“David, you’re not going to start tonight. You’ll be on the bench,” Manchester United’s manager Alex Ferguson told David Beckham. It was April 23, 2003, the morning of the United-Real Madrid game at Old Trafford in the quarterfinal of the Champions League. As Beckham later recounted in one of his autobiographies: “I shook my head, turned around and began walking back to the changing room.” Ferguson called out, “David, come back here. Don’t walk away from me,” but Beckham walked on.
The confrontation summed up the two men: Beckham’s penchant for soap opera, and Ferguson’s for treating soccer players like small children. As Beckham later reflected, in a rare moment of psychological acuity, if Ferguson still cared about their relationship, he’d have flown into one of his temper tantrums. But United’s manager could no longer be bothered. Though Beckham was the biggest soccer brand in history in 2003, in Ferguson’s mind, he’d already left the club.
One characteristic has allowed Ferguson to rule Manchester United for 25 years: his drive to move on. He is forever updating his team. Nobody is indispensable to Ferguson’s United, except Ferguson. And this drive was best demonstrated at the team’s home match against Madrid eight years ago.
Ferguson had known Beckham since the player was 11, and had always regarded him as a “Manchester United player.” Ferguson uses this term not as a description, but as an accolade — it means a brilliant yet workaholic collectivist. Ferguson himself has won more trophies than anyone else in soccer’s history, but he hardly seems to care. What he won yesterday is just a notch on the way to a target he never wants to meet. What preoccupies him is winning tomorrow. That’s the attitude he demands from his players.
“I tell the players that the bus is moving,” he once said. “This club has to progress. And the bus wouldn’t wait for them. I tell them to get on board.”
As long as he’d known Beckham, the player had quietly gotten on board. Even as his fame grew, he never questioned his manager’s authority. As he himself phrased it, “Alex Ferguson is the best manager I’ve ever had at this level. Well, he’s the only manager I’ve actually had at this level.”
Though Beckham should be seen and not heard, one gets what he meant. But by April 2003, the Ferguson-Beckham dynamic had changed. As Asians and Americans grew interested in soccer, Beckham had progressed from player to global brand. Ferguson hated his embrace of celebrity. After England’s ritual failure at the World Cup of 2002, Beckham had gone with his teammates to meet the Queen in Buckingham Palace. Ferguson, watching on TV, was furious. His player should have been resting, not hanging out with monarchs. “When I saw you turn up there, I questioned your commitment to Manchester United,” he later told Beckham.
However, another woman had already instigated the separation between these two men: Victoria Beckham. The singer often seemed to control her less articulate husband, something that enraged Ferguson, who holds traditional views about a woman’s role.
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Meanwhile, in the 2002-2003 season, Beckham’s form slipped. Ferguson seemed grateful at the chance to bench the brand. He tolerates no cults of personality except his own. In United’s changing room after a defeat against Arsenal in February 2003, he even kicked a boot at Beckham’s face. The player got up to fight him and had to be restrained by teammates.
What irked Ferguson more was that the incident became public. Victoria Beckham was an entertainer, and entertainers habitually leak news to the media so as to burnish their brands. She or her advisers leaked the boot story. Beckham, who speaks best through visual images, appeared in public with his hair swept back in an Alice band so that everyone could photograph the gash on his forehead.
That spring, as United planned their path to a Champions League final that would be played at Old Trafford, “The Boot” briefly displaced the run-up to the Iraq War as lead story in the British tabloids. None of this impressed Ferguson, who regards the media as the leader of the permanent siege of Manchester United.
The club had lost the first leg of the quarterfinal 3-1 in Madrid’s Bernabeu stadium. Beckham foresaw that Ferguson would bench him for the return. As one of Beckham’s ghostwriters later put it: “It felt as if the whole season had been about him building up to doing this to me. ‘Real Madrid: an important game, son. Too important for you to play in.’”
Juan Sebastian Veron, who hadn’t played in seven weeks, and the eternal substitute Ole Gunnar Solskjaer started instead. United’s bus was moving on.
