Soon David Beckham will be presented with his 100th cap that, in a pale imitation of the World Cup trophy he has never won, will be golden rather than blue. After the team's elimination from Euro 2008, English football has become so desperate they are inventing trophies to award to themselves, like those Soviet bloc nations who boycotted the 1984 Olympic s and earnestly held their own games instead, in which the international Communist brotherhood was assured of all three medals.
Let us be clear: 100 caps is a personal landmark, not a cause for national celebration and certainly not in the light of the England performance on Wednesday night against France. For Beckham at Stade de France his 100th cap will be regarded as the evidence that he still has what it takes. For the rest of us it is the sad confirmation that in the last six years England have not produced a single young player capable of displacing a jaded, but still functioning, Beckham from his perch in the England team.
On Wednesday, while France's new first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy set English establishment hearts aflutter at Windsor Castle, so Paris acclaimed an English icon. In fact, the French support treated Beckham with incredible reverence, as if he had just come straight from leading the Normandy landings. It was extraordinary that a football nation which produces brilliant young footballers as a matter of course, and had a man on the pitch with 138 caps to his name, should get so excited about an achievement of such a parochial scale.
France once had Zinedine Zidane. They still have Thierry Henry, Franck Ribéry and Nicolas Anelka; they won the World Cup in 1998, they reached the final in Germany two years ago and they won Euro 2000. That is real achievement, hard-won against the best teams in the world. All the English have to look forward to this summer is a cap presentation ceremony for a player whose best international moment came almost seven years ago. A word of advice to the French: they should be thankful they are not reduced to lionising a man simply for playing for his country.
On Wednesday, we waited in vain for Beckham to ignite the England team. Then Peter Crouch came on at half-time in the vain hope that he might get at least one ball on his head. Lively and aggressive, England's 6ft 7in striker watched while Ashley Cole and Stewart Downing both failed to strike the ball from the wings into the area. For all the service from the flanks Crouch was afforded, France might as well have entrusted the aerial defensive duties to their President de la Republique, the famously compact Nicolas Sarkozy.
Which is why, just two months from his 33rd birthday, Beckham's international career is not about to come to a halt. He has his 100 caps and the attendant fawning that went with it and now would be a good time to draw a line under the whole affair. But, as The Independent reveals today, that will not be happening. For Fabio Capello and his coaching team, the Beckham show will roll on because without him there is a creative void. And so England cling to the redemptive powers of one, maybe two, decent crosses a game from the right boot of a 32-year-old while France have Ribéry, or Henry, or Anelka, or Karim Benzema to rescue them.
Beckham embodies that fanciful English notion that the best is around the corner, as if this England team are a few small alterations away from conquering the world. On Monday he trotted out the old line about England having enough players who are good enough, but in his heart he must know that there is not a great crop of young English talent for Capello to exploit. If there was, Beckham would be watching England's games on a big screen in that big house in the hills outside Hollywood. Capello is the ultimate football pragmatist and if he feels there is no alternative to Beckham there is no alternative.
Beckham will cling on tenaciously and there will be more landmarks – Bobby Moore's 106 caps is next – and the depressing thought of potentially more commemorative cap ceremonies. Humble and modest, Beckham is impossible not to like as a man and factors outside his football have always blurred the debate on him. Yet now there is some irony that, having reached what should be the weakest point in his career – ageing, undermined by an over-hasty move to an inferior league and with a pitiless manager in charge of England – he has rarely looked in a stronger position to carry on.
He still has a sublime right foot, capable of striking a football with the precision that could knock a bird's nest out of an oak tree. The problem is that the body to which the foot is attached is so often incapable of gaining even a yard of space upon a defender to deliver the ball. Yet given the choice between a player without pace who can cross and a player with pace who cannot cross – think Shaun Wright-Phillips and Aaron Lennon – Capello will always take the former. Beckham looms over English football because the poverty of alternatives means that the nation turns to him over and over again.
On nights like Wednesday his importance is exaggerated because he is applauded by a stadium of Frenchmen. They all seem to like him, but how many of them would want to rely on him for the spark in their own national team?
England managers' first defeats
Lost in first match, 5-2 v France (a), 27 Feb 1963
10th match, 2-1 v Czechoslovakia (a), 30 Oct 1975
Fourth match, 2-1 v West Germany (a), 22 Feb 1978
Second match, 2-1 v West Germany (h), 13 Oct 1982
13th match, 1-0 v Germany (h), 11 Sep 1991
11th match, 3-1 v Brazil (h), 15 Jun 1995 (seventh match, v Rep of Ireland (a) abandoned when 1-0 down after 27 minutes, 12 Feb 1995)
Fourth match, 1-0 v Italy (h), 12 Feb 1997
Ninth match, 1-0 v Scotland (h), 17 Nov 1999
Sven Goran Eriksson
Sixth match, 2-0 v Netherlands (h), 15 Aug 2001
Fifth match, 2-0 v Croatia (a), 11 Oct 2006
Second match, 1-0 v France (a), 26 Mar 2008
Coming up for Capello...
Wednesday 28 May: United States (h), friendly
Sunday 1 June: Trinidad & Tobago (a) friendly (tbc)
Wednesday 20 August: Czech Republic (h), friendly
Saturday 6 September: Andorra (a), World Cup qualifier
Wednesday 10 September: Croatia (a), World Cup qualifier
Saturday 11 October: Kazakhstan (h), World Cup qualifier
Wednesday 15 October: Belarus (a), World Cup qualifier
Wednesday 19 November: Germany (a), friendlyReuse content