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How Beckham conquered Milan

David Beckham; celebrating with his team-mates (top right); seeing his name up in lights once more (bottom right)
David Beckham has enjoyed a productive stint in Milan so far

By Jonathan Stevenson
BBC Sport in Milan

How perfect to find, on Valentine's Day, the city of Milan falling in love with David Beckham.

A matter of weeks after his arrival in Italy was greeted with cynicism and downright contempt in some quarters, the former England captain has worked his magic once again.

Like Manchester and Madrid before, Milan is eating out of the palm of Beckham's hand.

That is some feat given that when his two-month loan deal from Los Angeles Galaxy was announced it was derided as a blatant marketing exercise by Milan.

"My reaction was that Milan were no longer running a football club," Rossoneri supporter Alberto told BBC Sport.

"The deal seemed to have more to do with promotions, advertising. We understood that being out of the Champions League had been a massive financial blow, but..."

Beckham ponders a possible move from California to northern Italy
Beckham ponders a possible move from California to northern Italy

It was not just the fans, either.

The Italian media scoffed as Milan tried desperately to talk the deal up in sporting terms, while some of the club's players publicly voiced their own fears.

Midfielder Gennaro Gattuso, who was ruled out for the rest of the season in December with knee ligament damage, called the deal "strange", adding that Beckham "cannot be my substitute".

Dutch playmaker Clarence Seedorf was even uncertain the 33-year-old Beckham would get a game for Milan.

While the debate raged as to why one of Italy's great clubs had lowered itself to sign a has-been on a temporary contract, Beckham set about proving his critics wrong.

Importantly coach Carlo Ancelotti was won over by Beckham's attitude in training and thrust him into the team for the away game at Roma.

Beckham played 89 minutes in the 2-2 draw with Roma, before scoring in his third game, a 4-1 rout away at Bologna.

Talisman

The eye-catching form has continued, with Beckham not just earning a starting spot on a regular basis, but becoming in many people's eyes Milan's new talisman.

"I think a lot of people were sceptical at the start because Milan almost admitted at first it was a publicity thing more than football," said Italian historian John Foot, author of the book 'Calcio: A History of Italian Football'.

The Rossoneri are impressed with their big-name star
The Rossoneri are impressed with their big-name star

"A lot of journalists have been surprised that Beckham is actually quite good at football and not many are still waiting to be won over.

"I saw a piece by a senior Italian journalist recently who said that they kind of expected a male model and instead got a worker."

The Milan-based Gazzetta dello Sport welcomed Beckham to Italy by sending a journalist to cover his every move, but they soon became more interested in his ball skills than his celebrity status.

After the 1-1 draw with Genoa on 29 January in which Beckham scored, La Gazzetta purred: "He helps in defence, midfield and attack. If all Milan's players battled like he does, they would not be looking up at Inter and Juventus."

Milan's players have been won over as well, seduced by Beckham's endeavour and quality on the pitch and his amiable, down-to-earth personality off it.

"He's surprised me in a positive way. He's a great professional, he arrives at training two or three hours early," said Gattuso. "Beckham is not Kaka, but he is a great player."

Dedication

And Beckham's almost legendary dedication to the cause has convinced the doubters that his sole reason for being in Milan is to play football, not boost a brand that has constantly threatened to overshadow his sporting achievements.

FantaSheva, on the Milan fans website AC Milan online, says the supporters have taken to Beckham because the glitz and glamour has not followed him to Italy.

Gennaro Gattuso
Milan midfield enforcer Rino Gattuso is a Beckham admirer

"I don't like the part of him not involved with soccer, I've always thought that it was too much, showbiz overcoming the games," he said.

"People in the stadium don't care about his celebrity as long as it doesn't affect the way he plays.

"And it hasn't, because he has given a great contribution and become one of our most important players."

Desperate to convince England coach Fabio Capello of his fitness so he can prolong his love affair with the national team, Beckham has been in his element.

"Going to Milan has been one of the best things that has ever happened to me," he said in an interview last week.

Alberto thinks Milan has provided Beckham with the platform he required to show people he is still serious about playing football, allowing him to get on with his job without the mayhem that usually follows him around.

Mention the words David and Beckham in this city and you will not receive a hysterical reaction. But the more people talk about him, the more their admiration begins to surface.

"Milanese people are rather cold so there is hardly a frenzy around the players and I guess Beckham has enjoyed that about Milan," added Alberto.

Will it be arrivederci to LA Galaxy?
Will it be arrivederci to LA Galaxy?

"It seems to me that he was preceded by prejudice and that prevents people from assessing his value on the football pitch. But he has become a vital part of Milan's midfield now."

No love story would be complete, however, without a broken heart.

"It's like a bad break-up, with Beckham having dumped the Galaxy as soon as a prettier girl in this case AC Milan showed some interest," said LA football journalist Richard Manfredi Manfredi.

"There's a lot of resentment towards Beckham right now, with people feeling that he paid lip service to 'building the sport in America', when his actions show that he was never really committed.

"If anything, his success at AC Milan has just made it all worse, because now people are wondering if he was just coasting while he was here."

Perfect match

But will Milan and Beckham be able to formalise their relationship on a more permanent footing?

"He has demonstrated he is one of the best players in the world," said Paolo Maldini, still Rossoneri captain at the age of 40.

"Personally, it's great to be in the same squad as him I never expected our careers to cross like this.

"It would be painful to see him go back to LA Galaxy."

Manchester may always be the love of his life, but Milan have captured Beckham's heart for now and they have no intention of letting him go without a fight.


Sunday's Milan derby is live on BBC Three and the BBC Sport website, together with live text commentary on the website, and the coverage begins at 1900 GMT.



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see also
European football gallery
14 Feb 09 |  Europe
Beckham reaches England milestone
12 Feb 09 |  Internationals
Beckham on target again for Milan
28 Jan 09 |  Internationals
Beckham agrees to LA Galaxy move
12 Jan 07 |  Football


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