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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Redemption and Revenge

SAPPORO, Japan -- He ran directly to the Argentine stands, containing all those celestial blue and white jerseys, and he tilted back his head and he roared. David Beckham was releasing four years of emotion, four years of frustration. Rarely do you see a man exult and atone so publicly, so viscerally, but there he was, spiky hair and all, showing his teeth and flapping his red England jersey, in front of Argentina.

He had wanted this moment for four years, since the night in the French Alps at the 1998 World Cup when he made a fool of himself in front of a global audience. Now he had been given a chance for redemption, and he had made the most of it.

He had been given a penalty kick in the 44th minute, courtesy of yet another gallant run by Michael Owen, and he had plunked the ball into the goal, and now he let out a primal scream of release.

This was yet another epic game in a World Cup that is still young. Already there has been Senegal's upset of France, South Korea's humiliation of Poland, the United States' stunning defeat of Portugal, and now this game that lived up to half a year of expectation.

Ever since the World Cup draw in early December, millions of soccer fans have been waiting for this match. They knew the history. They knew about the nasty little war, and the insults, and Diego Maradona's one-punch goal in 1986 and Beckham's embarrassment in 1998. This was the game that everybody circled in ink on their schedule. No matter which time zone, make room for England-Argentina. Get up early. Stay up late. Prepare an excuse at work. Whatever.

Beckham never denied that he wanted Argentina. He never tried to sugarcoat it with silly remarks that it would be just another game.

He had gotten himself kicked out of a second-round game four years ago in the town of St.-Etienne. Diego Simeone of Argentina had fallen on him, and leaned all his weight on him, in the annoying manner of soccer players all over the world. And Beckham had lashed back with a trivial little kick, except that the referee caught it and red-carded him out of the game.

England lost that game on penalty kicks, and Beckham was vilified for a year or more in England. It did not help him at all when Simeone boasted that he had intentionally precipitated Beckham's anger.

Beckham, with his Spice Girl wife and his expensive haircuts, has made hundreds of beautiful free kicks since then, for Manchester United and for England. He is one of the most intelligent passers of his generation, but he suffered for the one blatantly stupid moment of his career.

When he saw Argentina six months ahead of him, Beckham said: "I can't wait. It's a great chance to lay the ghost of '98 [to rest]. You always want to test yourself against the best."

On Friday night, the two teams shook hands before the game, and there at the end of the Argentina line was Simeone, with what could only be described as a smirk on his face. They barely touched hands, and Beckham moved on.

When the game began, once again it was Michael Owen, now all of 22, making dodges and feints through Argentina.

And Owen's romps paid off. He spun into Mauricio Pochettino inside the penalty area, there was some contact below the knees, and there was the best referee in the world, Pierluigi Collina of Italy, chosen specifically for this best clash of the first round, pointing to the little disk 12 meters from the goal line. England would have a penalty kick.

Beckham talked with Owen about who would take it, but there was no doubt. Even though he was coming back from a broken bone in his left foot, Beckham would take this kick.

Simeone, the same smirk on his face, tried to shake his hand, but Beckham would have none of what he called Argentina's "antics."

He caught the goalkeeper, Pablo Cavallero, leaning to his left, and he plunked the ball straight down the middle, a little close to the keeper, to be sure, but the ball found the net.

"It's been a long four years," Beckham said after England had shown how to defend a one-goal lead against some of the best offensive players in the world. "It's been up and down, but this has topped it all off."

An hour after the game, he was asked if it was fitting that he had a chance to beat Argentina. He smiled and said, "Very definitely, mate."

He had stopped roaring, but he had not lost that great big smile. It had taken four years for David Beckham to smile like that.

George Vecsey is a sports commentator for The New York Times, where this comment first appeared.