Beckham's gone but memory lingers on

They're calling it the Beckham Effect, the extraordinary, almost immeasurable response Beckham's whistlestop tour Down Under had in both Australia.

updated: December 03, 2007 15:25 IST
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They're calling it the Beckham Effect, the extraordinary, almost immeasurable response David Beckham's whistlestop tour Down Under had in both Australia and New Zealand.

The soccer superstar, visiting both countries for the first time and borne along on a wave of fan hysteria, drew 80,000 to the match between the Los Angeles Galaxy and Sydney FC last on Tuesday and 35,000 - a national record - to Saturday's match with the Wellington Phoenix.

They were massive crowds for exhibition games, games with little lasting meaning, and it was Beckham's presence alone, the singular drawing power of one of sport's hottest properties, that filled stadiums in Sydney and Wellington.

In New Zealand, where soccer is a minor sport, a minor item in newspaper sports section, thousands queued at Wellington Airport to glimpse Beckham on arrival, an estimated 18,000 - mostly school children - attended the Galaxy's only training run on Friday.

Hundreds kept vigil outside the team's downtown hotel for the three days of Beckham's stay, satisfied to see the England player from a distance, barely daring to hope for a wave or an autograph.

In Sydney, the reaction to Beckham's visit was similar. Crowds at Sydney Airport, crowds at his hotel.

Hundreds turned up at a downtown department store to Beckham launch his new range of perfumes for men.

And unlike many sporting superstars - happy to be kept at arms length from fans - Beckham didn't disappoint.

At every media call he said the right things, behaved with a winning charm and humility that helped win over even his hardest critics.

Soccer has never been a big-ticket item in New Zealand, and seldom a topic of general discussion.

The sport enjoyed a brief vogue in 1982 when New Zealand's national team, the All Whites, reached the World Cup finals in Spain after the longest qualifying campaign in Cup history.

The sport failed to fully capitalize on that opportunity and in the intervening 25 years, the popularity of soccer among adults has receded.

Rugby is New Zealand's national sport and its obsession and, before Beckham, no other sport or event had filled Wellington's Westpac Stadium.

On Sunday, as Beckham and the Galaxy prepared to board a flight from New Zealand to Los Angeles, the only topic of conversation in cafes and around backyard grills was Beckham.

The Phoenix hadn't played before a crowd larger than 14,000 in Australia's A-League this season until Beckham's arrival.

Marketing phenomenon or not, Beckham was just what soccer in Australia and New Zealand needed him to be. He played all 90 minutes of both Galaxy games, scoring a goal in each - from a free kick in their 5-3 loss to Sydney FC and from the penalty spot in their 4-1 win over Wellington.

He showed in both matches the skills that have won him 99 caps for England and made him one of soccer's most admired players since his first appearance for Manchester United as a teenager in 1993.

He shed his shirt after both matches - pleasing female fans - he acknowledged the crowd and he fielded media questions with disarming candor and humility.

"I think the affection from the fans and the people, that's the biggest thing for me," he said after the Wellington match.

"Even flying in on the first day was incredible, to see the sights, to see the country was incredible. I wish I could have seen more of it, I wish I was here for longer but maybe I can come back with the kids one day."