Beckham returns in the hero's role

The prodigal son is back tonight in Luxembourg, and all is forgiven.
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The Independent Online
A FUNNY thing happened to David Beckham as he walked round Wembley's pitch on Saturday: people started to applaud. They did not boo, they did not question his sexual practices, and they did not unsheath rude gestures. If he had turned round to wonder who was milking the audience behind him, it would not have been a surprise.

No, the young man who was vilified as the personification of the nation's ills last summer was being accepted again into England's bosom. Welcome back David, all - well, nearly all - is forgiven.

True, the Dickensian poverty of the national team's performance against Bulgaria would have invoked understanding for almost any sporting crime, but Beckham's transformation from absolute villain to potential hero was shocking for its fickleness.

The people clapping his quiet parade round the perimeter could just as easily have been the same who had hung sarong-clad effigies outside Upton Park. Or the Liverpool fans who sang "Who's the father of the child?" Or part of the circulation leap that accompanies the latest story about his non-sex life in the Sunday papers.

The list is not endless but it does go on a bit and illustrates his hold. That flick of a foot last summer towards Diego Simeone transformed Beckham from a talented boy whose pretty face and prettier girlfriend had made him an object of irrational envy into public enemy No 1. A scapegoat was required for England's World Cup failure, and one had emerged with dyed blond hair.

The Spice Boy had become the Spite Boy. A poll was organised by one national paper asking whether the nation should forgive Beckham; another called him the "unacceptable face of modern Britain". As Alex Ferguson, his Manchester United manager, said: "You would think he was guilty of a greater crime against the country than Lord Haw-Haw."

Yet three months later, and with him yet to kick a ball for his country, reasonable public opinion appears ready to laud Beckham. A trademark goal from a free-kick tonight against Luxembourg, a sweeping cross to Alan Shearer and he will have washed away his sins. Public opinion, ephemeral at the best of times, is moving quicker these days than ever before.

"David's performances this season have been very good," Glenn Hoddle, the England coach, said yesterday. "He's put up with a bit of stick but it's been pretty balanced, not overboard. It's not been as major a problem as people thought it would be."

The paradox is that Beckham is no different now than he was before. The talent is burning brightly again after dimming last spring but the petulance which cost him so dearly in St-Etienne remains. He has been cautioned in both United's away matches in the Champions' League (and will miss their next against Brondby) and there have been flashpoints domestically, too, most notably against Arsenal.

His press, too, particularly of the salacious kind, is severe enough to make Bill Clinton blanch, so the question much broadcast by Radio Five Live - "Is Beckham a sandwich short of a picnic?" - remains pertinent.

It is a query that has been asked frequently of Beckham's predecessor as a footballing focus for the media, Paul Gascoigne, and it was poignant that as one prodigal son was being welcomed back at Wembley, another was being admitted to an alcoholism clinic to dry out.

Is it Beckham's fate to follow Gascoigne, Tony Adams and Paul Merson into the bottle to find a way to cope with celebrity? One sincerely hopes not, although such are the prying pressures on him and his relationship with Victoria Adams it would not come as a knock-me-over surprise if he did. People have turned to drink for less.

For the moment, his performances for United suggest he is learning to cope. Last March and April his displays had become more flash than functional, so that the seemingly glorious crossfield passes were a symptom of failure rather than success. Full-backs were reading him and, as he was forced inside, he lost the position to cross from dangerous areas and he was forced sideways rather than forwards.

There was shock when Hoddle dropped him but the waves of surprise rippled lower the nearer you got to Old Trafford and the supporters who had not only charted his decline but had also begun to question his golden image. Not only the visiting fans were criticising.

Then came a stirring performance against Colombia followed by his aberration against Argentina. Beckham looked preoccupied, and the ability to subtract nine might explain why. Mothers are not the only ones who experience mood swings when they are pregnant; fathers undergo a transformation, too, and while England was expecting last summer, so was Victoria. For a young man whose chief problems are finding a way to spend his money and avoid the unwanted camera, he was suddenly confronted with the advent of responsibility.

We will never know. Beckham is too shy to analyse his emotions in public and, anyway, his stage is the football field. In Luxembourg tonight he can wipe away the past with a few astute passes.

"We have missed him," Gary Neville, an England and United colleague, and possibly his closest friend, said after Saturday's disappointment. "He can make a difference to any team.

"We can all draw strength from the fact he's back and we can draw strength from the way he has handled the criticism he has had to put up with. He has been one of United's best players so far this season and I'm sure he will perform just as well for England."

If he does, expect that the clamour to praise will be nearly as strong as it was to condemn. Paul Gascoigne, the man Beckham has to replace as England's main source of creativity, would tell you about that. Except he is too ill.