David Beckham lingered longest on the Old Trafford pitch after Manchester United's aggregate defeat by Real Madrid in the Champions League quarter-finals. He will have no doubt been reflecting on his role in a most remarkable European Cup tie. But he may also have been reaching the inevitable conclusion that his lifelong love affair with Manchester United is coming to a close.
It was, without doubt, an extraordinary match, even though the result was never in doubt after Ronaldo had scored the first goal of a devastating hat-trick early in the first half. Despite the intensity of events on the pitch, eyes were trained on the United bench, where Beckham anguished yet again, having also sat out League games against Liverpool, Newcastle and Arsenal in recent weeks.
For the first 62 minutes of the match, Beckham patiently sat watching Real Madrid continue to play the mesmerising football they had produced in the first leg at home. Ronaldo had been subdued in the Bernabéu, when Zinedine Zidane, Raul and Luis Figo had been the stars. Without Raul, struck down by appendicitis, Ronaldo assumed the 'galactic' mantle, driving a stake through the heart of United's ambitions. Beckham's response when he did appear as a substitute produced two goals, one a wonderful free-kick – only impounded the sense of confusion over manager Alex Ferguson's starting eleven.
For Ferguson to rest a key player in November or January would be understandable. But to drop one as symbolic as Beckham for your team's key game of the season suggests a serious breakdown in relations between player and manager.
Ferguson's relationship with Beckham has always been more complex than with any of his other charges. They are two very different personalities from two very different generations living two very different lifestyles. For all his admiration of Beckham the Footballer, Ferguson has always deeply mistrusted Beckham the Celebrity.
Relations deteriorated in February with the notorious dressing-room boot-kicking incident. The instincts of Beckham the Footballer would have been to keep the incident behind closed doors. But for Beckham the celebrity it was too good an opportunity to miss. The midfielder bounced from the back pages to the front covers with the ease of a seasoned media campaigner.
After the aggregate defeat by Madrid, Ferguson sidestepped questions about Beckham, preferring to concentrate on the reasons for playing Ole Gunnar Solksjaer in his place. "I saw it as quite a straightforward decision. Solskjaer's form has been fantastic on the right hand side." Ferguson said. "He's impressed greatly. There are only so many times you can hit a guy over the head.
"When someone plays as well as he's been playing, what do you do? Leave him out because David Beckham's a great player, too?"
The preference for Solskjaer in place of Beckham was understandable given the Norwegian's prominence in the Premiership games against Liverpool and Newcastle, when United scored 10 goals, and the 2-2 draw with Arsenal which tipped the domestic title race in their favour. But Ferguson surprised everybody with his decision to start with Juan Veron - who had not played for seven weeks because of injury - ahead of Beckham.
The choice of Veron suggested one simple, inevitable conclusion: that Alex Ferguson now considers David Beckham to be expendable.
Inevitably, the stories linking the England captain with Real Madrid will now grow by the day. The two appear to be made for each other. Madrid are the only club who could take Beckham's career to a higher level. Similarly, Beckham is the only player who could extend Madrid's galactic appeal.
The arguments over Beckham's future have been well rehearsed. But any further discussion should focus on the question of not why Beckham would want to move to Madrid, nor why Madrid would want Beckham. But, rather, why would Beckham want to stay in Manchester? There are no footballing challenges left for him at Old Trafford. In nine seasons, he has won every trophy bar the League Cup. Why stay with a team which could not match Madrid's class, managed by a man who no longer considers you to be first-choice?
Footballing reasons lay at the heart of the decisions by Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane and Ronalda to join Madrid in summer 2000, 2001 and 2002 respectively. Figo joined a club on a high after winning its eighth European Cup; Zidane moved to Madrid having failed to land the trophy during five seasons at Juventus; and Ronalda returned to Spain, scene of his happiest season (Barcelona 1996-97), after five frustrating years with Inter.
Then there is the circumstantial evidence to consider: the admission by Madrid sports director Jorge Valdano that Beckham "seems to fit our project"; the English Sunday newspaper reports quoting an Old Trafford source that a £38million deal has already been agreed; and the revelation by United reserve keeper Ricardo to Spanish radio that Beckham has asked him about Madrid's schools.
Looming on the horizon this autumn is another Beckham autobiography (his third). He is reported to be receiving £2m from publishers HarperCollins, who will no doubt demand their pound of flesh. Previous efforts by Roy Keane and Jaap Stam, also published by HarperCollins, contained stories that caused acute embarrassment at Old Trafford. Given the sums of money involved, Beckham is unlikely to remain tight-lipped about his relationship with Ferguson, and the boot-kicking incident in particular.
