I am convinced that unbridled joy exists only in moments that lack expectation. A gift is a gift unless it falls from an unexpected height, in which case it is something more. It hits something deeper, acts like a warming agent and releases this fulfilling ball of jubilation into the psyche that can only really take root in the unexpected. Timing is everything.
David Beckham’s stoppage time free kick against Greece in the fall of 2001 to draw level at 2-2 and qualify England for the 2002 World Cup stands as probably the most famous, beloved set piece in Albion’s collective history. There are Steven Gerrard kicks for Liverpool that young Scousers hang in their minds like plush mental tapestries, Frank Lampard screamers that occupy places of jewel-encrusted honor in West London and Matt Le Tissier’s impossible bombs for Southampton are too many to mention. One of them was probably an unhealthy cornerstone in some rabid Saints fan’s life. But as a unifying force that connected this generation of Englishmen, no worm-burning 30-yard trajectory has as much prominence, as much meaning and as much collective ebullience attached to its name.
England was teetering precariously on the edge of disaster when Teddy Sheringham drew a soft free kick 30 yards from Greece’s goal with a minute of stoppage time left to play. Germany was seconds away from a draw with Finland, meaning England needed to match the Germans’ result to win the group. If not, a playoff against Ukraine loomed, but only because the mighty English and its golden generation could not put the sword to lowly Greece on home soil. Into this roiling sea sailed Beckham.
Greece’s keeper that day was the inimitable Antonis Nikopolidis, who will be best known as the backstop for Greece’s brick-and-mortar job during Greece’s run to the 2004 Euro title. He is, for most, considered the best Greek keeper to ever toe the chalk for the national team. And on a mild, sunny day at Old Trafford in October, he’d already gotten the better of Beckham once. Beckham earned a free kick in the opening 20 minutes that swerved with typical venom toward Nikopolidis’ right post, but he sprung off his line and, surprisingly, turned away a goal Beckham almost always scores. Nobody saw it coming. As Beckham stepped up to his spot in the 92nd minute from a similar distance, that moment no doubt played through the collective minds of the stooped Englishmen in Manchester. It could not possibly have escaped Beckham. Could arguably the best free kick-taker to ever live have met his proverbial match? A rapt group of cynics was about to find out.
As Beckham spins the ball onto the tips of Old Trafford’s famous grass blades, the ones he knew as well as anyone on the pitch that day, he’s flanked by Paul Scholes and Sheringham. Scholes, a contemporary, makes no attempt to talk to Beckham, but Sheringham does. The wily vet who had already scored that day seems to say something to Beckham, but it’s quick, and he’s soon walking away too. The camera pans to a watery-eyed fan with his hands clasped in a mimic prayer. While Beckham casually sets back from the ball, hands resting on his hips, we see another fan, this one obviously despondent. His eyebrows form a melancholy up-turned triangle and his meaty hands are positioned on his shaved head. He looks as though he’s lost his best friend.
It is this anticipation and the inherent disbelief of England’s chronically disbelieving fans that make the next 30 seconds one of the most incredibly cinematic moments in soccer history.
Beckham stutter-steps and then launches his shoulders forward before pulling his body leftward to that famous angle that age still has not taken from him. His arm 90 degrees to his left for balance, Beckham’s connection is true. Everybody in the stadium knew it was going to Becks’ left. Greece’s hastily-formed wall is no match for the swerve as it careens toward Nikopolidis’ right post, the one Beckham had failed to make his own an hour earlier.
Looking at a down-the-barrel view helps you understand why Beckham’s strike rendered Nikopolidis inert, why this time was different. The strike starts at eye level, almost as though it’s going to hit the keeper in the face, and then it starts going haywire. Nikopolidis stutters to his right but you can see the indecision in his movement, whether to make an effort or not. And then you see the despondency in it when he realizes that he’s now betting on it flying wide, that it is useless for him to dive because if it’s not going wide, it’s a free kick that belongs in the Tate Modern. For a moment it looks like he might be right. But the kick has that innately Beckham quality about it, how the swerve dies as though Beckham is guiding it mid-flight. So as the ball rips in, Nikopolidis is still on his feet, his legs akimbo, his head whipped to his right watching it like everyone else at Old Trafford.
But the unexpected joy that kick delivers is perhaps the most endearing thing about it all. The camera shakes uncontrollably as it trails Beckham in rapturous jubilation, his arms stretched out to his sides and in full sprint into free space. The entire stadium is on its feet. Sven Goran-Eriksson, so close to launching a famously cynical nation into a tailspin of death-tinged soothsaying, throws up his hands as an almost embarrassingly wide smile creases his face and finds an assistant to hug. And then the final whistle goes almost immediately thereafter and the English were talking knighthoods instead of court marshals.
As Colin Malam wrote in his gamer for the Telegraph the next day, “Cometh the hour, cometh the man.” The unbelievable unexpected joy of the package the man dropped on England’s doorstep that day still reverberates through an island nation that will never forget it.
- Will Parchman