Loos and losses: Beckham feels pain in Spain

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The Independent Football

There is no doubt that David Beckham will be glad to see the back of 2004, a year that promised so much but delivered so little for the most high-profile player in world football. Just 12 months ago, the England captain was the toast of Real Madrid.

There is no doubt that David Beckham will be glad to see the back of 2004, a year that promised so much but delivered so little for the most high-profile player in world football. Just 12 months ago, the England captain was the toast of Real Madrid.

He had proved that he had not just come to the club to model their famous all-white shirt by producing a succession of accomplished and occasionally outstanding performances for his new side. He made the switch from the right wing to take up a central midfield role that had been left vacant by the departure of Claude Makelele to Chelsea. His gutsy, committed performances had the Bernabeu faithful eating out of his hand, and he had just been given the credit by his team-mates for the team's first league win over Barcelona at the Nou Camp in 20 years.

Real began the new year sitting pretty at the top of the table on a five-match winning streak, had qualified in style for the last 16 of the Champions' League ahead of Porto, and were progressing nicely in the King's Cup - the talk at the club was of a historic treble.

But no sooner had the year begun than things started to go wrong for both Beckham and his new team. Unaccustomed to a mid-season Christmas break, he lost momentum and fitness, a situation compounded when he picked up a nagging ankle injury. He blotted his copybook with only the third sending-off his career in a Cup victory over Valencia and rumours were growing about a possible return to England, with Chelsea heading the list of potential suitors.

At the same time the criticisms of Beckham's play were beginning to snowball in the Spanish press. A 1-1 draw in early March drew barbed comments from one columnist in the normally pro-Real Madrid sports daily, Marca. "At first, Beckham played football and ran," he said. "Then, he ran and played football. After that, he just ran. Yesterday, he didn't play football or run. His best moment was hugging [Racing and former Manchester United goalkeeper] Ricardo."

Worse, of course, was to follow. A dramatic 3-2 extra-time defeat in the final of the King's Cup against Zaragoza ended Real's dreams of a treble, while Beckham's personal life was thrown into turmoil after allegations by his former personal assistant, Rebecca Loos, that the two had had an affair, allegations that have always been strongly denied by Beckham and his wife, Victoria. Even the most consummate professional would have found it hard not to have been affected by the media storm that accompanied a succession of kiss-and-tell stories in the tabloid press.

But Beckham did not even have the consolation of finding an escape through success on the pitch. A needless booking in the 4-2 victory over Monaco in the first leg of the Champions' League quarter-final meant that he missed the return leg which Real lost 3-1, ending their hopes of a 10th European Cup triumph.

It was increasingly obvious that Beckham was paying the price for being asked to play a midfield holding role in the absence of any other player capable of doing the job. Real had not missed Makelele at the start of the season, but they certainly did now and it was Beckham who bore the brunt of the responsibility. In reality, the policy of signing only attack-minded galacticos by the club president, Florentino Perez, had created an unbalanced side that was incapable of meeting the demands of a gruelling season.

Predictably, Real also began to suffer in the league, although no one could have foreseen the dramatic nature of their late-season decline, which saw them lose six of their last seven games, including a record run of five defeats at the Bernabeu. For Beckham, a season which began with a fanfare ended in a sending-off for insulting a linesman - in perfect Spanish - during his side's 2-1 defeat to relegated Murcia, a mishap that symbolised his team's miserable campaign.

There was not even any consolation to be found when he met up with his England colleagues at Euro 2004. A series of anonymous performances and costly penalty misses led to further criticism from the British press and even some suggestions that he was finished as a player.

But Beckham is nothing if not resilient and he began the present season in upbeat mood, joined by England team-mates Michael Owen and Jonathan Woodgate. However, although he earned Real six points with two spectacular free-kicks in the 1-0 victories against Osasuna and Numancia, he has struggled to exert his influence in the centre of midfield. The premature departure of the coach, Jose Antonio Camacho, after just three league games can hardly have helped, but worse was to follow for the England captain.

The fact that he broke his ribs in the World Cup qualifier against Wales and subsequently admitted that he had picked up a deliberate yellow card in order to serve a suspension while he was injured might have been greeted with acclaim in other countries as evidence of commitment to the cause, but in England the incidents were used as further evidence against him.

What should have been a celebratory return to action for England in a friendly against Spain at the Bernabeu even worked against Beckham as the match was destroyed by the home crowd's chilling exhibition of mindless racist abuse against visiting black players.

Since then Real have continued to stutter in the league, prompting the club to appoint the former Milan and Italy coach, Arrigo Sacchi, to the newly created post of director of football, but what Beckham and his team-mates must be wishing for more than a change of personnel is a change of fortunes.

After a year of setbacks that would have sunk many other professionals, Beckham remains surprisingly intact. His self-belief, confidence in his own ability and his skill on the pitch should not be underestimated. "It's frustrating because of the players we've got in our team," he said in a recent interview. "The expectation is very high, which it should be, and it's disappointing that I've been here two years and we didn't win anything last year. But we are still in all three competitions and I would love to win La Liga with Real Madrid. It's looking tough again this year. Hopefully, things will turn around and we'll have a nice Christmas and come back and start winning games again."

One thing is for sure: next year can only get better for Beckham.