By 2003, the relationship between David Beckham and Sir Alex Ferguson had passed its point of fracture. Long before a flying boot had struck Beckham above the eye following a 2-0 defeat to Arsenal at Old Trafford in February 2003, Ferguson had been harbouring doubts about his midfielder’s attitude.
He wasn’t necessarily wrong and the anecdotes of the time do suggest a wavering focus. The incident at Filbert Street, for instance, when Beckham refused to remove a hat during a team-meeting, ostensibly to protect the unveiling of a new haircut the following day. Or how, unilaterally, he chose to miss training to remain with his unwell, infant son, causing a furious Ferguson to drop him ahead of a top of the table game against Leeds United. They’re incidents which can be interpreted differently. Beckham was a young father and still a young man, he was also incredibly famous and, most likely, subject to all sorts of external pressures. From Ferguson’s perspective, however, his behaviour represented a direct threat to his authority.
The dressing-room incident post-Arsenal was a challenge too far. Ferguson had accused Beckham of being responsible for a Sylvain Wiltord goal, Beckham had swore at him in response, and the two had to be separated by the other players.
The day after, Ferguson did attempt a reconciliation. He called Beckham into his office to evaluate his performance and to explain why he had been so critical. The player was not receptive. In fact, according to Ferguson’s autobiography, Beckham wouldn’t even engage in a conversation.
And that was the end; that was the moment at which Ferguson instructed his board to find a buyer.
Of course, the rest is history. Beckham would move to Real Madrid and continue his ascension into the game’s commercial stratosphere. Whether he was a footballing success in Spain is another issue, but he suited the environment and the environment suited him. Florentino Perez couldn’t have conceived a more ideal character for his Galactico circus.
The asterisk is that Beckham might have been a Barcelona player. While the mood was souring in Manchester, a forty year-old Joan Laporta was seeking the Catalan club’s presidency. By this time, Europe’s elite had evidently smelt Beckham’s availability and so, as part of his manifesto, Laporta had promised to sign the England captain should he win the member’s vote.
It was a familiar move in Spanish football politics. Notoriously, Perez had won his own election in 2000 partly by promising to meet Luis Figo’s release clause. It had clearly helped him to unseat the incumbent Lorenzo Sanz and so, with such a precedent, Laporta’s Beckham promise could be interpreted as easy populism. It was common knowledge that Madrid held a long standing interest and any Barcelona attempt to steal him away would, for obvious reasons, have been received well.
Not that it was electorally decisive. Laporta’s trump card was not Beckham, but rather the patronage of Johan Cruyff. Sitting president Joan Gaspart had overseen a period of galling decline, the club’s finances were a mess, and his resignation was forced in early 2003. In the three seasons following the turn of the Millennium, the club failed to finish higher than fourth in LaLiga. In 2003 itself, they languished in a lowly sixth place. The context for Cruyff – and by proxy Laporta – was perfect.
In 1996, Gaspart had been Josep Nunez’s vice-president and had himself delivered the news of Cruyff’s sacking. It was the ugliest of exits and a confrontation which nearly became physical. Popular opinion in Catalonia had concluded that Cruyff’s usefulness as manager had expired, but the manner of his departure and its lack of respect was shocking.
“If they need me I will come back, but never with Nunez.”
The timing of a return couldn’t possibly have been better. Nor the optics, given the almost binary relationship between Cruyff and Gaspart. Prior to arriving as manager in 1988, Barcelona had won two league titles in 28 years. In the eight years Cruyff had spent at Camp Nou, he’d won the Primera Division four times. He’d also won three Spanish Cups, the European Cup and the Cup Winners’ Cup. He was both the natural antidote to Real’s advancement and the cure for Barcelona’s stylistic myopia.
Laporta would subsequently win power and, remaining true to his pledge to restore Cruyffian values, would employ Txiki Begiristain (a member of the original Dream Team) as his sporting director and Frank Rijkaard as his head-coach. Rijkaard was very much Cruyff’s recommendation. In spite of their acrimonious past and Rijkaard’s only club management role having been with Sparta Rotterdam, he was nevertheless chosen as Radomir Antic’s successor. He was to be the disciple, the technical area avatar for Cruyff and his beliefs.
Even with the foundations in place, results didn’t immediately follow. In fact, the first half of the 2003-04 season was semi-disastrous. The 5-1 loss to Malaga at La Rosaleda is the deepest pockmark on the new regime’s reign, but the low point was arguably a 3-0 defeat in January in Santander which sank Barcelona to 12th place.
The recovery is a well-told story. Edgar Davids would arrive on loan in January and the team wouldn’t lose in the league again until May, eventually finishing second. The Dutchman was by no means solely responsible, but the attitude and tenaciousness he brought to Spain has often been credited with the setting of a new standard. Xavi Hernandez, in particular, has always spoken effusively of the impression Davids left.
So, happily after: Rijkaard would coach the side to two LaLiga titles and a European Cup and, before his gentle style allowed egos to swell and standards to drop, he would help prepare the ground for Pep Guardiola, a fresher set of fertile ideas, and the club’s climb to its contemporary position.
But what of Beckham? Hindsight makes this a fascinating sub-plot, because although Laporta’s intention to sign him was likely instructed by something other than pure sporting values, Beckham would possibly have been a great obstruction to the club’s future. No doubt he would have proven a marketing coup and offered a route into some lucrative markets, but accommodating a player of his profile would have hindered the future.
