When David Beckham returned from the last World Cup, he did so to headlines proclaiming him the most hated man in Britain with his effigies hanging from lampposts in east London. Tomorrow, he comes within touching distance of a return to the sport's greatest competition, utterly changed in both his public perception and as a person.
In France three years ago he gave one interview in which, shy and bewildered, he attempted to explain his feelings at being omitted for the opening game of the tournament against Tunisia. The fact that he was asked to face the press at all brought the considerable weight of Alex Ferguson's anger on to Glenn Hoddle's shoulders. Less than two weeks later in St-Etienne, he was infamously sent off against Argentina, provoking unseemly hysteria across the Channel.
As England prepared to meet Greece to secure their passage to next year's finals in the Far East, Beckham was again facing the media, confident, articulate and actually enjoying the process. Amid all the fuss that surrounded the revelations that Steven Gerrard had been drinking until the small hours in a Southport bar immediately before joining the England squad, it seemed Beckham was the person most easily able to advise the Liverpool midfielder on how to conduct himself in the silky but dangerous waters marked "off-field activities".
There have been thousands of pictures of David Beckham published, but hardly any have the England captain with a glass in his hand, let alone a bottle of alcopop. "If people wanted advice, I would give it but I don't think players need that," he said. "I am still getting used to it [fame] and I'm amazed by certain things that happen. I am always learning things. I love my life and I love what happens around me."
Leading England out at Old Trafford would, he confesses, have been a ridiculous childhood dream when he was growing up in Leytonstone, supporting the Manchester United of Bryan Robson. "I don't know if I would ever have dreamt it would have happened this quickly; to be leading this team out, a great team out, at 26, is astonishing."
He admits to feeling a sea-change in attitudes towards him after he replaced Alan Shearer as England captain; when his brilliance was finally admired rather than grudgingly respected. "You used to go to Wembley and there were parts of the crowd that gave certain players stick. That has changed completely. I was driving through London and people were giving me the thumbs-up sign," he said, smiling. "It's not something I'm used to.
"It would be great to reach the World Cup finals; despite what anybody says I enjoyed the last one. It might have ended badly, but I scored a goal [a superb free-kick against Colombia] and a lot of things have happened since then."
Although, on the surface, beating a demoralised Greek team in Manchester does not compare with having to travel to Rome's Olympic Stadium and avoid defeat against Italy, Beckham considers that qualifying for this World Cup would be a greater achievement than making it to the 1998 tournament.
"To reach these World Cup finals after the start we have had and the way we were playing would be an extraordinary thing. Every game was massive because we were always playing catch-up with the Germans, but we have done that and we are in a position in which we can win the group.
"After we'd lost to Germany at Wembley everybody was talking about not even making the play-offs; we have worked hard to turn it round, but the effort we have put in over the last three or four games means nothing if we don't win on Saturday."
There is a feeling that this could be, if not a great England side, then a very fine one; without any trace of the Carlton Palmers who clogged up the national team in years gone by. If there was a time when the real recovery began, you could do worse than point to England's last encounter with Greece in June, in which Beckham himself scored the final goal in a 2-0 win.
"There is a lot of freshness about this team," Beckham said. "The game in Athens was a great performance. It was nearly 70 minutes before we scored; we needed a lot of patience and sometimes a team with young players doesn't have that. A lot of our belief comes from the manager, the calmness of him. Three points have been the requirement in every game. We have been under a lot of pressure and, for a young team, it's had to come from the manager.
"We have always been on the verge of doing things in championships for several years, but it hasn't happened and yet it should be happening because we have got the players to do it and now it's in our hands."Reuse content