Football: Ferguson rift may prompt Beckham sale

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DAVID BECKHAM'S increasingly fractious relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson may prompt Manchester United to sell English football's outstanding midfield player to Barcelona next summer, The Independent has learned.

Beckham, who is married to Victoria Adams of the Spice Girls, has told friends that he would like to join the Catalan giants "at some point in the future". The 24-year-old Londoner, who has been attached to United since he was 10, became unsettled after clashing with Ferguson over his lifestyle.

Matters have come to a head over the past week, with Beckham's unhappiness reportedly exacerbated by the deal under which the United captain, Roy Keane, has re-signed for pounds 50,000 a week - substantially more than his own salary.

Tension between Beckham and Ferguson was already simmering after the United manager ordered him to fly from London to Manchester to join his team-mates for the trip to Japan, where the treble winners were to contest the World Club Championship. Beckham then had to fly back to London with the rest of the squad to catch the plane to Tokyo.

During the flight it is understood that Beckham and Ferguson exchanged heated words. Sir Alex is known to be concerned that the player's marriage to "Posh Spice", together with the partying and late nights that are the norm in the pop world, may be affecting his commitment to United.

The fact that Beckham has specified Barcelona as the club he wants to join, rather than expressing a vague wish to sample European football, could persuade United to try to complete a deal as early as next summer. Beckham is under contract until 2001, but Ferguson is aware that he would then be entitled to leave on a free transfer under the Bosman ruling.

Beckham, a leading contender to become European footballer of the year for 1999, would command a British record fee of between pounds 20m and pounds 30m if he did leave Old Trafford ahead of schedule. While not the quickest of players, his passing range and crossing prowess, allied to his ability to operate in a wide role or in the centre, would also spark interest from Italy if the rift with Ferguson is not healed.