Beckham's season in the Real sun clouds over

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The Independent Online

Wearing A powder blue suit and accompanied by his wife, Victoria, David Beckham gratefully received the famous all-white shirt of his new club from the Real Madrid legend Alfredo di Stefano at a carefully choreographed presentation ceremony on 2 July last year.

Wearing A powder blue suit and accompanied by his wife, Victoria, David Beckham gratefully received the famous all-white shirt of his new club from the Real Madrid legend Alfredo di Stefano at a carefully choreographed presentation ceremony on 2 July last year.

" Gracias, Señor di Stefano," said the nervous-looking former Manchester United midfielder. "I've always loved football. Of course I love my family and I have a wonderful life but football is everything for me and joining Real Madrid is a dream come true. Gracias and Hala Madrid." It was, of course, a marriage made in heaven, the world's most marketable footballer joining the world's most glamorous team.

Now, however, it seems, the marriage might soon be over, as speculation mounts that the England captain may be about to return to the Premiership with Chelsea.

Following in the footsteps of Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo, the arrival of Beckham at the Bernabeu was the icing on the cake of the club president Florentino Perez's bid to build a "galactic" superteam. What is more, the 35m euros (£23.6m) spent on recruiting the 28-year-old Londoner would be recouped in record time, said a beaming Perez.

Within hours the club had raised more than £337,000 as its 8,000-strong stock of shirts bearing Beckham's name and his new number, 23, sold out of club shops dotted around the Spanish capital. Beckham was also the standard bearer for the club's pre-season tour to Asia, helping to convert millions of new followers to the Real cause and proving his footballing worth with a cracking hallmark curling free-kick to get on the scoresheet in his second appearance for his new side.

Even previously sceptical team-mates were won over. His fellow midfielder, Guti, who had threatened to leave when he heard Beckham would be joining, commented on his work ethic and preparedness to sacrifice himself for the team, while Roberto Carlos was unstinting in his praise. "It doesn't matter where Beckham plays," he said. "He plays everywhere, he is phenomenal."

Beckham weighed in with a rare headed goal to complete a dream debut at the Bernabeu, as he helped Real collect what was expected to be the first of a cupboard-full of trophies when they won the pre-season Super Cup with a 3-0 win over Mallorca at the end of August.

Things got even better when he netted once more in his league debut against Real Betis, prompting him to say: "This is the happiest I've been at this point in time for nearly two years. You have your ups and downs in life but I'm glad to be over them and enjoying my football again."

Beckham managed to convert the notoriously fickle Real fans in the matter of just a few games. They were slow to warm to both Zidane and Ronaldo when they arrived at the club, but even though Beckham possessed nothing like the repertoire of the Frenchman nor the spectacular match-winning ability of the Brazilian, he won the fans over in record time.

The Bernabeu faithful take none too kindly to preening superstars that lack the ability to slug it out, but Beckham earned a place in their hearts not because of his status as one of the world's top players but because of his preparedness to roll up his sleeves and do much of the dirty work in midfield.

"Despite all the pressure on him, he doesn't play to show off," beamed Real's sporting director, Jorge Valdano. "He always plays for the team and has shown that he has exceptional physical prowess by getting involved all over the pitch." With the surprising departure of Claude Makelele to Chelsea, Beckham was moved off his customary berth on the right wing and into the centre of midfield. He relished his new role and appeared to add a new dimension to his game as he became more involved in play and ran his heart out attempting to help out the much-maligned Real back four.

Approachable to the press, easy-going with the fans and looking happier and more relaxed than ever, Beckham looked set to become one of the rare English players to triumph outside the confines of the domestic game. But the first clouds began to scud across the once clear blue Madrid skies towards the end of the year.

Beckham appeared to have backtracked on plans to bring his family to join him in Madrid, prompting speculation about the state of his marriage; he had also yet to make a stab at the language, to the disapproval of the local media. The goals dried up, a succession of niggling injuries saw him miss out on several important matches and the first reports of a possible move to Chelsea surfaced in the English tabloids. Beckham responded by splitting with his agents, SFX, in what appeared to be a measure designed to allow him to concentrate on football and put his commercial interests on the back burner.

Inevitably in the wake of the allegations by the former SFX employee, Rebecca Loos, that the two had an affair, some observers have put a different gloss on the move. Far from improving matters, a return to England for an extended Christmas break appeared to make the situation worse and Beckham's form dropped off badly in the New Year.

The sporting press began to question the wisdom of letting him take all of Real's free-kicks as he appeared incapable of hitting the target, while the first criticisms of his general play began to surface. Some commentators began to question whether Real would not have done better to have brought in a new defender to plug their leaky defence.

The pressure on Beckham has mounted - as it has on all his colleagues - as Real's galacticos have failed to live up to their billing. At the end of last year the talk was of Real completing an historic treble, but in the space of a little over a week they were dealt a shock 3-2 extra-time defeat by Zaragoza in the final of the King's Cup and then went out of the Champions' League to Monaco. For Real, the nine-times European champions, the continent's premier club competition is the true barometer of their success.

To make matters worse Real managed to fritter way an eight-point lead at the top of the Primera Liga. While the flimsy defence came in for the fiercest criticism, Beckham has not emerged unscathed and the sports daily Marca even dubbed him Forrest Gump after the side's 3-0 drubbing by modest Osasuna at the Bernabeu for his determined but increasingly aimless running.

The storm surrounding Beckham's private life has prompted Real to end the access for English tabloids at the club, while the player, who had been so generous with the time he gave to the press, says he will not be talking to the media until the end of the season.

Beckham remains a dedicated and hard-working professional and he is still a favourite with the fans, but they may not be so forgiving if Real fail to win the one remaining trophy within their grasp.

The player himself has some tough decisions to make over the next few months as he weighs up his future at the club and his commitments to his family. For Beckham the honeymoon period at Real is well and truly over.

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