Beckham looks for big things in Euro 2004

Posted: Thursday, June 10, 2004

LISBON, Portugal The fashion, the marketing, the big money, the rock-star aura they are all put aside now.

For the next three weeks, David Beckham is strictly about soccer. And England's captain will have no better stage than the European championship to show he is not only healthy but that his soccer credentials are among the world's best.

''We should be going into these competitions believing that we can win it, and I believe we can,'' he said. ''It's going to take a lot of hard work.''

After playing in England's final tuneup game, a 6-1 rout of Iceland on Saturday, Beckham limped off the field with an injured right ankle and went to the hospital to have a cyst on his back removed.

Two years ago, Beckham broke his left foot a month before the 2002 World Cup. He recovered and played well, but England lost in the quarterfinals to eventual champion Brazil.

Now, with England to open against defending champion France on Sunday in Lisbon, he's trying to play down the ankle injury.

''The first thing someone said to me the other night was, 'Aren't you out of the competition?''' Beckham said. ''So far, definitely, people have been talking about my injury but there isn't one.''

Beckham has made 66 international appearances for England and scored 13 goals. He is the team's most experienced player, along with Gary Neville and Paul Scholes.

''The players that we've got in this team, we've got a few experienced players, which I am now, unfortunately,'' Beckham said with a smile. ''And we've got a lot of young talented players.''

Since becoming captain in 2000, Beckham has matured as a player, often single-handedly driving the team.

He's become one of the world's most identifiable sports stars. His marketing deals, changing hairstyles and clothes have made him one of Britain's biggest celebrities. He and his wife, the former Spice Girl wife Victoria, have filled acres of gossip columns. He has lent his name to the hit independent film ''Bend it Like Beckham.''

All of this is in stark contrast to his reputation after his first major international tournament the 1998 World Cup in France.

Beckham returned in shame after being ejected for retaliating against Argentina's Diego Simeone in a second-round game England lost in a penalty-kick shootout. He was vilified in the press, jeered wherever he went. Beckham said dealing with the fallout ''made me the person that I am today.''

He responded with strong performances for Manchester United. He won six Premier League championship medals with the team, including the 1999 season where the club also won the FA Cup and Champions Cup. That year, he was voted runner-up behind Brazil's Rivaldo for World Player of the Year.

Beckham was part of the England team that was eliminated at Euro 2000. In 2001, he again finished second in the World Player of the Year award, this time behind Luis Figo of Portugal.

He was captain during England's 5-1 win at Germany in qualifying for the 2002 World Cup, and he scored on a penalty kick in a 1-0 victory over Argentina in the tournament before the team lost to Brazil.

Back in England, Beckham's relations with United's Alex Ferguson deteriorated, notably when the manager kicked a shoe into the midfielder's face following a loss to Arsenal in the FA Cup. Beckham was cut over his eye and was left out of the starting lineup for a Champions League quarterfinal.

After a summer of rumors, Beckham joined Real Madrid on a four-year deal last June. He made a strong start but then slumped as British tabloids splashed rumors about extramarital affairs.

Before long there were questions of whether he would stay in Spain. Real Madrid wound up in fourth place, the first time it hadn't won a trophy since 1999.

Last month, Beckham vowed he would stay in Spain and said his wife and sons planned to move there.

England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson believes Beckham will not be distracted in Portugal.

''I'm sure when he puts on the England shirt as captain, he'll do an excellent job, as he always does,'' Eriksson said. ''I'm sure he'll put away what happened lately.''

Steve McClaren, an assistant England manager, thinks Beckham will be one of the key players at Euro 2004.

''Being with England brings out the best of him,'' he said. ''It has done so in the past and it will do again.''

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