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Sports Blog Page

Beckham Bows Out in Spain

Elina Frumerman

Photo: Jasper Juinen, AP

Photo: Jasper Juinen, AP

MADRID — David Beckham didn't play the leading role in Real Madrid's thrilling 3-1 comeback victory against Mallorca on Sunday night, when Real Madrid won its first Spanish League title since he joined the team four years ago.
But it was another fairy-tale ending after perhaps his most difficult season. Besides, his shot at another Hollywood ending comes soon enough.

Next month, Beckham will leave Europe for Major League Soccer's Los Angeles Galaxy, where the 32-year-old soccer star and celebrity icon will take center stage, albeit in the foreign universe of American sports.

Straggling behind his rejoicing teammates and draped in the flag of his native England during a giddy victory lap in front of 80,000 exuberant fans at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium — a crowd that included Los Angeles pals Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes and Spanish tennis star Rafael Nadal — Beckham told English TV that Sunday's outcome made it all worthwhile.

"It's been an incredible experience," he said. "All I remember now are the great things. Winning this puts everything else to bed."

Beckham joined Real Madrid in July 2003 in a $40.5 million transfer from Manchester United, where he had helped win nine major championships. His arrival put him alongside an array of World Cup stars that included France's Zinedine Zidane, Brazil's Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos, and Portugal's Luis Figo — a group that came to be known as the Galacticos.

Expected to produce major championships with a club that already had won a record 29 Spanish League titles, the group combined to win only the 2003 Spanish Supercup, a lesser trophy.

And over time, Zidane, Ronaldo and Figo departed as the club spiraled through what became its longest period without a major title in more than 50 years.

Beckham's resurgence

Just five months ago, Beckham's decision to cross the ocean to MLS looked like an escape hatch for a player quickly approaching the twilight of his career and unwanted by top European clubs. (Carlos later agreed to a deal with the Turkish club Fenerbahce, making Sunday's match the last of the Galacticos era.)

Real Madrid coach Fabio Capello benched Beckham in January shortly after he signed a five-year contract worth as much as $250 million with MLS and the Galaxy. That same month, club President Ramon Calderon belittled Beckham, saying during a news conference he'd be only "a Hollywood B actor."

The onetime English captain had already been dropped from the national squad in a house-cleaning move by new coach Steve McClaren after the team's disappointing showing at the 2006 World Cup.

Beckham kept a low profile and was reinstated in February, at the beginning of a gritty 11-1-5 run by Real Madrid through its final 17 league games that propelled it from fourth place to first.

Beckham's play keyed the unlikely drive to Spanish League title and also earned him a recall to the England team, where he has made major contributions in recent weeks in the country's bid to qualify for the 2008 European championship finals.

Capello conceded last week he'd misjudged Beckham's worth, and he did so again Sunday.

"When we decided that Beckham wouldn't play again, we went through a very difficult time," he said. "But I admit I got that wrong. I think bringing him back was one of the most important influences in the way we have come back and claimed the title."

Calderon also changed course, clamoring for the celebrity/athlete to stay and cited an escape clause — erroneously — in Beckham's contract that would make him stay with Real Madrid.

"I don't think if he wants to play for the national team that he will do well to be in California," Calderon said recently. "The competition isn't good enough."

A perfect storm

For aficionados of Real Madrid or Madridistas, Sunday's game marked a perfect storm of soccer and celebrity. With the league title on the line and fan favorite Beckham lacing up for the last time, anticipation boiled.

By 5 p.m. Saturday, fans were lined up outside the Santiago Bernabeu stadium looking to snag choice seats.

Hours before game time, fans festooned in white and purple jerseys and other Real Madrid paraphernalia gathered around the stadium blowing horns, shouting and waving at beeping cars on the main Paseo de Castellana.

Vendors hawked T-shirts with the words "Real Madrid, League Champions 06-07" and the number 30, representing their record haul of league championships. Initially Sunday, that seemed a little premature.

With a better head-to-head record against bitter rival Barcelona, Madrid could guarantee a title with a win. But after falling behind 1-0 in a flat first half, optimism was in short supply.

When Beckham left Sunday's game in the 65th minute with what appeared to be a recurrence of an ankle injury, the crowd cheered loudly, but the moment was lost in the team's desperate efforts to salvage the game.

Shortly thereafter, his replacement, Jose Antonio Reyes, scored to tie the score at 1. Midfielder Mahamadou Diarra knocked in a header to put Madrid up, and then Reyes notched a second goal with a blast from his left foot to put the game out of reach and send the fans at the Bernabeu stadium into delirium.

At 32, Beckham remains world class at making crosses and headlines. Against Mallorca, he came close to scoring with a free kick in the 18th minute, and he hit the crossbar with a free kick in the 57th. His real value to MLS, however, will be his ability to galvanize public imagination and draw U.S. fans to a sport that has never found true traction in the professional ranks.

If his good form and health hold up, he could play at least six more matches for England from August to November. That could mean absences at MLS games after already missing the first half of the season.

During the individual on-field celebrations, Beckham walked to the center with this three sons, Brooklyn, Romeo and Cruz, who all wore shirts bearing Beckham's No. 23 and the name "Daddy" and on the back. He received a long roar from the crowd, which had come to respect and admire Beckham, even if the team struggled during most of his time there.

"He was not the most loved on the team, but he was the most popular," said Sebastia Guim, a commentator covering Real Madrid for Spanish TV.

For Beckham, it was the moment he'd come to expect but had somehow never tasted.

"Words can't describe how great I feel," Beckham said. "I just want to say thank you for all the support. This is the perfect ending and I will always miss the Bernabeu. It was amazing to have my family here with me. They have been with me for four years and felt the ups and down, and they feel the euphoria tonight. It meant the world to have everyone here that supported me through my career."

He added: "I couldn't have dreamt it any better. It's been about winning the title the last six months, and we deserved it tonight."

In the waning moments of the comeback win, Beckham limped onto the field, got on his knees and kissed the center line, rising with chalk on his head. Touching — just the sort of ending Hollywood loves.