There is compensation in the wealth, and in the fame he seems so much to enjoy, but you would not really want to be David Beckham right now. As notions of recovering his England place recede, so does his last opportunity fade of ending his club career on a glorious note. You looked at him coming off, substituted, at the beginning of the second half of Real Madrid's Champions' League shocker against Lyon on Wednesday night and you felt like saying to him: "David, do yourself a favour. You haven't renewed your contract in Spain yet: hasn't the time finally come to go into semi-retirement in America"?
Real, thrashed 2-0 by Gérard Houllier's Lyon (5-0 would have been a fairer result), look sadder, duller, more hopeless and adrift than they did even during the fin-de-galactico chaos of last season. Michael Robinson, the ex-Liverpool player and now celebrity Spanish television commentator, remarked after the final whistle blew that this was the worst Real he had seen "in years". That was saying a fair bit given that over the past 12 months the world's most profitable club (for how long?) have had not only three coaches, but four presidents, and they have not won a trophy since the summer of 2003. But Robinson's off-the-cuff opinion summed up the considered view of pretty much every football writer in yesterday's Spanish press.
I received a phone call yesterday morning from one of the best known of them, another household name on TV and an unapologetic Real fan. Normally the most effervescent of men, bullish to the last, he was in despair, deriving some comfort only from my suggestion that maybe the time had come to seek political asylum in Borneo. The truly awful thing, he said (and I heard the same from a group of hard-bitten Real fans I watched the game with the night before), was that the season had barely begun and already all hope, all dreams had gone up in smoke.
The reason why things are so bad at Real right now is that in the summer the club, and indeed its fans, made a Faustian pact - and it has blown up in their faces.
This was what the past comprised. Things had become so chaotic at the end of last season (the chaos compounded by the pain of Barcelona's all-conquering progress) that they decided to sell their soul in exchange for gold. The soul of Madrid, who see themselves as the club version of Brazil, has always been attractive football - what in Madrid they call "spectacle". Gold meant trophies. In voting for a new president, Ramon Calderon, who promised to bring in Fabio Capello as coach, and give him plenipotentiary powers, what the club's members were saying was: "Enough galactico experiments, enough showbiz, let's have results. We'll worry about the spectacle later..."
Thus it was that the policy under the previous president, the quixotic Florentino Perez, of buying at least one superstar attacker a season was shelved and Capello set about shoring up the defence. He bought the Italian captain, Fabio Cannavaro, in the Juventus summer sales, where he also picked up that least Brazilian of Brazilians, the defensive midfielder Emerson. And as the press and fans bayed for Kaka to be purchased from Milan, all Capello kept telling his obedient president was that he wanted another central defender and please, above all, Lyon's powerhouse midfielder from Mali, Mahamadou Diarra. To Capello's joy, Diarra did come, for €26m (£17.5m). The Italian's dream had come true: he had what he considered to be two top-quality defenders in midfield to defend the four at the back.
Up front Capello ordered in Ruud van Nistelrooy, whose presence as the sole attacker (pending the return from injury of the also-fading Ronaldo) did at least offer Beckham the hope that someone might be able to capitalise on what he does best: namely, whip dangerous balls into the penalty area. And so, indeed, it has - sort of - turned out. In Real's three official games this season - two domestic, one European - Beckham has been, in the absence of anything else dimly creative in midfield, the one available route to goal. Long Beckham balls, usually from the halfway line, are the only means Capello's Real have found to probe rival defences.
And that is the problem. If you mix the Beckham long ball with other approaches, the defence may be caught off its toes. If that is all you have, defenders have time to nibble on a tapa or two and smoke a cigarette, safe in the knowledge that they'll repulse whatever is thrown at them. All the more so if the coach insists - no one, but no one in Spain understands this - on starting game after game with Raul, who ceased to be a great player three years ago, and gets worse every day. As astounding is Capello's refusal to play Robinho in Raul's place - Robinho, who has long been regarded in Brazil as Pele's heir, and in his country's 3-0 defeat of Argentina in London earlier this month went some way towards showing why. Just as baffling, for that matter, is Real's decision to acquire Jose Antonio Reyes from Arsenal, given that Arsène Wenger's least successful signing of recent seasons plays in the same position as Robinho.
All of which is very bad news indeed for Beckham, who knows that he cannot prosper if he is his team's only attacking option in midfield; who knows he is not Maradona, or Zinedine Zidane, or anything remotely close to them. In the absence of the Frenchman, whose skills Beckham hero-worshipped, and with Ronaldo past his best, and Luis Figo gone, and Robinho not getting a game, and Reyes probably not much cop, the former England captain finds himself not only in a team seemingly incapable of winning trophies but one in which, in contrast to his first three seasons, it is simply no fun to play or train with, either.
Things can and do change in football but, for today, Capello is a nightmare for Beckham and for madridismo generally. On the basis of Real's appalling showing against Lyon, and a couple of ugly games in the league, the consensus in Spain is that he represents the worst of all worlds: a team whose philosophy is the epitome of grim pragmatism, of anti-spectacle - but lose.
How long Beckham will last among the changes that now need to be made is anyone's guess. The worst for him may yet lie ahead. That is why it might be wise for his agents to start sounding out DC United, or the Los Angeles Galaxy, or the New England Revolution. And to do so now.
Comings and goings at the Bernabeu
Arrivals in the summer:
* Ramon Calderon is elected as club president. He then appoints Fabio Capello as the new coach.
* Defender Fabio Cannavaro and midfielder Emerson join from Juventus for a joint fee of £14.2m.
* Midfielder Mahamadou Diarra joins from Lyon for £19.5m.
* Ruud van Nistelrooy signs from Manchester United for £10.1m.
* Jose Antonio Reyes joins on one-year loan from Arsenal.
* Borja Valero returns after loan at Mallorca.
* Juanfran joins Osasuna.
* Zinedine Zidane retires.
* Julio Baptista joins Arsenal on one-year loan.
* Jose Manuel Jurado joins Atletico Madrid for £2m.
* Javier Portillo signs for Gimnastic.
* Jonathan Woodgate joins Middlesbrough on one-year loan.
* Thomas Gravesen joins Celtic for £2.5m.
Results so far:
27 Aug Real Madrid 0 Villarreal 0
10 Sept Levante 1 Real Madrid 4 (both in La Liga)
13 Sept Lyon 2 Real Madrid 0 (Champions' League)Reuse content