Beckham's insistence on playing leaves Eriksson embarrassed

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David Beckham Enterprises 2 Liechtenstein 0. Early trading was dismal. An allegedly bullish market whimpered. In fact there was panic on the floor as early as the first minute when the managing director, who had over-ridden the non-executive director, Sven Goran Eriksson, and successfully demanded an active selling role despite all the attendant risks, was paralysed by indecision when he was faced with his first crisis.

If this sounds slightly cynical, no apologies here, I'm afraid. If you didn't make some kind of joke of what happened here last you night, all you were left with was indignation and rage, and life - even in this age of grotesquely over-cooked celebrity - is just too short.

Beckham's insistence on making a ballyhooed return to this stadium, despite the danger of a yellow card which would rule him out of the all-important final qualifying game in Istanbul next month, predictably produced a bizarre performance from the England captain.

It was one of such passivity in the formative stage of the game that its ill-service to the England cause was exceeded only by the scale of the insult to the meaning of international football.

If any doubt had been entertained about this, it surely dissolved in that first jumpy minute when Beckham trotted alongside Liechtenstein's Mario Frick and allowed him to take a free shot at David James' goal. Mercifully, Frick, who is, very roughly speaking, Liechtenstein's answer to our hero in that he has graduated from the football of the world's fourth smallest nation to a place in the Italian Second Division, sent his drive sailing over the bar. Mercifully, did we say. Believers in natural justice might offer another word. "Tragically" might have suited the moment a little better.

For Eriksson the embarrassment was unremitting through a first half which, against all odds, exceeded the ineptitude of his team's opening 45 minutes in Skopje last Saturday night. In Macedonia the coach had insisted that Beckham would never become a special case. There was much scepticism when he said that and by 8pm last night, when Beckham returned to his old hunting ground, it was just about set in concrete.

Why was Beckham playing? Why was he leaping out of tackles so frequently that much of the first half might have been some grisly replay of that moment in the World Cup quarter-final in Japan last summer when some suspected he was not so much guiding England to glory as making an attempt on the world high jump record?

There could be only one conclusion. It was that his desire to make another huge publicity splash in the week of the publication of his autobiography had sailed beyond any other consideration. Eriksson, with gut-churning disingenuousness, said that if England lost to Liechtenstein some people might want to cut his head off. That was no doubt true, but not because he played Beckham in a game which should have been polished off by any collection of native-born Premiership players in about 20 minutes. We are told there are no easy games in international football these days, but sometimes a certain perspective is missing. Liechtenstein has a population of 33,000.

Eriksson's self-imposed torment to some extent drew to a close 30 seconds into the second half when Steven Gerrard, who was also on a yellow card and played presumably to provide a little bit of a smokescreen for the ludicrous presence of his captain, crossed for his Liverpool team-mate Michael Owen to score still another important goal for his team.

A few minutes later it could be said to have been formally closed when Beckham, with the nearest Liechtensteiner half a pitch away, floated in a big, trademarked cross for Gerrard to head down into the path of Wayne Rooney, who scored his second goal in two games. That permitted the captain to leave the field in the company of Gerrard to applause which, you wanted to believe, may have contained just a hint of irony.

So, of course, all's well that ends well. The shares in the company had gone up a little bit and England will go to Istanbul with their celebrity captain. He seemed pleased enough to make an "emotional" return. Football aficionados, and his genuine admirers, might, however, have preferred to see him playing - and delivering - in a real challenge for Real Madrid. That, if it happens, will be a return that means something. This was about the commercial value of never-ending hype.

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