That night, Veron and Solskjaer failed, and so did United’s defense. Ferguson is a brilliant man-manager, but not a brilliant match-tactician. Real’s Brazilian Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima scored three goals (and would get a memorable ovation from the Manchester crowd). There was some brilliant soccer, and yet the TV cameras kept being lured to the brand in the Alice band, shining on United’s bench.
After 63 minutes, with United losing 2-3, Ferguson finally sent on Beckham, to no applause. By this time Madrid had sealed the game. United needed four unanswered goals in 27 minutes to reach the semis. Ferguson probably just wanted Beckham to share his teammates’ humiliation.
But unluckily for the manager, Beckham has that instinct for melodrama. Eight minutes after coming on, the player curved a free kick under Madrid’s bar so hard that the young Iker Casillas on the goal line didn’t move. Watching the old footage, you hear the British commentator cry out the 2003 movie title, “Bend it like Beckham!” as the player lopes back to his own half to resume the forlorn chase.
A minute from time, Beckham, a meter from Madrid’s goal, pushed in a ball that was probably already going in. Both goals were effectively useless for United, but very useful for Beckham. Ferguson must have cursed them both.
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Indeed, in extra time, when Beckham missed with a free kick that still wouldn’t have sent United through, Ferguson exploded with rage on the touchline. Beckham, who he’d set up to fail, had succeeded. On the final whistle, Beckham, who exchanged shirts with Zinedine Zidane, was surrounded by Real players asking him if he was joining Madrid, and waved to the crowd in what looked suspiciously like a farewell. Indeed, that July, Ferguson sold him to Real for $41 million.
Foolhardy as the dispatching of Beckham seemed then, Ferguson was right. Beckham had a fatal flaw: He just wasn’t good enough. Though a great brand, he was too slow to be a great soccer player. Sure, he could hit free kicks, but in matches at the highest level, he often looked like a bystander wheeled on only for dead balls.
His benching against Real wasn’t prompted solely by Ferguson’s spite: Madrid’s Road Runner left-back, Roberto Carlos, had eaten Beckham for breakfast at the World Cup the year before and whenever else he’d been given the chance.
Aged 28 in 2003, Beckham had perhaps four good years left in him. To ignore Real’s offer and keep paying Beckham’s wages of over $8 million a year would therefore have cost Ferguson about $75 million in all. As a player, Beckham was no longer worth it. Perhaps he was worth it as an off-field brand, but Ferguson has always run United strictly as a soccer club.
Since the early 1990s, the manager had measured his team against the best in Europe. To him, the defeat to Real said that this United wasn’t great. Therefore Ferguson needed to construct a great United.
Luckily he had a great player in the pipeline. The summer Beckham left, Ferguson signed an unknown 18-year-old Portuguese winger for just $20 million. Ferguson is always quick to trust in youth. He gave Cristiano Ronaldo Beckham’s number seven shirt. Within another couple of years, it would look like a brilliant exchange. United’s bus had moved on.
And it has kept moving since. In the 1980s, Ferguson had gotten rid of United icons Paul McGrath and Norman Whiteside. In 1995, he sold Mark Hughes and Paul Ince at the peak of their popularity, and in recent years, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Ronaldo have followed Beckham to Real — a club always in the market for egocentric stars.
At times Ferguson’s suspicion of stars (he almost never signs a mature star at his peak) has weakened United. He’s more patient with bit players of unquestioned obedience, like John O’Shea, Wes Brown or Darren Fletcher, who have been allowed to hang around Old Trafford for years. The sale of Beckham was spot on.
The transfer didn’t initially help anyone. Neither Real nor United won a national or European title from 2004 through 2006. But Ferguson doesn’t worry much about the short term, because he is unsackable. Eventually he built his third great team around Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney.
Ronaldo has since left, and even though Rooney is now United’s only star in his prime, the betting is that one day the bus will leave him behind too. In Ferguson’s United, the only man who always stays on the bus is the driver.