NEW YORK – Many people have tried very hard to dislike David Beckham. Few have succeeded in the long run.
All through his career, the Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder has polarized opinions and been met with criticism and praise in equal measure, especially in England where a sad trait of the public is its inherent need to attempt to brutally knock down those it has previously built up with adulation and hero worship.
Following his sending off against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup in France, Beckham was blamed for England's departure from the tournament and the reaction upon his return home was fierce. Headlines such as "10 Brave Heroes, One Stupid Boy" screamed from the newsstands. Effigies of Beckham were burned in the street. Once the new English football season started, he was booed and barracked at every away ground and had to withstand disgusting songs about his wife-to-be.
Yet Beckham responded by looking within himself, and he used the vitriol as incentive to establish himself as one of the world's top players. Within less than a year, he had been instrumental in helping Manchester United lift an unprecedented hat trick of trophies – the titles for the Premiership, FA Cup and UEFA Champions League.
So we can only assume that the smatterings of scepticism and cynicism that greeted Beckham's arrival in the United States are like water off No. 23's back.
Ahead of the Galaxy's MLS clash with the New York Red Bulls on Saturday, Beckham's media conference here was a warm and positive affair, and his reception at the Meadowlands figures to be similar.
Spectacular free kicks tend to make suggestions that this is a man more concerned with showbiz than soccer look ignorant and foolish. So, too, do his charitable works.
Just ask some of the smiling youngsters at Jacob Schiff Field in Harlem on Friday afternoon whether they think Beckham is over-hyped. With just an hour of his time, he gave a group of underprivileged children a memory that will last a lifetime.
Of course, he is not the only professional athlete to engage in good deeds. But Beckham can never be accused of failing to go the extra mile, whether, like in Harlem, it took place in front of hundreds of cameras – or not.
Ask English teenager Ollie Rycraft, who was bought a special wheelchair by Beckham and wife Victoria following his fourth brain tumor, what he thinks of him.
Ask Leo and Stephanie Theopold, who had a dream come true when their 2003 wedding was marked by a visit and an offer of congratulations from the then-England captain, who happened to be staying at the same hotel.
Ask the fundraisers at UNICEF or the various other charities for which Beckham is an ambassador whether they have a problem with the attention he receives.
There will still be those determined to dislike him, who cannot listen to reason and simply accept the fact that he is a positive advertisement for MLS, soccer and sport in general.
In a summer marred by sickening scandals, American sports can be thankful it has something with a feel-good factor to talk about – thankful for a high-profile sportsman who doesn't strut or swagger and who refuses to belittle opponents with inane verbal nonsense on the field of play (or talk about himself in the third person). Thankful for a story untouched by the poisonous tentacles of steroids, or dog-fighting, or bribery, or death.
Replies to this column have criticized me for taking too soft an approach with Beckham during his brief tenure with the Galaxy. I have been accused of being a patsy – of "sucking up" to him – and even writing as if I was "on his payroll." For the record, I'm not on his payroll, although my bank manager wishes I was.
The simple fact is that when it comes to an examination of character, Beckham bears up to scrutiny.
"This has been one of the best days I have had since I arrived in America," he said, referring to the clinic involving kids from Harlem Youth Soccer.
Later in the press conference, he added: "In my career I have had ups and downs and disappointments but I have been brought up to sometimes think 'now is time to prove people wrong.' I have managed to do that a few times and it is satisfying."
One way to prove people wrong is by shining on the pitch, with blistering free kicks – such as his goal against D.C. United on Wednesday – and helping to take U.S. soccer to a whole new audience. Another is by feeling comfortable enough in his own skin, despite his fame, to act like a decent and rational human being.
Sad, isn't it, that such behavior is not common among athletes?