Thursday, 12 August 2010

David Beckham - A Post-Postscript

Fabio Capello's "new" England beat Hungary 2-1 at Wembley in their first friendly after the World Cup debacle. But perhaps the majority of headlines will concern Capello's pre-match revelation that he does not intend to pick David Beckham again.

Apart from the rather bizarre delivery of this message - "The end for David?" asked ITV's Gabriel Clarke, to which Capello replied: "Thanks" - the England coach was clear that Beckham's age would prevent him from playing a meaningful role on the field for his country. Capello did indicate after the match that Beckham could be called up for a final hurrah in front of the Wembley crowd, but the likelihood is this would be a purely symbolic gesture, an unusual international 'testimonial'.

And so, after 115 caps and 17 goals, the curtain falls on Beckham's England career.

We've been here before of course. When Steve McClaren dropped Beckham in August 2006, many in the media penned the obituaries on Beckham's then 94-cap international record. That he returned to play 21 more times for his country is testament not just to the man's abilities but also to his resolve. In a week in which Paul Robinson and Wes Brown both retired from international football, Beckham's refusal to do so for four years ago suggests a man with great self-confidence and undiminished desire to play.

Which is why, even as Beckham hits his 36th year, The Cynical Challenge risks making a mistake by running a postscript - perhaps more appropriately a post-postscript after the round of eulogies in 2006 - at this juncture.

But the truth is that, as with others from the 2010 World Cup squad (David James in particular), the time has come where we accept that picking the most talented and highly-rated players is over. I've argued elsewhere that after the so-called Golden Generation must come an appreciation that lazy shoe-horning great players into a tactical system which may not suit them no longer cuts the mustard. This is a watershed, and Beckham is one of the casualties.

So what of Beckham's England career?

His supporters will point to the high points - a superb first goal for England against Colombia in France 98, his magnificent last-minute free-kick against Greece in 2002, his penalty against Argentina that same year to banish the demons of his sending off four years earlier.

Likewise his detractors will cite the failures - the aforementioned petulant red card for kicking out at Diego Simeone, the missed penalties against France in Euro 2004, the sense that his role on the England's right and his preference for the long ball limited the team's creativity.

Both arguments have their merits. But those who watch football with a keen tactical eye see a man who relied too heavily on a "killer pass", and who, despite his well-known prowess with the dead ball, did not score or assist often enough.

Yet Beckham will be missed - and it will be those who watch England only casually who will miss him the most. For Beckham was one of those players who was rated more highly by the non-football-watching public than by devotees, a little like Pele, as struck me in a superbly-argued piece by Brian Phillips on The Run of Play this week.

Some might argue that this isn't important, that being loved by a legion of non-football fans is not the primary role of a football player.

Except that in a period such as the current one, in which England's players have fallen from their lofty perch and no longer command the esteem of the English public, Beckham was a shining light - a man who remains respected in both his on- and off-field guises, and who inspires those who watch him. 

Both in their private lives and their performances on the pitch, England players have disappointed their fans this year. Beckham is himself no saint, but he has not made the same mistakes in his private life as, say, John Terry or Steven Gerrard, nor has he alienated fans by his on-field performances as Wayne Rooney has. He is still loved to an unfathomable degree, as will no doubt be shown should he be granted a last appearance at Wembley in an England shirt.
How unfortunate then that, as Beckham in all likelihood exits the international scene, England needs someone like him more than ever to restore public faith in the team.

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Always glad to hear your thoughts. Be nice now! James