Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Beckham bears burden of defeat

By Michael Mcdonough
The Associated Press

LONDON - David Beckham hid his famous face in shame as he trudged from the soccer field - blaming himself for England's improbable, last-minute loss to rival France.

That Beckham was all over British front pages Monday was nothing new - he and his wife, former Spice Girl Victoria Adams - routinely adorn the newspapers.

But this was different: his hands covered his eyes following Sunday's 2-1 loss of a Euro 2004 soccer match in Portugal - a match that England led until the final minutes and one that Beckham should have put out of reach with a penalty kick.

Anguish mixed in with disbelief as commentators and ordinary fans analyzed just how it could be that England, up 1-0 at the end of regulation time, managed somehow to lose.

Beckham's agony was made worse by the knowledge he missed a golden chance to score.

Midway through the second half, the England captain took a penalty that if converted would have made the score 2-0 - an almost insurmountable lead. But his shot was blocked, and France dramatically scored twice in the dying minutes for a victory that left the English players shocked.

"Maybe if I had put the penalty away it would have finished them off," Beckham said. "I can only hold my hands up for that and take the blame."

Beckham stars in numerous advertising campaigns capitalizing on his chiseled looks, rapidly changing hairstyles and winning smile. But Monday's pictures were different.

"It is the lurid, agonizing images of this tormenting match" that will linger, wrote Kevin McCarra of The Guardian newspaper.

Several dailies referred to Beckham's "tears," although it was impossible to tell whether any flowed behind his hands.

The British media, which blamed Beckham after he committed a huge blunder during the 1998 World Cup tournament, appeared to share his agony this time.

"Broken Lionhearts," wrote The Daily Mirror tabloid on its front page, while The Sun summarized the outcome of the match: "Kicked in the Gauls."

The Daily Mail ran a picture of Beckham's tearful toddler son, Romeo, being comforted by his superstar mom. But that photo was taken before France even scored.

In London, crestfallen commuters shuffled to work Monday still smarting from the first-round defeat.

"We were robbed, absolutely robbed," said government worker Nick Bailey, 21. "It was really disappointing, but we'll pick ourselves up."

The defeat was especially painful because Zinedine Zidane, Beckham's teammate at Spanish club Real Madrid, scored both goals for France. While Beckham is probably the most recognizable soccer player in the world, Zidane is widely considered the best.

"I was gutted, I thought it'd be a draw," said student Justin Kennedy. "It's just how we lost it. They took two goals in two minutes."

Across the Channel, there was joy.

"God save Zidane," said a headline in the French sports daily L'Equipe. Le Parisien used the word "incredible" in a banner headline.

Disappointment turned to anger for some England fans, who are notorious for their rowdy and sometimes violent behavior.

Police arrested more than 80 people around Britain in the hours following the game as some supporters threw bricks and bottles at officers. No serious injuries were reported. In Boston, in the east Midlands, mobs turned over two police cars and set them on fire.

In Lisbon, however, there was no serious fan violence Sunday and no reports of injuries or arrests. British authorities have stepped up efforts in recent years to prevent known hooligans from traveling to matches abroad.

"The British fans were fantastic," said Portuguese national police spokesman Alexandre Coimbra. "They showed how to lose a game with great fair play and dignity."

On Sunday evening, a peak audience of 20.7 million people - roughly a third of Britain - watched the game on TV. Broadcaster ITV said its biggest ever audience for a soccer match was 23.8 million for England vs. Argentina in the 1998 World Cup, which England lost in a penalty shootout.

That game also represented the lowest point of Beckham's career. He was ejected for rough play and returned to England in shame, vilified in the press and jeered wherever he went.

He resurrected his reputation with a series of standout performances with former club Manchester United and England before moving to Real Madrid a year ago.

England will now face Switzerland and Croatia at Euro 2004 and may need to win both to avoid elimination.

But many were still too stunned to contemplate those games.

Marc Valli, a 34-year-old London bookstore employee, could have been speaking for many when he recalled the aftermath of defeat.

"I had run out of drinks," he said. "And I needed one after that."

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