Beckham left searching for the hero inside himself

Beset on and off the field, captain tries to restore his balance
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His sculpted features decorate the world's advertisement hoardings, extolling designer sunglasses or some other chic product. His celebrity has cascaded into the lives of millions for whom football may be anathema. His very name is synonymous with success. Now he sat encircled by interrogators - many, he was no doubt aware, vociferous critics of his captaincy - with the demeanour of a wounded lion.

His sculpted features decorate the world's advertisement hoardings, extolling designer sunglasses or some other chic product. His celebrity has cascaded into the lives of millions for whom football may be anathema. His very name is synonymous with success. Now he sat encircled by interrogators - many, he was no doubt aware, vociferous critics of his captaincy - with the demeanour of a wounded lion.

Yes, David Beckham responded to questioning with that same East London spark of defiance as the England circus prepared to decamp back to more temperate shores, but you felt that the past three weeks, maybe the past year, had wearied him in a way that no expensive skin conditioner could conceal.

This tournament has almost circumvented Beckham. Ignore the missed penalties; there is a convincing argument that he should not have been on the pitch anyway. His fitness had been a cause of real concern. Indeed, he confessed that "conditioning" at Real Madrid was not what he had been used to at Manchester United.

"I didn't feel as fit in the second half of the season as I did in the first. Maybe that's the way the Spanish game is, but who knows?" It was suggested to him that factor had affected his fitness here. "Maybe it has. I don't know. But I'm not going to make excuses for myself. I want to carry on being a Real Madrid player, and I want to win things there."

Whatever the explanation, the truth is that, apart from a disciplined contribution against France, Beckham made a negligible impact here. Instead his stage was usurped by the kid to whom you would bung a fiver "to look after your car, mister" around Stanley Park.

Now we have shades of France 98 revisited. There had been condemnation of Beckham by the supporters, he was told. From the interrogators there was no longer oblique querying of his role as captain, and whether he retains his influence. This time the question was straight to the solar plexus.

He narrowed his eyes. You awaited the human equivalent of a snarl. Intriguingly, his reaction was to start talking about his eldest son. "Brooklyn has started football training over the last month and he gets upset when he doesn't score a goal or doesn't win a game. I have tried to explain to him that you cannot win at everything. I have explained to him you cannot win every time," said Beckham.

"Maybe he can explain that to me now when we get home. I have overcome hurdles in my career and in my life. I will carry on doing that. It does seem to be one after the other. I am not saying Euro 2004 is one of them, but it is a disappointment at the moment."

He added: "I think I am man enough and strong enough to come through this and forget what has happened - and so are the team. I have sensed that people are looking for me to quit as England captain. I am not going to do it. I am not going to lie down and take criticism. I am a person who will fight back. People don't realise how strong I am. If they want to write me off I will keep coming back until I have won."

But can his lifestyle, riven as it is with distractions, some desired, some unwanted, the latter including allegations of marital infidelity in Madrid, accommodate such a desire?

Sometimes, you survey the England captain and marvel at how he sustains himself through the eternal scrutiny. How many bursts of flash-gun fire can a man take without recoiling from them? On other occasions, you ponder the wisdom of a man attempting to remain a model professional while succumbing to the demands of a professional model.

"Situations off the field always affect you," Beckham declared. "If you have pressure on you day in day out, whether it is good or bad, it comes to a point where you have to say, 'Enough is enough'. But this is my life. It is having to have four or five cars following me everywhere I go every day - even to the park with my children. I have always said when I am on a football pitch nothing comes into that scene. The intrusion and invasion into my life is tough. I have got children. I want them to enjoy their lives."

He added, tellingly: "I have been pushed into some situations and have taken on some myself. I don't regret that. Unfortunately this is my and my wife's life. You either lie down and let everyone batter you with it or you come out fighting, and that is what we will do as a family."

Next season, his wife, Victoria, and children, Brooklyn and Romeo, are expected to join him permanently in Madrid. "We have finally got Brooklyn into a school," Beckham explained. "One of the reasons why we couldn't do that at first was because of the press attention. [Zinedine] Zidane [his Madrid team-mate] told me that his children were in school, and for the first two months there were people filming them in the playground. I am personally not prepared to put my children in that situation. If that is the situation, I will take a long look at it, because I am very protective over my children. People say that I do photo-shoots with my children. But I never have, and never will. I will protect them as much as I can."

Beckham admitted, somewhat wryly, that it required "time and energy" just thinking how he was going to negotiate a trip to the supermarket without being photographed. "You have got to think and plan every time you go out of the front door. That's the tough part," he said.

Which must presumably have an impact on his preparation for games? "It has been tough this season, both on and off the pitch, because of certain situations, but I'm strong enough," he insisted. "I've got to be strong enough because I'm a father. I've got to look after my wife and two little boys. When I'm down, they pick me up. When they're down, I pick them up."

Somehow, you suspect Mrs B will require a crane this summer if she is to raise one hugely deflated husband.

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