As Sven Goran Eriksson approaches his first anniversary as England coach he must wonder quite what he is running, a seriously competitive team coming to terms with the disciplines of world football or something quite different. Something which might easily be described as the David Beckham Circus.
The Golden Boy has been on full throttle in the build-up to tonight's potentially painful friendly with a Dutch team loaded with talent, eager to impress the returning warhorse coach, Dick Advocaat, and ablaze with the conviction that their absence from this summer's World Cup finals is an aberration which can be partly expunged by English blood.
What is worrying is not so much Beckham's ownership of a propaganda machine that might have earned a nod of envy from Dr Goebbels – it has been washing over us for some years now, after all – but that it should so relentlessly switch the focus away from what should be a strongly emerging sense of team to the agenda of its star client.
This week Beckham has been flogging sunglasses, England's new reversible team shirt, and his own negotiating position at Old Trafford. Talk about a cluttered target area – and an ethos of captaincy which would surely have bewildered the late Bobby Moore, Bryan Robson and Beckham's current team-mate Roy Keane, just to mention a few of the skippers who offer some point of reference in the mist settling over the canals.
Apparently Beckham is concerned that he is in danger of being taken for granted by United, which is a position which at least has a certain symmetry in that it was, we have to believe, precisely the feeling of the club's manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, about the player when he yanked him out of the first team at that critical point in the season when the footlights seemed to be going out, one by one, at the Theatre of Dreams.
To be fair, Beckham was led into a discussion on the direction of talks with the club, which have now generated 22 meetings, but his response was knowing enough. "Manchester United are a massive club," he said. "People think you should stay there whatever, but at the end of the day it has to be right on my side. I think they know that if it wasn't right on my side things could happen."
Things like a mega-transfer to Italy or Spain, no doubt, but that might not be the catastrophe – at least in the mind of Ferguson – that he may imagine. Beckham, who, perhaps we should remember, still has a year and half to go on his current contract, said initially that he was overjoyed by the manager's decision to stay on for another three years, but that enthusiasm may cool if contract talks reach the point where one of the most competitive figures in the game is asked to cut through the hype and make a gut assessment of the player's real football value. Based on Beckham's performances in the red shirt this season, which have ranged from the passive to the merely competent, Ferguson is not likely to advise any busting of the bank. Image rights are the preoccupation of the men in suits, and they will no doubt pin a huge commercial value on Beckham. The manager, while acknowledging Beckham's extraordinary gifts, has no reason to express quite the same enthusiasm.
Beckham, who remains absolutely gung-ho about his England assignment – "play me in every game" he is reported to be urging Eriksson – has now rationalised his often deeply disappointing work for United with the conclusion that his efforts on behalf of England in their qualification drive "drained" him. Such is the evolving explanation for what some of us concluded was a straightforward case of under-achievement – and under-commitment.
When he was first pulled from the team there was a suggestion that he had a cold. Then he had a back problem. Then he was drained. Meanwhile, Roy Keane, having helped Ireland to qualify – and put the Dutch virtuosos to the sword while operating under a handicap that according to some medical reports was only marginally less than Long John Silver's – was, with the notable help of Ruud van Nistelrooy, blasting away any sense of an Old Trafford crisis.
Eriksson, his daunting flair for diplomacy surely stretched to its very limits, said that it would benefit England if Beckham had a "rest". We could only guess at the impact of that statement on Ferguson.
Here, though, Eriksson has one certainty. It is that Beckham will apply himself on the international stage with all the passion that was triggered when the coach confirmed Peter Taylor's decision to grant him the captaincy. Whether it will be enough to galvanise an English squad ravaged by the withdrawals and injuries made inevitable by the treadmill of the domestic game is questionable. The Dutch were embarrassingly superior at White Hart Lane last year. They looked like a team which might just be in danger of fulfilling a destiny betrayed so relentlessly at the world level since the days of Johan Cruyff.
But then, of course, they collided with Roy Keane. In the absence of such a warrior spirit tonight, Eriksson will probably be required to play his usual pragmatic game. Certainly it is not easy to see much cause for hubris as a sell-out Dutch crowd gather to measure the progress of Van Nistelrooy, whose spectacular performances for United have been denied a wide audience by the arrival of pay television. Dutch football aficionados have been sickened by the failure of the Netherlands to qualify for the World Cup. My taxi driver, reflective even by the sometimes impressive standards of his trade, said: "There is a strong feeling here that football is dying. How can you have a team boasting players like Davids, Nistelrooy, Kluivert and Cocu and still not make the World Cup finals? Because our players are too rich, too complacent."
That is a charge which cannot lightly be made against Beckham, at least when he wears the England shirt. His free-kick in the vital game against Greece was a landmark of the English game. He played notably well in the second half of the home game with Finland, scored spectacularly in Greece and made a significant contribution to the dramatic triumph in Munich. That is no doubt a substantial body of work, but does it begin to justify the deification of a player who not for the first time in his career was dropped by the club who pay his huge wages at a time when everybody was being asked to produce maximum performance?
If Eriksson worries about this deeply contradictory track record of his most celebrated player, he does not show it. His greatest talent is maybe to keep a football ship afloat, however unevenly, and if there are worries beneath his Big Top no doubt his opposite number, Advocaat, would trade for some of them tonight.
Mostly keenly, he must envy the fact that Eriksson's show is still on the road, and for that no one can deny the role of the ringmaster Beckham. Tonight, though, his task is particularly demanding. He has to prevent a half-time rendition of "Send in the Clowns".Reuse content