‘Ten heroic lions, one stupid boy’

It was to this famous headline in England’s Daily Mirror that David Beckham returned home in 1998. The Three Lions had just exited the FIFA World Cup™, and their young midfielder – red carded for kicking out at Diego Simeone – found himself in the firing line.

Another tabloid, the Daily Mail, dedicated its front page to decrying Beckham’s "moment of lunacy", and not even Glenn Hoddle, his manager, could bring himself to mount a defence. "I found [Hoddle’s] interview difficult to take," Beckham later wrote in his autobiography. “He didn't blame me, exactly, but he made it clear that he thought that my mistake cost England the game. He showed his anger and irritation with me. It definitely fed the frenzy."

That frenzy was considerable, and took on a darker edge in the months that followed, peaking with death threats and the burning of effigies. Remarkably though, Beckham earlier this year listed this costly and painful red card as one of his “top five career moments”. He did so in an interview with GQ magazine,saying that the incident and resulting criticism had been crucial in making him the player and character he became. "It made me mature very quickly," explained the former Manchester United and Real Madrid star.

As for the man on the receiving end of that fateful flick of Beckham’s boot, he later admitted that it was his theatrical reaction – rather than the offence itself – that forced the hand of Kim Milton Nielsen. "Let's just say the referee fell into the trap,” said Diego Simeone. "You could say that my falling transformed a yellow card into a red card. In fact, the most appropriate punishment was a yellow. Obviously, I was being clever. By letting myself fall, I got the referee to pull out a red card immediately. In reality, it wasn't a violent blow, it was just a little kick back with no force behind it, and was probably instinctive.”

The pair would cross paths again four years later, when Simeone attempted – unsuccessfully – to put Beckham off before his match-winning penalty against La Albiceleste in the 2002 World Cup. But the match ended with a handshake and warm words exchanged, and the Argentinian has since lauded his old rival as “a great professional and an extraordinary player”. "There is no lingering grudge between us,” Beckham confirmed after that 2002 encounter. “Just mutual respect between people who regard each other as good players and professionals.”

Did you know?
The evolution of football’s disciplinary system, including the introduction of red and yellow cards at Mexico 1970, features in an exhibit at the FIFA World Football Museum in Zurich.