Perhaps the view comparing David Beckham with Real Madrid's legendary Alfredo Di Stefano was overstated, but such has been the impression made by the England captain that a respected Spanish newspaper felt comfortable venturing such lofty praise.
Beckham has been an unqualified success for Real Madrid, the finest player in Spain so far this season. Those who doubted his ability to shine in Real's star-laden team are no longer so vociferous. Critics such as the former Spain winger Michel, who accused him of being "a typically British player who lacked technical quality". Others viewed him as a "commercial" signing, bought to raise Real's global profile. They didn't doubt Beckham's quality, but few perceived him to be of the same calibre of his world-class team-mates. They do now.
Beckham, aware of the criticism, trained so hard he was quickly viewed by Madrid's followers as the ultimate pro. After the 7-2 victory over Valladolid in September, Beckham left the Bernabeu at 1am on the Sunday morning. Seven hours later, and echoing his hero Eric Cantona's commitment to training, Beckham was in the gym. After working out, he watched Real reserves play Burgos. Pictures of him alone in an empty stand were printed the next day. Beckham's stock rose further.
Beckham has made the biggest impression on the field. He occupies a different role to the right-midfield position he filled for Manchester United and still performs for England. For Real, he is one of two defensive midfielders who sit in front of a young, largely homegrown back four. It is a position he prefers.
Fans adore his free-kicks and pinpoint crossfield passes, but it is his work-rate which has most impressed the Castilians. So convinced were the club's rulers, president Perez and sporting director Jorge Valdano, they allowed Claude Makelele to leave for Chelsea, the transfer recouping their outlay on Beckham.
Just as Ryan Giggs was relieved that Beckham's emergence as a celebrity in 1996 took the pressure off him, so the likes of Ronaldo are content no longer to be paparazzi targets. Those same team-mates have started calling him "Sir" and "Your Highness" since his visit to the Palace.
The fascination with "The English One" continues. In Pamplona, where city folk are not noted for their warmth towards Real players, police guarding Beckham were spotted, like star-struck teenagers, taking photos of him via their mobile phones. Beckham was hoping their equivalents in Barcelona for last night's game against their fiercest rivals would be more vigilant.Reuse content