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May 31, 2006

The blot on Brand Beckham

David Beckham went to his first World Cup slighted by a manager he had worshipped in his own playing days; he entered his second idolised by a nation praying for his fitness; he approaches his third - and surely final - greeted by ambivalence.

His captaincy has become a matter of debate; even his place in the side is under scrutiny, given the emergence of the precocious Aaron Lennon. And Sven Goran Eriksson, his mentor and defender, will take his leave after the tournament.

The appointment of Steve McClaren, another Manchester United alumnus and Eriksson's acolyte, should have soothed his nerves, but possession of the armband should be under review under a new regime.

The World Cup squad includes the captains of Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United, as well as the vice-captains of the first two, and former skippers of Leeds and Tottenham. Options, in other words, abound.

John Terry and Steven Gerrard, each with a brand of inspirational leadership that is fast becoming their stock in trade are the strongest candidates. Meanwhile, the fifth anniversary of Beckham's heroics against Greece beckons; outside his immediate circle, it is a diminishing memory.

So Beckham, a protected species under Eriksson, has cause to fear for his future. For the Swede, there is already a finality about the visit to Germany.

Perhaps their symbiotic relationship will be renewed in Madrid one day; perhaps Beckham will be confined to club football after early July. Because, despite twice being voted the second best player in the world, he is yet to really excel in a major tournament.

So are Terry and Gerrard, but each has youth and unavailability as a mitigating factor.

Contrast Beckham with Sol Campbell, colossal in two World Cups and two European Championships, and Gary Neville, who has Euro 2000 as the sole blot on an excellent personal record at the highest level of international football, and the global electorate may feel their votes were misplaced.

Michael Owen, in 1998, Rio Ferdinand (2002) and Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney, all impressive in Euro 2004, have all justified lofty reputations.

But Beckham's first World Cup began on the bench and was curtailed and tainted by a red card. In Euro 2000, he was among the better performers in a dismal England team. The abiding image of him in the 2002 World Cup is his hop to evade a tackle shortly before Brazil levelled.

In Euro 2004, he was simply execrable.

The difference with his club career where, bar a terrible 2004, consistency has been his forte, is stark.

The sight of Beckham leading the assists chart in La Liga is a reminder his crossing remains magnificent, even if his time in Madrid is a period of depreciating returns as the essential foolishness of the galacticos project has become exposed.

Most of that is not Beckham's fault; it was not his decision that a contingent of underrated squad players were being shipped out of the back door while Florentino Perez gave the England captain his version of a royal reception at the front. Yet, as in much else, he is not entirely innocent.

He was signed, in part, for his commercial profile, which could yet extend his England career. Few have cultivated fame, let alone advertisers, so actively.

His visit Stateside - and an attempt to break America is more reminiscent of Oasis or Robbie Williams than Gerrard or Terry - was a nadir.

Nor are all comfortable with the football-celebrity love-in; Rooney, who once used 'flash' as an insult directed as his captain, glowered at the Beckhams' pre-World Cup party.

Despite their wealth and footballers' foibles, the England dressing room still contains a welcome contingent of the down to earth. (Indeed, Robbie Fowler takes pride in missing the corresponding event at 'Beckingham Palace' four years ago.)

And even off the pitch, football's rightful order was belatedly restored when Ronaldinho overhauled Beckham as commercially the most valuable player now, a reward for exceptional skill, rather than comparitive qualities of dentistry.

America has cropped up elsewhere in his thinking. Beckham believes he would benefit from a less critical media there.

In England, where his stated wish to overhaul Bobby Moore's record of 108 caps (for an outfield player) and perhaps Peter Shilton's overall total of 125 has been questioned, where even Bryan Robson, another of his childhood heroes, believes Terry should be captain, does not enjoy that privilege.

Grandiose ambitions should be rooted in reality. In a culture of sycophancy, they rarely are.

One-hour television profiles with the most obsequious of interviewers may not constitute the ideal build-up for the World Cup; not do parties for the not so great or good, plus the visibly uncomfortable, whose preferred terrain is the football field.

Perhaps Beckham would do well to listen to his best friend. Neville, another in probably his final World Cup. His mantra in recent interviews has been 'no excuses'; whoever is injured, whichever decisions go against England, whatever can be interpreted as bad luck. No excuses.

It is further proof of the conflict between the player honed in the meritocratic school of Manchester United and the celebrity who believes he should be beyond reproach. In one sense, he has been: under Eriksson's indulgent leadership, he has never even been substituted in a competitive game.

Even the arrival of Lennon, offering a hybrid of speed and skill that Beckham cannot rival, is unlikely to change that; Eriksson, forced into a corner by the teenager's excellence against Belarus, became increasingly defensive on the subject of his captain.

And, directly or indirectly, many of the criticisms of the Swede's England refer to Beckham; a reluctance to omit those with the highest profiles, an overly benevolent form of management of the most powerful, a closed-shop selection policy, the disastrous 'quarterback' idea and a tendency to under-perform in the knockout stages of major tournaments.

Central among the questions asked to prospective England managers is thought to have been how they would tackle the celebrity culture in the England dressing room; Beckham is the prime culprit.

Foremost among the issues for Eriksson is which formation he uses at the start of the tournament. If it is a five-man midfield, pace on the flanks is a greater requirement to support a solitary striker.

So a reminder of the exemplary crossing, precise passing over any distance and set-piece expertise would be timely.

Because David Beckham, accused of personalising the captaincy to an unacceptable degree, is on the brink of a new, surely less flattering regime.

He faces his final opportunity to leave an indelible mark on the World Cup. So far, his fame outstrips his achievements. On the international stage, this may be his last chance to change that.


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