As anyone who has visited Geneva will know, the hours tend to pass slowly in this quiet city by the lake and it was as David Beckham surfed the internet in his hotel room on Thursday night that the England captain found a statistic that arrested his attention. He has passed his 30th birthday, won a European Cup and played for two of the greatest club sides in the world but that evening he was searching for an obscure statistic that would tell him much about his place in the history of English football.
Few anniversaries have come with less fanfare than the occasion of Beckham's 50th match as captain of England today against Argentina - a supposition that scarcely needs the rider "if selected". It will also be the 86th cap he has won for his country and as yet, the rate of games won under his leadership stands at 67.3 per cent - but what he was searching for on his laptop on Thursday was his place among the great players of the past.
Beckham was, he said yesterday, buying tracks on iTunes when the mood took him to search out how far he had to go to break the record for captaining England: a time-killing device that was never an option for the late Billy Wright who led his country 90 times over 105 caps. The late Bobby Moore shares that distinction with 90 captain's performances in 108 caps and it was only when Beckham saw Bryan Robson in third place with 65 captain's games in 90 caps that he allowed himself to think that milestone was a possibility.
"We'll see," was how he described his chances of reaching his former Manchester United team-mate's record and, it is appropriate that, for his 50th match with the captain's armband, he faces an opposition that will tell him so much about his, and his team's progress ahead of next summer's World Cup.
It has been, he said, an "amazing journey" from that game against Italy in November 2000, when caretaker manager Peter Taylor first gave him the responsibility, to carving out for himself a status - with the captaincy at its centre - that would be hard for any of the three men above him in the records to imagine in their own times and their own careers.
"I did hope at the time [that he would keep it], when I was given the captaincy because people were saying that I was the wrong person to be captain, they still are now," he said. "Five years on, it's been an amazing journey and it is the biggest honour I have been given in football. I want to keep it as long as I can.
"I don't get fed up with it because criticism is always going to be there, when a player reaches the age of 30, and other young players behind you are waiting to get in, people are always going to say maybe I shouldn't be captain, maybe I shouldn't be playing. I have to put up with that. That's the way football is these days. I accept it. I don't accept being out of the team. I want to be captain, and to play as many years as possible."
That such a landmark in his own career is accompanied by a match against opposition who have such significance in Beckham's past only adds to the sense that the England captain cannot live his life under any terms other than those of some great dramatic epic. His first meeting with Argentina, and the red card in the 1998 World Cup, does not require any more re-telling than the story of his winning penalty against them in Sapporo four years later. His metatarsal bone was broken by Aldo Duscher, an Argentinian, before that 2002 World Cup and even Beckham had to admit that he shared a strange history of conflict with that nation.
"It's weird that I have had some of those problems," he said. "My first season at Real Madrid, every tackle, every booking, any problem, turned out to be an Argentinian player, which was bizarre. I have not got a problem with Argentinian players. Maybe you should ask one of them."
There could hardly be a worst time to resume that battle than today when Beckham takes up the captaincy for the first time since his red card against Austria. He laughed off the inquiry about whether he had spoken to Wayne Rooney about the pitfalls of sarcastically clapping referees - Beckham's red card for Real Madrid for that offence against Valencia has since been expunged - but a loss of temper against Argentina would be catastrophic for his record as captain.
"It wasn't anger," was Beckham's defence of his second tackle on Andreas Ibertsberger, "I was trying to get the ball back." It was a reminder that there has been enough controversy in those 49 games as captain of England so far to fill any career - the like of which Wright, Moore and Robson could scarcely have contemplated. If Beckham is to match their achievements, his main priority from today will be staying in the job.Reuse content