It's 6,500 miles from Los Angeles to Dnepropetrovsk, so you could only wonder at the sight of David Beckham, patiently stopping for a dozen fans' photographs, then finding the time to extend a hand to the writers he knew in the depths of the Ukrainian third city's modest football stadium last Friday night. He was probably aware by then that he had travelled all that way for nothing more than a seat in the stands and that it would be the long onward journey to London for him, in pursuit of the more coveted seat on the England plane to South Africa. We were told in the aftermath of England's defeat in Ukraine that "technical reasons" were behind Beckham's omission out there, though Fabio Capello gave a more precise explanation 48 hours later: Beckham had looked knackered and admitted as much.
Capello might have described Beckham's man of the match award, for 32 minutes' play against Belarus on Wednesday, as the footballing equivalent of Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize, awarded for 10 months of statesmanship, but the 34-year-old's contribution across the course of the past week has revealed in microcosm the two reasons why he is probably destined for his fourth finals.
The first has been put forward by Capello before and revealed itself again in that stadium undercroft at Dnepropetrovsk: that Beckham, whether on the right wing, on the bench, in the stand or the corridor, brings a vibrancy to an England squad which simply isn't there without him. There is no immodesty when he says he wants to help bring the 2018 World Cup to Britain because he has that kind of impact.
It was why his pitchside warm-up at Wembley on Wednesday night was the most energising aspect of the first half against Belarus and why, as Frank Lampard so passionately put it yesterday, the England dressing room would be a poorer place without him next summer. "Brilliant. Brilliant," said Lampard, when asked about his impact. "He's got great enthusiasm and great quality and he comes every time.
"He's not always starting but he still comes and he's great to have around the place because of what he's done and the player and the person he is. And when he comes on he does his stuff. A lot of players look up to him, obviously, for what he's done and the way he holds himself.
"It's a great sign for someone to keep travelling as far as he does to keep wanting to play for your country. And when he does, he plays with passion and great quality. Some players finish their England careers early and David Beckham is still going and a lot of credit to him for that."
But behind this consensus view, there is is a less universally accepted one: that Beckham should be in Capello's plans because he can provide what so many of those pretenders to his right-wing role – Theo Walcott, Aaron Lennon, Shaun Wright- Phillips – cannot. There was prescient timing in the rolled Beckham pass, a minute after his arrival from the bench, which set up Wright-Phillips' goal on Wednesday. James Milner had just beaten his man and put in a cross so inadequate you longed for such stardust.
The question now is not whether Beckham should be destined for South Africa, but how. How can one of 23 squad places be handed to a player who will be a month into his 36th year by next June and is no longer capable of delivering 90 minutes of continuous international football?
The received wisdom of England's World Cup planning is that a squad must have two players for every position, and three goalkeepers, with each understudy capable of stepping up. Beckham does not fit that template. He is an impact player now, in a nation overrun with right wingers who can run. Were Lennon to switch left, Walcott and Phillips would stand ahead of him. Beckham's sole competitive start since last September came as a deep-lying central midfield player against Andorra at Wembley in June, though he is even less likely to start as a midfielder. Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Gareth Barry and, if fit, Owen Hargreaves will have those berths.
Trusting Joleon Lescott to provide cover at centre-back and left-back would enable Capello to afford the luxury of an impact player like Beckham, but the Italian seems intent on resolving the problem another way: by continuing to abandon the English obsession with who should play wide left. Sven Goran Eriksson, who was afflicted as much as any manager, even selected Alan Thompson, then of Celtic, to fulfil the role in Gothenburg five years ago, but Capello's outlook has been different. If there are no natural, free-running left wingers, then dispense with them, his logic runs, and have the interchangeable Gerrard and Wayne Rooney taking the role instead. As things stand, just one of Joe Cole, Milner, Ashley Young and Stewart Downing (perhaps in that order) will be heading to the finals, so freeing a place for Beckham.
The omens are particularly gloomy for Downing, who is targeting next month as his comeback from surgery on his broken foot, though Beckham will have no qualms. "I wouldn't have any reason to feel guilty if I went and others didn't. If I'm in it, great. If I'm not, I would accept that," he said. An outlook that longevity is made of.
Nine of the last 11 caps won by David Beckham have been as an impact player coming off the bench.Reuse content