Beckham turned 50 in terms of leading England yesterday, but wisdom has not arrived with experience. "They all hate me," he was reported as saying, as if Argentina's defenders would give a monkey's. Pull on the blue-and-white shirt, take your place in a back four hacked out of granite and you hate every opposing forward.
Yet Beckham seemed mystified. "I don't really know why they don't like me," he said. "It's weird." Well you could stop launching cosmetics called Instinct that the ad men describe as "the essence of David Beckham" for a start. You don't need to be Roberto Ayala to experience a sense of loathing at that.
Not that Beckham and Argentina need any extra stimulants to create a whiff of antagonism, because they have a history. Most famously, he was sent off against them in the World Cup of 1998 for flicking a foot at Diego Simeone, but Argentinians have cropped up throughout his career. His first red card for Real Madrid followed a foul on Pablo Aimar; the most famous metatarsal in football was broken by Aldo Duscher in 2002; you can guess the nationality of the referee who sent him off in the World Club Championship.
"We have had a few problems in the past," was Beckham's understatement, and you had only to watch the teams in the tunnel to see the potential for the present. The Argentinian captain and left-back, Sorin, had the long hair of a Pre-Raphaelite Madonna and the icy eyes of an assassin, so no wonder England's leader avoided meeting his gaze.
Beckham never needs much encouragement to stray from his wing and, with an angry Julia Roberts lookalike targeting him, the inclination must have been stronger, but Beckham was forced into orthodoxy because of the initial excellence of the Argentinian midfield.
Michael Owen had the ball in the net and Wayne Rooney hit the post, but the South Americans moved with menace every time they were in possession. Ledley King, the holding player, was often left grasping at air as figures in blue, usually the outstanding Riquelme or Zanetti, sped past him. Hernan Crespo matched Owen in having a "goal" disallowed, and then put Argentina ahead.
Beckham can be tempted into rash tackles when opponents of such technique and touch are going past him, but he kept his head in more ways than one. Luke Young was booked for fouling Sorin but his captain remained cool and was frequently, with Steven Gerrard, the main outlet to relieve pressure. Then, with Argentina threatening a master-class, Geneva was treated to a rarity. For a man of 6ft-plus, the frequency of Beckham headers is not so much disappointing as almost non-existent, yet he could have been Nat Lofthouse after 39 minutes when he rose above Sorin, saw Wayne Rooney moving to his left and nodded into his path. A Beckham assist comes as the norm; Golden Balls in the air is extraordinary.
So was his shot of a full 35 yards that nearly skidded past that startled Abbondanzieri on the hour, but by then Walter Samuel had given the Argentinians the lead, and if anyone was inspirational in midfield it was not Beckham but Argen-tina's Riquelme. The plus was that England will be forewarned if they encounter the Villarreal playmaker should they meet in next year's World Cup.
A thrilling climax and headers from Joe Cole and Michael Owen gave Beckham a golden conclusion to his 50th as captain. England go to next year's World Cup having beaten the planet's second-rated nation.