Beckham heads for the exit door

Auction of an icon: United admit 'firm interest' for first time in their star player as leading clubs step up their bids in £30m-plus pursuit of football's most coveted brand
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After weeks of rumour, claim and counter-claim, Manchester United finally acknowledged last night that Spanish and Italian clubs have "expressed a firm interest" in signing David Beckham.

The England captain has been linked with moves to Real Madrid, Barcelona and the two Milan clubs in recent weeks, but the only responses from United or Beckham himself have, until now, been negative. Last night, though, United appeared to accept Beckham's departure was almost inevitable.

In their statement, United confirmed the interest from Spain and Italy and said club officials were in contact with Beckham's advisers, SFX, to keep abreast of developments and "the status of those discussions, which are ongoing". They said the 28-year-old had been kept informed of the latest position while on holiday.

Speculation about Beckham's imminent departure began to emerge before United played Real Madrid in the quarter-finals of the Champions' League in April. But suggestions that Beckham was about to agree a move to the Bernabeu were dismissed by all parties. Sir Alex Ferguson, United's manager, said at the time that the stories were an attempt to undermine his team before the tie; Real used on their club website to deny interest in the England captain; and then Beckham expressed his desire to stay at Old Trafford.

The Real rumours had re-emerged before United made their statement yesterday, but there were also suggestions that Internazionale were interested and finally that Milan, the European champions, and Barcelona had joined what was threatening to become a disorderly queue.

Barça's supposed interest could be a red herring. The club is in the throes of a presidential election and the various candidates feel obliged to announce the spectacular signings they are lining up as part of their campaign manifesto. Joan Laporta, one of those running, claims that discussions on Beckham's transfer to the Nou Camp are "progressing very well". Laporta said in a news conference yesterday: "Our conversations with Manchester United are very advanced and progressing very well. We will also talk to David and his agent. That is how it is always done. We will not confirm any deals until it is done." Lapport said he saw Beckham as "the leader of the team, the [Johan] Cruyff of 1973 for FC Barcelona".

Apart from any other considerations - Barcelona have yet to secure a place in next season's European competitions beyond the Intertoto Cup - Laporta is not apparently leading the Barça presidential race. That honour, so rumour has it, belongs to Lluis Bassat, but then that may simply be a story that Bassat has put round himself, after all he is a publicist.

Sven Goran Eriksson, the England coach, has reiterated that he does not mind whether the midfielder stays with Manchester United or moves abroad, as long as he is a leading club: "Wherever you play that's a big team, you'll go on developing. Only if you play in a bad team, it's not good for your career."

United fans are unlikely to be as sanguine about the loss of Beckham, who is expected to be awarded the OBE in the Queen's birthday honours later this month.

Graham May, the secretary of the Official Supporters Club in North Manchester, believes that selling the midfielder would be a bad move. He said: "United need to build on the Premiership-winning team and you don't do that by selling David Beckham. At the moment United can't afford to lose him. How would they replace him? I don't think the fans would accept it. It would be fantastic if David Beckham would just come out and say he is staying at Manchester United." He acknowledged that a £30m fee could be difficult to refuse, but he added: "There are other things to consider. You've got to remember that he sells more shirts than anyone else and do United want to lose that?"

Ronaldinho might sell a few. To United fans, the club is the biggest in the world, but Real Madrid would contest that. What should be of paramount importance to Beckham is playing for a club capable of winning the Champions' League. He may not think United are any longer and move on, but don't put your shirt on it.

Giants in the queue to sign Becks OBE

Barcelona: jokers in the pack
Whether David Beckham's immediate future is to be bound up with Barcelona will depend on the result of the Catalan club's presidential election, voted on by the club's 90,000 members. Joan Laporta, who has made the acquisition of the England captain a central plank of his manifesto, is only one of six candidates and is currently in second place several thousand votes behind Lluis Bassat, who came second to Joan Gaspart in the 2000 election. Patrick Kluivert has been spoken of as a possible makeweight in any deal. But without a Laporta election victory, Beckham is unlikely to end up in Catalonia - and the fact that Barça may miss out on European competition next season makes the possibility even more remote.

Real Madrid: the ace of clubs
The Spanish side had publicly denied any interest in buying Beckham - just as they denied that Ronaldo and Luis Figo were on their shopping list, only for both to fetch up in Madrid. Recent reports suggest that they may offer a deal including Figo, plus a hefty cash adjustment - a prospect that would tempt United, who were reported in summer 2000 to be close to agreeing an exchange deal when the Portuguese international was still at Barcelona. He eventually moved for £37m to Real, but is seen as the most vulnerable of their leading players. The United manager Sir Alex Ferguson is known to rate Real's French midfielder Claude Makalele highly, so might be willing to explore that exchange option.

Milan: the trump card
After a few years of relative under-achievement, a resurgent Milan played some thrilling football on their way to winning the Champions' League in the season just ended, and would present an attractive prospect for Beckham. One potential snag is his sponsorship deal with a mobile phone company that conflicts with Milan's existing contracts: while not an insurmountable problem, the Italians would have to buy Beckham out of his deal. His wife Victoria could probably just about cope with moving to the fashion capital of mainland Europe.

Old Trafford: the case for staying
Does Beckham have anything to gain by staying put? He would certainly have no reason to go anywhere as far as money is concerned - he is unlikely to earn any more than the £90,000-plus per week he rakes in at Old Trafford. And though he has said he wants to play abroad at some point, he has given no indication that he is unhappy at Old Trafford, for all his well-publicised disputes with the Boss. And what about Mrs Beckham? Her wants and needs will be a factor - and with a pop career to bring back to life and her status as half of Britain's biggest double act to maintain, she may not want to take her eye off the ball by removing herself from the domestic limelight.

Compiled by Chris Maume