David Beckham is at risk of ending his career not with the bang his celebrity had always seemed to warrant but with the whimper of the fading old pro. Having lost the England captaincy, and now his place in the England team, only one possibility remains of bowing out with glory: success at Real Madrid.
The problem is that under his new coach, Fabio Capello, he is no longer assured of the first-team place he has consistently upheld since his transfer from Manchester United in the summer of 2003. The word yesterday from Salt Lake City, where the Madrid camp is spending part of the pre-season, is that Capello has identified a rival for Beckham on the right of midfield - and a mightily impressive rival at that: Cicinho, the Brazilian international.
Cicinho was bought last winter by Real to play at right-back. (Manchester United were trying to buy him too, but Real snitched him from under their noses.) The Brazilian, Cafu's understudy in the World Cup, consolidated his place in the Madrid side, displacing the doughty, but less talented, Michel Salgado. He also developed a good understanding down the right flank with Beckham. Their team-mate Roberto Carlos was one of a number of observers impressed by how quickly the Beckham-Cicinho axis had gelled. They complemented each other well: Cicinho, excitingly fast, made the overlapping runs that allowed Beckham the space to put in his famous crosses.
The trouble now is that Capello, probably the most brilliant coach in the world at the business of stopping rival teams from playing, does not consider Cicinho, who is 25, to be up to the redoubtable standards he expects from a defender. He sees him more as a winger. Which is, indeed, how Cicinho started off his footballing life, switching later to full-back because he thought he would stand a better chance there of making it into the Brazilian team. There is no shortage of critics in Brazil, in fact, who believe that Alberto Parreira, the national coach, made a lamentable mistake in not playing him in Germany in place of the ageing Cafu.
Beckham is going to have a tough job making it into Real's starting line-up now. Cicinho is not only almost unstoppable once he has built up a head of steam, he is a good crosser and has a fine shot - with both feet.
And yet, all is not absolutely lost for Beckham. He has two factors in his favour. One, that Capello is the ultimate pragmatist and will not be persuaded by the showiness of the Brazilian if Beckham offers more chances to score. Two, that Ruud van Nistelrooy is now in the Real side looking sharp, hungry and likely to secure his place up front. A revived Beckham-Van Nistelrooy connection could still trump the Cicinho dazzle.
A third factor, perhaps, is that Beckham, who must know that he is in danger of being viewed by posterity more as a celebrity than as a footballer, is a battler, with a lot of pride. Capello will like that, as have all the coaches the Englishman has ever played with. But - never mind Aaron Lennon - Cicinho is the toughest in-house rival he has ever encountered. For the Brazilian, a big future looms; for Beckham, at 31, the bell tolls.Reuse content