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Aug 31, 2007

England could struggle without Beckham

At first, David Beckham's exclusion from the England team was a shock, seen as an attempted show of strength by a new regime. Briefly, it was merely a footnote to the squad selected. Then, as he became a cause celebre, it reverted to being a major talking point. Now his absence is interpreted as a major blow to a beleaguered manager and, perhaps, a terminal one to a distinguished servant of his country. Obituaries of a decade-long England career are even being prepared.

Though he has only played three games under Steve McClaren, the issue of Beckham has come to define McClaren's reign as England's manager, which may be entering its final stages. The knee injury that means the midfielder is ruled out of the doubleheader against Israel and Russia in the next fortnight comes just when he had been restored to the role of an automatic choice in the England side.

It comes, too, when they are in serious danger of failing to reach a major tournament for the first time in 14 years -- ironically, given Beckham's current club -- since they missed the 1994 World Cup in the United States.

With England languishing in fourth in its Euro 2008 qualifying group and a series of injuries ruling out key players, the headline in The Daily Mail was: "Becks adds to crisis."

But the other focus was on the blow to Beckham's personal ambitions. His wish to become just the fifth Englishman to be capped 100 times is well known. England's elimination, leading to a focus on the 2010 World Cup, when Beckham would be 35, would effectively end his international career that has encompassed 97 appearances. Perhaps its culmination was last week's defeat to Germany, pre-empting two games for Galaxy and a premature exit against Pachuca.

The former England international Rodney Marsh branded Beckham's focus on reaching his personal century "an albatross," even if his patriotism is unquestioned. As Des Kelly wrote in his light-hearted column for The Daily Mail, "Never can an English sportsman have eaten so many dry-roasted peanuts for his country as David Beckham. This is a man who now spends such inordinate amounts of time at 39,000 ft he may have to pressurize his home to simulate cabin conditions."

The View From The Other Side
What's the reaction in England to David Beckham's injury? Here's a sample of headlines over the last two days in the U.K.:

"Beckham injury worry for England"
The Guardian

"Becks feels the L.A. heat"
The Sun

"Beckhams: L.A. nannies quit over bossy stars"
The News of the World

"Knee trouble could rule U.S. B-lister David Beckham out"
The Guardian

"Beckham adds to McClaren woes"
The Guardian

"Bentley in for crock Beckham"
The Sun

"Golden-bald: Is crocked Beckham losing his hair?"
The Daily Mail

"Becks England fear"
The Daily Mirror

"Beckham injury opens way for Bentley's return"
The Independent

"Beckham injury piles pressure on"
The Times

"David Beckham's U.S. nightmare goes on"
The Daily Mirror

Both Beckham himself and the Galaxy have been criticized for his punishing schedule -- he was set to complete 40,000 miles in September and October alone -- with warnings about the long-term repercussions to both his sharpness on the pitch and his popularity.

Marsh, who played for the Tampa Bay Rowdies, wrote in The Daily Mail, "David is being treated like a piece of meat. He has been a celebrity footballer for years but at Real Madrid and Manchester United, they always put his football first. I'm not sure that's the case here. It's hard to feel sorry for the someone earning so much money, but between them, the L.A. Galaxy and England are abusing the lad."

And Jonathan Wilson, the football correspondent of the Financial Times,

said, "There's no doubt that Beckham's tired. Frankly it makes a mockery of any competition if it encourages a player to play twice in 24 hours, as happened after the England-Germany game. Alexi Lalas made some pretty crass comments about the EPL and English arrogance towards the MLS when Beckham arrived, but how can you take seriously a competition that rearranges its schedule to give one player the widest possible exposure?"

Meanwhile, U.S. international winger Bobby Convey feels the American public could feel short-changed if exhaustion and injuries continue to take their toll on Beckham. "In the States, if you're put in the media as a superstar, then they expect a superstar," said Convey. "They expect winners and if he doesn't win, then they'll be skeptical."

In the short term, however, England is affected more. Two uncapped wingers, Ashley Young and David Bentley, have been selected to face Israel and Russia, but it was accepted that Beckham would have played.

McClaren, who tends to magnify the importance of any absent player, said:

"It's a big blow for us, he's a big player, we're coming up to big games and we need big players."

Impartial observers agree that Beckham could have been decisive.

"Given the lack of shape and confidence about at the moment, they will miss him. Beckham embodies a paradox: he makes England play worse football, but helps them win games," said Wilson. "He is too slow to play in the 4-3-3 that would suit pretty much every other England player (with the possible exception of Wayne Rooney), and so England play an old-fashioned 4-4-2 that shoehorns Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard into the middle of midfield, even though their partnership within a four-man midfield has never worked.

"This makes England ponderous and hesitant -- they have not played well since the friendly against Argentina back in November 2005, and even then only after Gerrard made an unlikely switch to right-back -- but Beckham, because of the quality of his crossing and his dead balls, does have the ability to create goals even within that mess."

But now the question is whether the mess England finds itself in, combined with his untimely knee injury, has brought Beckham's international career to an abrupt end.

Richard Jolly writes for ESPNsoccernet and covers the English Premiership and UEFA Champions League. He can be reached on richard_jolly@lycos.co.uk.