Football: Beckham finds focus in Lens

A touch of Hoddle himself as the spice boy's bottled-up anger is released in a tidal flow of brilliance; Andrew Longmore sees the United idol at last find salvation playing for his country
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The Independent Online
DAVID BECKHAM left the stadium in Lens wearing a bright yellow shirt with the number 10 on the back. He had just scored his first goal for England; Carlos Valderrama, who wore Beckham's red seven, had just played his last game for Colombia. It will be a moot point who has the better of the swap. Neither Almeida nor Veron in the Argentinian midfield will allow Beckham the time, as he had in the second half in Lens, to pick out two perfectly weighted passes, one right to Alan Shearer with a slight golfer's undercut, the other rolled another 50 yards to Graeme Le Saux on the opposite touchline, but for now it is timely to hail the most accomplished performance by an England midfielder since the days of the England coach himself.

There was a touch of Hoddle in Beckham's distribution, a dash of Bryan Robson in his work ethic and a reminder of a forgotten Beckham in the execution of his free-kick. Old Trafford has not seen one of those in a month or two as Alex Ferguson will doubtless point out on return.

At last, Beckham has found salvation playing for his country. His first gesture of celebration was not, as one might have expected, towards the England bench but to the England fans, who have not always given him such a kind reception when the shade of red is different. Too young, too good- looking, too talented, too rich, too sexy a girlfriend; up and down the country, Beckham has had to endure the envy of the masses. He has epitomised the ultimate fusion of football and popular culture, the family trees of Manchester United and the Spice Girls, of ancient traditions and disposable fashion joined together in one big money-making enterprise to be known hereafter as Mr and Mrs D Beckham Ltd.

Those who watched his form move in inverse proportion to the number of appearances on the front cover of lad mags shook their heads in bewilderment or nodded them in understanding. The protective cloak which Ferguson put around Ryan Giggs in his formative years was not big enough to cover the expanding media figure of Beckham. Accompanying Beckham and Posh Spice on a recent trip, Ferguson had his eyes opened to the pressures of modern stardom in much the way Sir Matt Busby failed to understand the forces at work on his own George Best.

Nor has Beckham been able to retreat into his own community in the way of his contemporaries, Scholes, Butt and the two Nevilles. Scholes in one of Posh's sarongs might play in the Jongleurs but not on the front pages of the tabloids. Beckham was always the southern softie to the tough northern souls, a stereotyped difference emphasised at the pet lip which greeted his absence from the side. While Beckham might sulk, Paul Scholes or Nicky Butt would go and kick someone. Too much image, not enough Beckham. When United called, Beckham did not respond either in Europe or in the Premiership.

What people forgot is that, for all his apparent world-weariness, Beckham is still young. His outpouring of disappointment at being left out of the first England side in the World Cup was the response of a child who has discovered a complication in life. On Friday night in Lens, Beckham matured before our eyes and the language of his reply to Hoddle was very much more couth than the crudities being heaped upon a worldwide audience of millions by the more vociferous of the England contingent. His anger was bottled up and released in a tidal flow of brilliance.

"David is now 100 per cent focused on his football, though I don't know if the boy would agree with me," Hoddle said afterwards. "I always knew he would play some part in this tournament." Not even the prescient England coach could have anticipated the speed of the rise from bit part to central casting.

At kick-off, an experimental switching of Beckham for Batty and Owen for Sheringham suggested a belated acknowledgment of public demand; by the final whistle, Beckham was ignoring the ordinary bricklayer's chores and sculpting a few ornaments of his own. One outrageous attempt to beat Mondragon from near the corner flag and a delicate chip which just clipped the top of the net. "He thrives on confidence," Hoddle added. "That is now sky high. His next goal could come pretty quickly." Had not the Colombian goalkeeper been in inspired form, particularly in the second half, England could have trumped the six Spain put past Bulgaria.

Players can emerge or sink in World Cups. Beckham, given half a chance against Romania and the full monty in Lens, has called for the spotlight. England, so pedestrian in midfield when David Batty and Paul Ince are paired, had a range of unconsidered options on display. Darren Anderton down the left, Beckham moving instinctively towards his apprentice's workbench on the right, can deliver a variety of crosses to satisfy even the demanding England captain. Shearer should have done better with his service. His main contribution was to persuade Hoddle of Beckham's importance in the line of supply.

The poverty of the opposition will not be lost on Hoddle any more than it will on Daniel Passarella, the Argentine coach. Colombia were a shadow of the team who spun so neatly through Wembley a few years ago. Argentina, with France the only team left with a 100 per cent record, will be South American opposition of a very different calibre. There is enough baggage in this encounter to fill the storage hold of a Jumbo, but down in the hacienda-style training headquarters on the outskirts of St Etienne where Passarella has been quietly preparing his side, the Beckham factor will require more thought. With Batty and Ince, England are essentially defensive; with Beckham, combining with Anderton, Scholes, Owen and Shearer, the Argentine defence will be in need of reinforcement.

If the telescopic sights magnified Beckham, they diminished Owen, if only because he was supposed to be larger than life. The partnership of Shearer and Owen understandably needs work. So far apart were they at times, morse code would have been their best method of communication. There was still enough dash in Owen to warrant his inclusion against Argentina. Beckham too is now central to planning, in every way. Eyes closed, fists clenched knuckle up, ring finger bandaged to protect Posh's jewellery, his face a picture of fulfilment. The photograph appeared in the Parisian dailies yesterday morning. Beckham should find the original, frame it and put it on the wall of his neo-Geo home, a permanent reminder that, for a minute, he truly did have everything.