Manchester United 2 (Beckham ’65, Scholes ’87), Real Madrid 3 (Keane OG ’20, Raul ’47, ’52).
19th April 2000, Old Trafford.
This goal doesn’t get discussed enough, which is pretty strange if you think what happened during its creation. As the player in question strode forwards to score, he left Roberto Carlos immobile as a scarecrow in his wake, and thrashed a shot high past a bemused Iker Casillas – a strike of such quality that it should have been beyond anyone in the modern era but Leo Messi. But it wasn’t Messi, it was David Beckham. Beckham, who supposedly couldn’t dribble, whose failure to beat a man with trickery so limited his team for both club and country. Not this Englishman, surely? The one so devoid of cunning that all you needed to do was stand in his line of sight, and cut off his crossfield passing?
Well, it turns out that this particular Brit was better than advertised; at least, he certainly caught Carlos by surprise. The goal came for Manchester United against Real Madrid at Old Trafford, on a UEFA Champions League night in early April 2000; and, in Carlos’ defence, it arrived after a period of the visitors’ dominance, with Madrid already three goals to nil ahead. Possibly the last thing anyone in Europe was expecting was for Beckham to surge forward and humiliate the best left-back on the planet. Yet that’s exactly what happened.
If we are going to identify anyone as Beckham’s accomplice that night, then it must be Paul Scholes. His fellow midfielder’s square pass arrived promptly at his feet some thirty yards from goal, and if we are to be at all critical then we might say that Beckham’s touch was a little less delicate than it could have been. Instead of nestling in his instep, the ball fizzed forwards a few yards, stopping in that no-man’s-land on the edge of the box. Beckham and Carlos sprinted towards it, but the former’s body swerve – an appropriately Brazilian shimmy from right to left – set the defender on his heels, and in an instant the Englishman was gone. On Beckham rushed, gathering momentum, so that Ivan Helguera was the next bystander, not even getting close enough to be embarrassed – and then came the rising drive, struck with the force of Thor’s favourite weapon, and hit with such abruptness, such impoliteness, that it didn’t give Casillas the time to prepare a dive of any description.
Maybe the goal gets ignored because, early that evening, Roy Keane had already put through his own net and Fernando Redondo had produced one of the modern masterclasses of defensive midfield play. Perhaps, too, it was overlooked because United looked so far from making a comeback at that point – in the end, they lost the game and the tie by three goals to two, their failure to score in the first leg in Spain costing them dear. Whatever the case, it’s a shame – since it’s one of those moments when a player from a country often derided for its lack of technique produced a moment that would have graced the highlights of Luis Figo. Funnily enough, too, it may have been one of the first occasions when Real’s president, Florentino Perez, began to assess Beckham’s talent as truly galactic, since only a few seasons later he would be lining up in all white at the Bernabeu.
This goal stands out in Beckham’s collection, too. Most of his efforts are struck from absurd distances, frequently seeming to arrive from different postcodes entirely, and served up with otherworldly amounts of swerve (witness, for example, his strike from 40 yards against Deportivo La Coruna, which made the goalkeeper throw up his arms as if someone had just stolen his car). It wasn’t often that he was called upon to dribble through the centre of the field, since that was something better left to Scholes or Ryan Giggs. It was a little like that moment in The Dark Knight Rises where Batman breaks his back, and so in the absence of any other superheroes Robin is forced to step into the breach – a new set of duties which he handles superbly. If Scholes was mostly the sorcerer of United’s central midfield, then that night Beckham made for the most elite of apprentices.