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Soccer getting too bloody - off the field

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DAVID BECKHAM IS in serious distress. His countrymen hate him. Worse still, his country's tabloids have begun to howl for his head in the frightening manner of the Fleet Street wolf pack.

Beckham is a member of the England soccer team, a sulky blond-streaked pinup boy who is paid about $14 million a year by his club, more than any other player in Britain, and is engaged to Victoria Adams, better known as Posh Spice of the Spice Girls.So why is Britain so distraught? Did he commit some terrible crime? Did he spit on the Union Jack? No. He did something far worse, at least in the eyes of many Britons. He committed a foul halfway through a closely fought World Cup game against Argentina Tuesday night.

In retaliation for a shove in the back, Beckham kicked an opponent - in full view of the referee, who ejected him. This left England a player short - 10 men against Argentina's 11 - and cost the team a match that offered, in addition to the normal passion of combative soccer, the remembered tensions of the Falklands war 16 years ago.

Foolish as Beckham's foul was, it pales beside what was recorded in recent tabloids, which should be required reading for anyone wishing to understand Britain and its relationship with soccer. Spread the pages on the dining-room table and they form a disconcerting tapestry. "Ten Heroic Lions, One Stupid Boy," fumed The Mirror. Inside, its soccer reporter declared, "The England top brass should tear the three lions from David Beckham's shirt this morning."

Not to be outdone, The Sun invited readers to register their thoughts on a special phone line. The responses take us into the darkest recesses of English soccer.

A 61-year-old caretaker from North London: "Beckham should put his skirt back on and go and become the fifth Spice Girl." A 22-year-old nanny from Suffolk: "I don't know how he could do that to his country. He let the side down, and more importantly, the nation." A Leicester resident: "If he walked into my local (pub) today he would be lynched."

That last, chilling remark brings to mind the case of Andres Escobar, a Colombian player who in the last World Cup scored an "own goal" - accidentally deflecting the ball into his net - and was shot dead two days later in his home-town, Medellin.

It is chilling also for other reasons. The fury here comes not from Britain's psychopaths and hooligans, its bully boys and skinheads, who have cut such a nasty swath through France during the tournament. It comes instead from Everyman and Everywoman. When caretakers and nannies join in the fray, speaking angrily of lynchings and treason, one must wonder who has violated the rules of sport.

Is it the player who committed a commonplace foul that, arguably, cost his country a game? Or his overheated compatriots who are baying for his blood?

Sodden with contrition, Beckham has said: "I will always regret my actions during last night's game. I have apologized to the England players and management, and I want every England supporter to know how deeply sorry I am."

Escobar expressed his remorse too, although no real blame lay with him. Beckham has flown to New York, evidently seeking refuge in the hope that this city is on a different planet.

We can, I think, assure him that it is.