Beckham basks in the embrace of two cultures

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The sarong, the haircuts, the tattoos; David Beckham has become accustomed to ridicule since he moved into the stratosphere of celebrity but nothing would have prepared him for the reaction had he taken the foreign influence on English football a step too far last weekend.

For those brought up to believe that English gentlemen last shared a platonic kiss when Nelson breathed his last on The Victory, the 68th minute of the friendly rout over Jamaica last Saturday was almost the moment civilised society came crashing down around their tea and scones.

At that moment the numbers seven and 20 lit up on the substitutes' board and the England captain gave way to a 19-year-old about to make his senior international debut. As he passed Aaron Lennon on the Old Trafford sideline, Beckham went to kiss the dashing young Tottenham winger on the cheek.

Mindful of how this is not the done thing beyond a delirious goal celebration in England, the Real Madrid midfielder pulled away just in time, an international incident was averted, and only Peter Crouch looked awkward that afternoon. Relaxed, and content to reveal all inside the impressive media marquee that the Football Association have constructed at England's training camp, Beckham yesterday outlined what his final duties will be as captain before he walks out against Paraguay in Frankfurt and collects his 90th cap, a total that will bring him level with his childhood hero Bryan Robson.

"Before the game we will shake hands and wish each other luck, but it's different to what I am used to these days," he said. "I have been in Spain for three years now and we all kiss each other before we go out on to the pitch. I nearly did it when I came off at Old Trafford. When Aaron was coming on, I reached forward to kiss him, but then I thought: 'No, I better not'."

Not all the habits that Beckham has developed during his time in Madrid present such difficulties for English football, however. With more time on the ball but less margin for error, the 31-year-old has refined his game at the Bernabeu and will enter his third World Cup convinced that, irrespective of the fitness problems that hindered his contribution to previous tournaments, he has more to offer than the Beckham of 1998 and 2002.

"I feel I have got better as a player in the last three years," he said. "I am lucky in that I am quite good at the technical part of the game but it has gone up a level since I have been in Spain. It had to. Technically, the game is different in Spain. You have to be technically more gifted playing for Real Madrid. That's one of the things I have gained from playing for Real Madrid. Plus I have more experience as well.

"There are occasions when I don't feel as confident striking a ball but, at the moment, I feel confident. Of course I want to be more involved in other things and to be remembered for more than striking a ball but that is one of the biggest parts of my game, always has been, and always will be. I have been playing better for Real Madrid this season than at other times. I ended the season well and right now I feel fit and fresh."

Beckham is likely to be the only England international starting against Paraguay who plies his trade abroad and while that has improved the considered side of his game, he believes the technique of the Premiership has also advanced in recent seasons. It is this development, allied to the more traditional virtues of the English game, that provides the foundation of Beckham's confidence on the eve of this World Cup.

"The physical side of the English game always scares South American teams and maybe some European teams too," Beckham said. "We have spoken about this ourselves during the week. In Spain it's a totally different game to the Premiership. It's more physical in the Premiership but in the last five years it has improved technically and is up there now with every league in the world. The combination of the two scares people and teams. I know that from Real Madrid.

"When we have been watching the Premiership, and either Chelsea or Manchester United are playing, I have seen Real Madrid players wince at the way JT [John Terry] or Rio [Ferdinand] go into headers or tackles. They get a lot of respect for that."

Beckham cites the absence of any cliques within this England squad as evidence of the spirit in the camp - "There was always the famous Liverpool and Manchester United sections when I first came into the squad," he recalls - and his demeanour does not even darken when asked if he would like to be remembered at a World Cup for more than a sending-off against Argentina. "Cheers for that," he laughed, but then, intently, he added: "I would give up everything on a personal side to win a trophy for this team."