In a 2017 interview with Marca, Laporta revealed just how serious the interest was. Evidently, this was not actually a move for the sake of cheap publicity and, given the chance, Barcelona would have followed through.
“It was between Beckham, Ronaldinho or [Thierry] Henry. United told us that they would sell him to us if we won the [presidential] election as we didn’t have the power at that time. But they used us and in the end he signed for Madrid. We met at Heathrow Airport and signed a document which said that they would sell him to us if we struck an agreement with the agent.
“However, we didn’t manage to do that. We went to Nice and stayed with him and he said he would think about it. We got fed up of waiting on an answer, so we signed Ronaldinho instead.”
It’s confusing, because Beckham was nobody’s idea of a Cruyffian player. He was talented but mechanical, gifted but at his best within narrow parameters; hardly the sort of fluid, multipurpose component that enables such a style. Today, he is falsely remembered as being more icon than footballer; it’s unfair, he was a fine player who has the medals to prove it. Nevertheless, his optimum role at Manchester United was always on the right side of a midfield four and, prior to that point, any experimentation with that position had resulted in failure. His performance in the 1999 Champions League final, for instance, when suspensions to Paul Scholes and Roy Keane forced an impromptu central-midfield partnership with Nicky Butt, was deeply underwhelming. Beckham and Manchester United were clearly drained that night, exhausted by the challenges of the season, but Bayern Munich dominated the middle of the pitch and Beckham’s influence in open play was deeply limited.
Cruyff admired Beckham. He liked him as a person and as a professional and, in his book, talks fondly of how welcoming he and Eric Cantona were when Jordi, his son, moved to Manchester United. Tellingly perhaps, that is the only mention he receives. There is no suggestion that he identified in Beckham any of the traits he celebrated in other players, no sense that a move to the club of Cruyff’s heart would have suited his abilities. It’s interesting, also, that, in the same summer as Beckham eluded them, Barcelona chose to sign Ricardo Quaresma, who – as a right-sided midfielder – was an entirely different sort of player.
Under Rijkaard, Barcelona began the season in a 4-2-3-1 shape, with Quaresma starting. Gerard Lopez and Xavi played as the deepest midfielders, Javier Saviola as the centre-forward, and Luis Enrique and the Portuguese either side of Ronaldinho in a No.10 role. By the turn of the year, however, they had – via a dalliance with three centre-halves – pivoted to a very Dutch, very Cruyffian 4-3-3. One could argue, perhaps, that the initial shape was determined by the players they ultimately did sign over the summer, but it’s realistic to assume that 4-3-3 had always been the vague intention.
Maybe Beckham could have adapted to that shape, but there’s little basis for believing so. He was not a particularly flexible player, he was always at his most impactful from the outside of a full-back, and his presence in that team would surely have opposed the flexibility that Cruyff – and Rijkaard – would have viewed as necessity.
He would admittedly have provided a stable supply of width, another imperative which was being embraced, but Patrick Kluivert’s peak had passed (he would be sold to Newcastle at the end of the season) and so in the absence of a traditional centre-forward, Barcelona lacked the focal point forward to exploit Beckham’s outstanding attribute.
The irony is that Beckham often played centrally for Madrid. In fact, in his first Clasico appearance against Barcelona (at Camp Nou in December 2003), he started in a midfield pairi with Ivan Helguera and within the confines of a familiar 4-4-2. Real won the game 2-1, but – while slightly tenuous – it’s possible to see a correlation between how often he operated away from his best position and how little he actually won during four years in Spain. Perez’s Disneyland psychosis was at its deepest during that era and Beckham was by no means the only positional anomaly in the side, but the midfield became a typical weakness. In 2003-04, Madrid managed a meagre quarter-final appearance in the Champions League, but suffered elimination at the Round of 16 stage in each of the next three seasons. History shows that when they faced the very best sides in Europe – including Barcelona – their many imbalances were exposed. It’s also not a coincidence that they would have to wait until Beckham’s final season, in 2007, to win La Liga again, but which time Emerson and Mahamadou Diarra had been signed and some deference to tactical responsibility was being made.
But then, the aims of the two clubs were very different: what made Beckham a must-have item for Madrid is exactly why Barcelona’s interest remains so baffling.
It remains a seductive What If? Although difficult to comprehend, it’s tempting to imagine what might have happened had the transfer gone through. Barcelona’s financial position at the time was insecure, meaning that Laporta’s ‘Beckham or Ronaldinho’ scenario is entirely believable. Had the Brazilian not joined and moved instead to Manchester United, Barcelona’s modern history could well be very different. It’s a true sliding doors moment: there would likely have been no Champions League win 2006, no irresistible momentum, and no capturing of the world’s footballing affections. Xavi Hernandez and Anders Iniesta would still have been at the club, Pep Guardiola and Leo Messi might still have been on the horizon, but the butterfly effect of what would have been an incomprehensible error can’t be underestimated.
Of course, Beckham wasn’t really the right players for Madrid either. He glittered enough to satisfy Perez’s starlust and he was good enough to fit the surroundings, but his signing did a disservice to the many, many gifted players already in situ. Zidane, Figo, Ronaldo and Raul needed an anchor, Perez bought them a gaudy deck ornament. Nevertheless, with no real native culture, his transfer only really represented a misuse of funds. At Barcelona, though, it would have been a self-inflicted ideological stumble which, to this day, the club could still be dusting themselves down from.
Even now, over fifteen years later, it remains almost impossible to rationalise.