legs from beneath him, and he is currently the most fouled player in the Premiership. However, as with Beckham, the United fans have stuck by him. He will get the loudest cheer when the team list is read out (apart from when Ole is playing, of course), songs are sung for him every match, and our away fans are showing up at rival grounds with Portugal flags. What is the response from Ronaldo? 16 league goals (1 player has scored more) and 8 assists (3 players have assisted more).
Now, this isn’t to say I think Ronaldo is going on to win the Treble this season, as Beckham did following the witch hunt after the World Cup in 98, but United are certainly heading in the right direction for success. As Beckham played a key role in 1998/1999, Ronaldo has had an even greater impact for us this season. United need 7 more wins to be crowned Champions, and a win against Boro in the Cup on Saturday would move United’s trip to the Bridge until the last game of the season. All is set up for Ronaldo to come out on top, despite the boos, whistles and fouls, and he’s got 9 games to do it.