The arguments against Beckham moving are twofold. Firstly, the denials by both United and Madrid of any deal. Secondly, that there would be no place for Beckham in Madrid's star-studded line-up. Evaluating the denials United, understandably, have been quick to dismiss the stories, as has Madrid president Florentino Perez. And yet 12 months ago, Perez was equally dismissive of stories linking Ronalda with Madrid. Two years ago, it was the same with Zidane. Since winning the presidential election three years ago, Perez has quickly learned the black art of manipulating Madrid's media. The city's two sports dailies, Marca and AS, thrive on rumour and speculation; Perez has fed them scraps and let the stories develop organically. He then sits back and denies having ever had an interest in a particular player.
In footballing terms, it is indeed hard to argue the case for a regular place for Beckham in the Madrid starting line-up, especially after Figo outshone him in both quarter-final legs. Yet the Madrid press have tried, placing Beckham in central midfield, in place of the unfortunate Flavio Conceicao.
However, to view a possible Beckham move to Madrid simply in footballing terms is to miss the point. The Perez strategy has been to add one star name to the Madrid roster every year, in the same manner as Santiago Bernabéu in the 1950s. The only player who could claim that star status at the moment is David Beckham, whose iconic position puts him on a par with Ronaldo as the world's most desirable footballer. Madrid may have demonstrated over two legs that they are on another footballing planet to the rest of the Champions League quarter-finalists, but it is United that have blazed a trail in marketing and merchandising over the past decade. They are the role model that all big clubs- including Madrid- are trying to copy.
This summer, United will tour the USA. Not for altruistic reasons, you understand. Chief executive Peter Kenyon, former boss of Umbro, knows full well that the US is the largest overseas market for replica shirts. United aim to be market leaders in merchandise there, just as they are in the UK.
Any decision on a possible sale of Beckham will ultimately rest with the United PLC board, who answer shareholders, not the fans. For the board and the shareholders, Beckham remains a hugely valuable commercial asset.
So the biggest battle for Beckham may not be between United and Madrid, but between Alex Ferguson and the PLC board. The defeat by Madrid exposed inadequacies throughout the spine of the United side - in goal, defence and midfield. Extensive rebuilding work is necessary this summer, but Kenyon has already made clear that new purchases will have to be paid for by player sales. The sale of Beckham to Madrid would raise upwards of £40m for Ferguson to spend on new players. Money is the only commodity that talks in the modern game, but will Beckham walk.
We've been here before....
The reign of Florentino Perez as president of Real Madrid has been dominated by the high-profile signings of three of the world 's leading players. All three deals have been achieved against the odds, with clubs who initially refused to sell their star asset.
2000 - Luis Figo
Florentino Perez, up until now an outsider in the Real Madrid presidential election, reveals an agreement to sign Figo if he is elected president.
Figo leaves for a holiday on the Algarve, denying having made an agreement with Perez.
Perez confirms his offer that if he fails to sign Figo, he will pay the membership fees of all socios.
Perez is elected as president, beating incumbent Lorenzo Sanz.
Figo is presented as a Madrid player after the club pay the £37m escape clause in his Barcelona contract. Figo becomes the world's most expensive footballer.
2001 - Zinedine Zidane
The first rumours emerge about a possible move to Madrid.
Perez confirms his interest. "We'll do all we can to sign Zidane."
Zidane's agent, Alain Miglaccio, tells Marca: "The decision has been taken. I cannot understand Juventus' interest in keeping Zidane."
Juve break off relations with Madrid and say Zidane is not for sale.
Zidane declares in La Repubblica that "my future lies in Madrid".
Juventus general manager Luciano Moggi insists "whatever is said in Spain doesn't affect us in the slightest. Zidane is not going."
Moggi acknowledges that Zidane is Madrid-bound. "Why is Zidane leaving Juventus? Because he has expressed his desire to leave, and because Florentino Perez was absolutely determined to take him to Madrid."
Perez and Valdano close the deal for a world record £47.2m.
2002 - Ronaldo
The first rumours emerge about a possible move to Madrid.
Inter announce plans to offer World Cup Final hero Ronaldo a new contract. The forward, back in Brazil, says Roberto Carlos has said he would be welcome in Madrid. Inter president Massimo Moratti says: "Ronaldo is worth £65m, but that's academic because we're not selling."
Perez dampens down expectations, telling Marca: "We're not in a spending mood. If we do not sell players, we cannot buy. No one at Real Madrid has made any moves towards signing Ronaldo."
Perez finally admits his interest in the Brazilian.
Inter announce that Ronal do is not for sale.
A meeting between Perez and Moratti ends without agreement.
In Monaco, the deal to transfer Ronaldo to Madrid for £30m isfinally completed.
This article originally appeared in the June 2003 edition of World Soccer Magazine. You can subscribe for a ridiculously low sum by clicking here.