Beckham walks tall as doubts disappear

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The Independent Online

There was a relaxed and confident air about David Beckham as he strolled – not limped – to the press conference podium yesterday evening. Four days after hobbling away from Villa Park in tears the outlook for the England captain's fitness, it was clear, had a much rosier hue.

This he confirmed when he said, of tomorrow's World Cup qualifier against Germany: "I'll be starting on Saturday – if picked."

If it is merely a question of merit, there is little doubt of that. However, before the bunting is spread from Chingford to Salford, a word of caution. Beckham's confidence in his recovery from a groin injury has yet to be fully examined. He has been running, but he is yet to kick a ball and still has to pass a fitness test, which may not be held until tomorrow.

"Today was the first day I thought I would be fit," added the England captain. "On Monday and Tuesday the physios said it was 60-40 against me playing. The first ball I strike I'll be nervous but I'm sure I'll be fine. If I'm not fully fit I won't play. I'm prepared to take a gamble but not if it would risk affecting the team's performance. I won't go out there if I think I could break down any minute."

Beckham, who has been receiving laser treatment ("it's from Sweden – so it must be good," he said) will not risk a pain-killing injection. He explained he never takes them for fear of the long-term damage he could incur, a policy many an ex-player, now crippled with arthritis, will think sensible. Less coherent was his other explanation. "I don't like needles," he said. But what, asked the press, about his famous tattoos? Beckham, suddenly realising the contradiction, dissolved into embarrassed laughter aware that his (unfair) reputation for being a sandwich short of a picnic had received another boost.

His reaction was evidence, however, of a man at peace with himself. Professing himself "gutted" last Sunday he now spoke positively of the team's desire and capacity to overcome Germany. "There is a freshness about the team," he said. "The will to do well is immense."

While English teams are justly famed for their will to win they have, in Germany, an opponent of traditionally similar, perhaps greater, mental strength. Owen Hargreaves, the England midfielder whose fledgling career has been spent here, with Bayern Munich, noted: "As a unit they are very strong. Their individuals may not be as good as those of other teams but as a team they are one of the best, their character is one of their strengths. When you play for a team like Bayern you expect to win and it is the same for the German team."

But, he added, "England has strengths too. Germany has a lot of respect for England. They did not expect to win at Wembley. When they did it gave them a lot of confidence."

Hargreaves admitted it would be ironic if he made his competitive debut for England on his German home ground. While an unlikely starter he may be used off the bench despite his disappointing debut against the Netherlands. Franz Beckenbauer, the Bayern president, said after that game it was too early for him but Hargreaves responded: "I am a similar age to Ashley Cole and Michael Carrick, it is not too early for them. Getting experience early can only bode well for the future."

Speaking fluently in both languages the Canadian-born midfielder picked out Sebastian Deisler, Michael Ballack and Oliver Kahn as players to watch out for. "Deisler is the focal point," he said. "He is going to be tough to close down. A lot of the game goes through him and Ballack. You can never shut them down completely, just hope to a restrict them to just a few big plays. Kahn is the best goalkeeper I've ever seen. In training he makes phenomenal saves. He is going to be tough to beat."

Neither keeper will welcome a weather forecast of heavy rain and cool temperatures. With showers also anticipated today it is the best possible prognosis from a security viewpoint. The combination of English and German support, which each have significant hooligan elements, and a city renowned for its bars, many facing squares and piazzas, is an extremely volatile one. As well as the 6,000 official England supporters thousands more have travelled without tickets. Many, like my neighbours on the flight here, are also without accommodation. This makes them as likely to be the victims of violence as the perpetrators. Not that continental police forces, to judge from similar circumstances in the past, bother to make the distinction.

With television crews roaming the streets in the hope of finding dramatic pictures of hooliganism to match those captured in Belgium last summer, England need their supporters to behave as well as their footballers to perform.

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