The criticism was withering. "He has barely been noticed. He is a talented player, but how much longer can he stay in the team?" The subject was Francesco Totti, but a listening David Beckham would have been cringing, wondering who the target was. The cap fitted a little too snugly.
Two weeks ago, the man who glories in the nickname Golden Balls was relishing the prospect of the World Cup. This was his time, he insisted. He might not play in another, so he had to make a mark. To date, he has done just that, but the indelible impression is of a talent so in decline it is banished to the periphery.
The commanding figures of Germany 2006's opening phase have been Michael Ballack, Juan Roman Riquelme and Fernando Torres. Beckham, if the hype that hovers around him like a fawning lackey was to be believed, was up there with them, a conductor through whom the game flows. So much for the PR. England have qualified while testing the terminology for a team whose results have far exceeded their performance; Beckham has been all but anonymous.
The nation's airwaves this week have been filled with two topics. One has questioned the thinking (sic) of Sven Goran Eriksson in bringing two crocked strikers to the World Cup, with Lurch and the Invisible Boy as back-up. The other has been whether Beckham deserves his place in the team. Tony Blair was in the yes camp but, not for the first time, the Prime Minister was at odds with his electorate. No one has embodied England's stuttering progress into the last 16 than the captain.
On the plus side, Beckham has provided more goal assists than anyone in the England team, and against Sweden he delivered a 50-yard pass of sumptuous quality that almost set free Wayne Rooney. But the minuses are piling up like problems in the Home Office. He disappeared on Tuesday, emerging into the conscious-ness only when he was fingered as the man who should have marked Marcus Allback when the Swedes scored their first equaliser. The question was not: where was the man who dragged his country into World Cup 2002 with an incandescent display against Greece? The query had simplified to: where's Beckham?
The first argument for the defence is that Beckham is being closely marked. Opposition coaches have noted where most of England's goals come from and have worked to cut off the supply. Colleagues look to the right, see the congestion and opt to pass elsewhere. Hence the prominence of Joe Cole against Sweden.
Cole also had the advantage of having a partner who posed a threat of his own. Joe had underperformed against Trini-dad & Tobago but was handicapped because Ashley Cole was struggling as he tried to attain match fitness. On Tuesday Ashley looked more like the attacking force that made him arguably the best left-back in the world. The Swedes had two players to fear and Joe Cole had more space.
On the other flank Beckham was joined by Jamie Carragher, a defender of admirable qualities but who will never pose questions in possession - which explains why the quicker Owen Hargreaves has been drafted in for today's game. The Swedes knew the Liverpool man was unlikely to hurt them and concentrated on the man who could. It is no coincidence that Beckham has provided his best passes in this tournament when Aaron Lennon is also on the right, dragging opponents away.
Should Beckham be dropped? It is an irrelevant question, because Eriksson will not jettison his captain, no matter his protestations to the contrary. Instead the England coach will probably adopt a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Tottenham's Michael Carrick in the holding role this time, and push Beckham forward and pray that the solution to the cul-de-sac that is the right wing is about to be found.
Eriksson has been in unknown territory because he has squandered years of friendlies in not trying alternative tactics to Beckham and his best friend Neville, who rivals Steven Gerrard as the second-best crosser in the team. Not just Golden Balls, the Golden Generation is threatening to be banished to the well-populated realm of "might have been".Reuse content