David Beckham: 'I love Madrid, it's such a great city. It's just perfect, isn't it?'

He has spent much of 2004 making headlines for the wrong reasons, but as David Beckham prepares for the new Spanish season, he tells <i>Simon Baskett </i>he is confident...and content
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I think it was the wrong day to wear this," he remarks as he glances down at his black Allen Iverson basketball singlet. The USA have just shattered Spanish dreams by defeating their team at the Olympics, and David Beckham has clearly been given some stick by his team-mates for daring to wear the American star's top to training. "I honestly didn't realise when I put it on," he chuckles.

I think it was the wrong day to wear this," he remarks as he glances down at his black Allen Iverson basketball singlet. The USA have just shattered Spanish dreams by defeating their team at the Olympics, and David Beckham has clearly been given some stick by his team-mates for daring to wear the American star's top to training. "I honestly didn't realise when I put it on," he chuckles.

As he settles himself down at the table in his management company's new city-centre office, glances out of the window. "You know what," he says. "I love Madrid, it's such a great city. Look at that sun. It's just perfect isn't it?"

For a man who endured an enormously stressful first six months of his year Beckham is in remarkably relaxed mood. Real Madrid's season imploded spectacularly, he was the subject of endless lurid stories about his private life and he then had to endure a summer of stinging criticism about his performances for England at Euro 2004.

However, the Spanish league season begins this weekend, and Beckham's every word is backed by a calm self-assurance and almost infectious enthusiasm. There were many reports in the spring that Beckham would be back in the Premiership by now, but he is very happy where he is. "I've always been happy in Madrid and I still am," he smiles. "I'm really looking forward to getting back into it. I couldn't wait to get back to the club and get on with things again. Obviously, there are certain lessons, too, that I've learned from my first year in Spain."

One change is that his family will remain alongside him, rather than staying in Britain as they did last season. "Anyone who's got kids, and is married, wants to spend as much time with them as possible," he explains. "Obviously, sometimes in your job that's just not possible, but this summer we made sure that we got everything sorted and ready. We've got a house, Brooklyn's got a school and Romeo's got a place in nursery. It's all about spending time together. We're living here now and we're going be really happy."

A year ago, Beckham defied the sceptics by making a superb start to his career as a Real player. His Stakhanovite work rate and commitment meant that within weeks he had the notoriously fickle Real fans eating out of his hand, something that took even the great Zinedine Zidane several months to achieve.

"When I first came to Madrid, some people assumed that I'd just been bought to sell shirts," he admits. "But for me it was important that they saw what sort of player I was. That I'm not just good at free-kicks and crossing the ball, but that I work hard, pass the ball and I can play as a team member. That's what I think the Madrid fans liked about me. "

The dream start came to an end around soon after the turn of the year. "After that I didn't play badly, but I didn't play as well as I had done. There's nothing I can do about that now, but this season I definitely want to put it right."

The euphoria over Beckham's arrival and his impressive early performances, had papered over the cracks in a team that was in reality a seriously unbalanced outfit, brimming with attacking talent, yes, but dangerously flimsy at the back.

Forced to play more of a holding midfield role, his form, like that of the rest of his team- mates, began to suffer. That's why he admits he's delighted that Real have broken with their traditional policy of signing only big-name attacking players and have shored up their defence with the addition of Argentine centre-back Walter Samuel and England's Jonathan Woodgate.

"Last season I was defending a lot more that I've ever done - and I found it quite difficult in the end - but now the new manager [Jose Antonio] Camacho is telling me to push forward and go ahead of [midfield partner] Ivan [Helguera] and stop the running around the sides, the way I used to do when I was at Manchester United.

"You don't need to do all that in Spain because it's a different kind of game. He wants me to play those quick balls to Ronaldo and Raul. To be honest, it's freed me a lot and I found myself getting forward a lot more. That showed in the England game too [the recent friendly victory over Ukraine] and I and felt a lot more comfortable."

Beckham has several other reasons to be happy he says, not least the fact that this season he will be joined at the Bernabeu not only by Woodgate, but also by Michael Owen.

"It's great for Real and it's great for the England team," Beckham says. "Michael is looking sharp now and Woody, well, he's a great centre-half when he's fit and free of injury. It's good in a way that they're here and we can speak to each other."

But it is a measure of his awareness of the needs of the club that Beckham stresses that the last thing he wants to happen is for the "Tres Amigos" to form their own little expatriate clique. "It's important that they realise that they have to learn Spanish, and talk to the other players. You may not believe it, but I speak more Spanish than they do. The other players don't want you to speak another language in the corner when they don't understand what's being said."

Real's new coach Camacho said recently that Beckham now understands his team talks. "I understand the majority of what Camacho says. Being here a year now I've learned quite a bit more that people think, and I understand 70 per cent of what's being said. But actually I'm quite a shy person so I don't really speak much anyway."

What about the prospects for the forthcoming season then? "Well, now I think we've got the strength in the squad that we didn't have last year and it's definitely looking better and we're playing better too. But it's not going to be easy.

"Barça have bought a lot of players. I think Ronaldinho together with Edgar Davies turned them around last season. Everyone knows that Ronaldinho is a great player, one of the best in the world so Barça are going to be very strong. Valencia are still going to be strong. The Spanish league has got so many good teams and so many good players that it's hard to say who's going to be up there with us. There were quite a lot of upsets last season but, hopefully, this time it will be us up at the top and not Valencia."

As to the differences between Spanish league football and England, Beckham has a surprising answer. "The refereeing standard in England are quite high. They're not bad in Spain, but they're not as good as they are in England. I had a lot of kicks last year and they all seemed to be by Argentinians, which was funny because I've never had a problem with these players, and they haven't with me, but it just kept happening."

In the Champions' League Real are grouped with Roma, Dynamo Kiev and Bayer Leverkusen, a draw that left him disappointed. "I would've liked to have got an English side to be honest. But we've got a tough group. What I would like is to go back to England as a Real Madrid player and play in the Champions' League, that would be brilliant, especially if it was United."

As for Arsenal, Beckham is a big fan, and sees them as one of the favourites to win this season's competition. "Arsenal are capable of going further this time [than they did last season] but, hopefully, not as far as us. To come up against them would be interesting because both teams play great football."

With his England hat on, Beckham says it is vital that the national side get something positive out of next week's qualifiers in Austria and Poland for the 2006 World Cup. "It's important that we get off to a good start because in our group we have a lot of hard games. It was important that we played so well in the friendly against Ukraine."

Questions over, the England skipper stands up, stretches his legs and takes a look around at the pristine white office decked out with photos, shirts, boots and assorted mementoes of his first year in Spain. "Nice, place Madrid," he says, "isn't it?"