x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Uefa Champions League: PSG's David Beckham faces familiar foes again in Barcelona

The former England captain's long history against the Catalans takes in a 10th encounter at Parc des Princes. Ian Hawkey speaks to the midfielder in Paris.

Club president Nasser Al Khelaifi says he wants to keep David Beckham at Paris-Saint Germain beyond the conclusion of his five-month deal. Yoan Valat / EPA
Club president Nasser Al Khelaifi says he wants to keep David Beckham at Paris-Saint Germain beyond the conclusion of his five-month deal. Yoan Valat / EPA

David Beckham was 11 years old when he first visited Camp Nou. Though the aura of the club, the vast stadium and the palpable ambition of the place made a strong impression on a boy from the East End of London, the Barcelona of the mid-1980s were not quite the swaggering, universally admired institution they are now.

Beckham still recalls thinking, as he spent two weeks in the dormitories of La Masia, the farmhouse building where Barca's youth players boarded: "This was a place where legends were born."

He was there having won the trip as a prize for outstanding schoolboy performances in England, a significant stepping stone in a much-chronicled career. Beckham would return again and again to Camp Nou as an adult, and become a close witness to the emergence of the greatest club team of the 21st century.

Becks versus Barca is, remarkably, on the agenda again tonight, 18 seasons after Beckham played his first European club match, and three years since his last Uefa Champions League outing while on loan at AC Milan.

In the colours of Paris Saint-Germain, he should take part in his 10th competitive encounter against Barcelona. Beckham, who turns 38 next month, will probably not play a full 90 minutes of the first leg of the quarter-final, in the French capital, and may start on the bench. But in his short spell so far at PSG, whom he joined in the January transfer window, he has contributed enough that the club see him as more than just a mascot, and are asking him to stay beyond his current five-month deal.

"We really want to keep him next season," the PSG president Nasser Al Khelaifi told L'Equipe, the sports newspaper. Carlo Ancelotti, the coach, endorses that. Beckham will consider the offer seriously.

"At my age, you have to take each season once at a time," says Beckham, "but I'm honoured Carlo Ancelotti would like to keep me here another year."

PSG clearly value the raised profile Beckham's fame has given them and, for all their extravagant recruitment of other stars in the two years since they came under the ownership of Qatari investors, recognise he has unique technical assets on the field.

PSG have no better striker of a dead ball than the former England captain. And they have no one, not even the striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as intimate with the pressures and intensity of major European knockout ties.

Becks versus Barca has a 15-year backstory. It starts with the night Xavi, who, fitness permitting, should captain Barcelona tonight at the Parc des Princes, made his Champions League debut as a teenager for Barca, against Manchester United at Old Trafford, in 1998.

Man of the match that evening was Beckham, supplier of two goals and scorer of another - a superb free kick - in a 3-3 draw.

The long tapestry of Becks versus Barca is woven in two principal colours, the red of United, with whom he memorably won the Champions League at Camp Nou, against Bayern Munich, in 1999; and the white of Real Madrid.

Barcelona tried to sign Beckham in the summer of 2003. He chose Madrid instead. His first gran clasico for the Spanish club inflicted on Barca the first home league defeat against their fiercest rival in 20 years.

His four seasons at Madrid would climax with them seizing the Primera Liga title, by dint of a narrow, last-day, head-to-head advantage over Barca. But Barcelona's best-ever vintage, with Lionel Messi the focus, were emerging by then.

"I've come up against them a few times for United, and obviously a few times from Madrid," Beckham says.

"They are not just about individual talents, they are about a team with networks within it which they have developed over years. That's why they have had the success they have had."

The notion that tonight might mark a changing of Europe's prevailing hierarchy, with an upstart, rising PSG against a dynasty ready to be toppled, should be regarded with suspicion, suggested Beckham.

"In their last round against AC Milan, when Milan won the first game 2-0, people were talking about Barcelona's era being over," he said.

"Anybody who knows them well as a team, and as players, knew that it is not the case.

"It will be very tough, but it's going to be special."

 

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