Football: Beckham corners the market

Norman Fox says the United star's future is not for central casting
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The Independent Online
IN HIS unofficial role as world ambassador for football, Pele sometimes lapses into saying what he knows his audience wants to hear. On the eve of the European Cup final he said David Beckham was the third best player in the world after Rivaldo and Zinedine Zidane. In the light of events at Wembley and in Barcelona he may not, after all, have been patronising beyond belief.

Beckham is not everyone's idea of a role model either as a personality, of which, begging Victoria Adams' pardon, most people think he is disadvantaged, or by comparison with truly skilful footballers of past eras. His performance in Barcelona was largely subdued by the diligent Jens Jeremies but this is not a period in football's history that is graced with breathtaking talent.

Beckham's skills are among the best of his age; an age in which the speed of the game dictates that quick passes, pin-point corners (which he performed so superbly in Barce- lona) or free-kicks either to friendly heads or beyond frowning goalkeepers and defenders can make the difference between a fine side like Bayern Munich and one employing his talent for doing the textbook things unusually well.

Ask him to make a mazy run in the style of George Best or tackle with the timing of Jaap Stam and you would wait indefinitely for his answers. Curiously, perhaps the greatest service towards his career was that sending-off for a totally stupid retaliatory kick in the World Cup match against Argentina. He came home being abused and blamed for England's elimination, which was far from the truth. Suddenly he realised that he had to grow up and stop reacting to every ankle tap as if it were an attempt to break a leg.

Since the World Cup he has made the occasional rash challenge or reacted angrily when suffering an illegal late tackle, but most of the time he has just got on with the game, ignored the inevitable but now diminishing taunts of the opposing fans and shown that he is both the player with the greatest stamina at Manchester United and has the ability, in an emergency, to take a central midfield role.

That central position, which he had to adopt early in the FA Cup final following the injury to Roy Keane, is not easy. Last weekend at Wembley the task was made less difficult by Newcastle's indifference but it required a selfless performance by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to ensure that it worked. Solskjaer was told by Alex Ferguson to move out to the right edge to allow Beckham to take up a playmaker role. On Wednesday against Bayern, Ferguson felt he had been sufficiently encouraged to start with Beckham in the middle of the park with Nicky Butt. It was a considerable risk and probably would have failed had not another player, this time Ryan Giggs, been prepared to make the best of being switched to an unfavoured position, the right wing.

The tactical challenge was one that, although it surprised them, Bayern thought played into their hands since they had always been concerned about the threat of Beckham and Giggs attacking from the flanks. They were right... until the final minute. To suggest that Beckham has suddenly become an inspirational playmaker is to overestimate his ability and underestimate the tactical value of doing the unexpected. Ferguson is a master of tactical disguise and far too canny to believe that in future he can afford to forgo Beckham's unequalled crossing on the basis of transient praise for carrying out a different role with credit.

Ferguson said that Beckham was the sort of player who had to be given his freedom. Without taking anything away from the manager's immense contribution to United's treble it was curious that in the past he had rarely spoken about Beckham in quite those terms. It was usually praise for his strong "motor" and excellent dead-ball kicking. Ferguson knew very well that he took a gamble with Beckham's change of role, and neither manager nor player was found out.

Whether Kevin Keegan will have been sufficiently impressed to offer Beckham a similar role for England is doubtful. Like Ferguson, he accepts that Beckham's greatest value remains his wonderfully accurate finding of the strikers from a wide position. Much as England need a skilful playmaker, Beckham now knows the merit of ignoring his own exaggerated publicity, good as well as bad.