Bellamy defends right to captaincy

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Craig Bellamy will be in court on Monday to deny an assault charge. As he faced the media as part of his duties as captain of Wales against Slovakia in this afternoon's Euro 2008 qualifier at the Millennium Stadium, it was as if he were already in the dock.

The Liverpool striker would discuss his pride, excitement and sense of honour in leading Wales as stand-in for Ryan Giggs, and praise the national team manager, John Toshack, for being brave enough to choose him. However, while he professed to be unconcerned by criticism over his appointment, the pressure on Bellamy was evident as he castigated the press for their "negativity".

"I've read your columns and they're not very complimentary," he retorted to the first scribe to stick his head above the parapet. "I've got this thing about me but I'm not bothered. What's more important to me is my manager, the players around me and my family. They're the only people I have to prove anything to. It's easy to judge me, but they're the ones who know me."

Bellamy's cross-examination by the fourth estate may prove a one-off, since he is likely to be in court the day before Wales' next fixture, at home to Cyprus on Wednesday. He acquitted himself well, albeit over-defensively at times.

No one, he argued, could question the commitment which underscored his right to captain his country. "At one club I got threatened that I'd never play again if I turned up for Wales, but I did," he said. "When I've had operations, I've only been back in rehab two days before I've been whisked off abroad to represent Wales."

Bellamy was enjoying having the less experienced players looking up to him. Despite his brushes with the law, he believed he was a "role model" to his nine-year-old son, Ellis, and clearly hoped that the same might be true of his team-mates.

"It's a great honour because it's such a young squad," he said. "Usually I can just carry on with my own business, my training and so on. But on Thursday I had a couple of the young lads doing weights with me before dinner, and I thought, 'Yeah'."

Having worn the armband at every level from Under-15 to Under-21, he relished a responsibility "which will live with me for ever" and was all the more "emotional" for the fact that Wales were playing in his home city, with his parents and grandparents watching. But he admitted his surprise on hearing Toshack's decision, and, given the "storm" it provoked, he claimed the manager had shown "a lot of nerve".

Toshack, for his part, must hope Bellamy repays his faith with a first competitive goal for Wales in three and a half years, and that his enthusiasm will inspire his colleagues. Several are not playing regular first-team football and three first-choice defenders are indisposed.

Slovakia began the group with a 6-1 rout of Cyprus as Wales opened with a last-minute defeat in the Czech Republic. Dusan Galis' side then succumbed 3-0 at home to the Czechs, so an early Welsh breakthrough might undermine their composure.

Stanislav Varga, Slovakia's Sunderland defender, described Bellamy as a "fiery personality" who could "wind up" opponents and then take advantage when anger clouded their concentration. The pair played together for Celtic where Varga learnt that "if something was white, Bellamy would moan that it was not", yet he was also "a winner".

What Bellamy lacked in diplomatic skills when confronting the media he made up for in his succinct assessment of a potentially momentous five days, notwithstanding his court appearance. "It'll be a long 18 months if we don't get the results in these two games," he said. "They'll make or break how we're going to go about qualifying."

Wales (5-3-2; probable): Jones (QPR); Duffy (Portsmouth), Edwards (Wolves), Gabbidon (West Ham), Nyatanga (Derby), Bale (Southampton); S Davies (Everton), Koumas (West Bromwich), Robinson (Norwich); Earnshaw (Norwich), Bellamy (Liverpool).

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