England expects a far better Becks

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The most photographed man in sport, and possibly outside it, departs our chat on Friday at England's media centre near the old national stadium on Lisbon's west coast. As he does so, he pauses to peruse some photographers' laptops. Their screens just happen to contain images of him, arms outstretched, wrapped in a Cross of St George, portrayed as a kind of English Braveheart.

The most photographed man in sport, and possibly outside it, departs our chat on Friday at England's media centre near the old national stadium on Lisbon's west coast. As he does so, he pauses to peruse some photographers' laptops. Their screens just happen to contain images of him, arms outstretched, wrapped in a Cross of St George, portrayed as a kind of English Braveheart.

At least the England captain is clad in something more substantial than the revealing underwear he was captured in by the paparazzi last week: possibly the only occasion when a man in the process of rearranging his testicles has been paraded for the edification of red-top tabloid readers. And we thought it was Venus that crossed the face of the sun.

With his diamond-encrusted ear-stud, tattoos by the... whatever the collective noun for nine of them is, there is a certain incongruity about this highly paid clothes horse, photographic model - describe him as you will - being the national footballing totem. Yet this is the man Sven Goran Eriksson can depend on to pluck his side from jeopardy when the occasion demands. At least, for the three years since his anointment, that has been the perception.

Recently, though, there has been a scratching of the substance beneath the illusion that is Brand Beckham, and too much has been found to be insubstantial. Significantly, even the FA's own media handbook for the tournament introduces him as "one of the most famous faces on the planet, whose fame transcends the world of football". Dare one suggest it: if the captain had not enjoyed "that special relationship" with Eriksson, would he have retained automatic selection?

His international reputation as captain and player is constructed largely on two defining moments: an inspirational performance, culminating in the unleashing of that howitzer against Greece, which propelled England into the last World Cup; and the penalty winner, once there, against Argentina. Since then, his last praiseworthy exhibition was against Macedonia in October 2002. As for his first season at Real Madrid, the jury is asking for more time to ponder on its verdict. But Zidane or Figo he isn't. Otherwise, his international contributions have tended to be significant more because of their inflammatory effects on opposition and England spectators.

He is a year away from turning 30, and this will be his fourth major international tournament. There is still a considerable discrepancy between image and achievement. Will Beckham demonstrate, starting against France tonight, that he is the authentic article, not just a designer label?

This time, the only glaring deficiency within the team he leads out here tonight is the absence of Rio Ferdinand. Not like Japan, which became The Land Of The 90 Per Cent Fit Son when Beckham was erroneously allowed to participate, and where Steven Gerrard and Gary Neville were absent. In one sense, the pressure is all on Beckham, as critics queue to question both his leadership and midfield mastery. In another sense, the heat is off. The fact that Gerrard (regarded as England's king-in-the-making) and Paul Scholes (hailed by the French as England's best player) have come to be regarded as potentially more influential has provided a useful diversion. That pair have been the subject of comparison with France's élite this week. Not Beckham. He has only entered discussions, strangely, because he was caught with just his pants on.

Suddenly, "captains" are emerging all over the pitch. And none more so than the dynamic Gerrard. It was put to Beckham in our meeting that it is surely the Liverpool midfielder who is now regarded as the England heartbeat; the driving force. It wasn't a kind proposition, but was it so far from the truth?

Beckham, who has become quite cute at removing the sting from hostile interrogations, thought for a second and replied: "People have said over the years that I've been the one who has kept the team going in hard times on the pitch, but I don't see it that way, because I think there have been others as well. Strong characters. But having someone like Steven, coming off a season like he's had, and very confident, he can help the team.

"That's the best thing about this team now. I'm not the most vocal captain England have ever had, and never will be. But I think we've got a lot of players out there with a lot to say, like Sol Campbell and Gary Neville. To have players like that on the pitch helps all of us."

But isn't it actually time for you to deliver, Beckham was pressed. "I do actually feel that I have delivered in other tournaments," he retorted. "Not in every game in every tournament, but in certain games, when I've had to deliver, I have. Going into this competition, there's obviously been the added pressure put on to me by people saying that I've not performed well recently, or in tournaments, and I have to put that right and try to prove these people wrong."

As you survey this poised if slightly reticent figure, you reflect that it can't be easy to have every facet of your professional and domestic life dissected to almost pathological proportions. Even that recent tattoo - a talisman that is supposed to guard over his children, a four-by-six-inch winged cross across the back of his neck - received the treatment. Was it artwork, or simply infantile?

Everyone, seemingly, has a verdict on the taste of a man mocked (brilliantly so by impressionist Alistair McGowan) along with his wife, Victoria. "He really is just a normal bloke who is trying too hard to be a fashion icon. It all comes from having too much money and not enough class," was one reaction to a newspaper poll on the tattoo issue. In truth, he handles himself adeptly, given the degree of scrutiny. It's not his fault that he was mistakenly, in this observer's view, offered the England captaincy by Peter Taylor, for his one game in charge, and then retained it under Eriksson.

The wearer of that armband - predecessors include Billy Wright, Johnny Haynes, Bobby Moore, Bryan Robson and Alan Shearer - should be inspirational by example, or a general who exhorts his team-mates and provides a tactical liaison between coach and team. Beckham is scarcely the latter; at times, he has been the former, but not nearly enough.

What are the alternatives? Gary Neville, until his involvement in that "strike" threat. Michael Owen. Gerrard. Campbell. There is no lack of candidates.

Beckham concluded our meeting by declaring: "It's strange to look back to when I was given the captaincy. Three years before that I was probably the most hated man by a lot of people and fans out there. To get the captaincy pushed me on as a person and a player." That encapsulates why it was wrong to bestow the honour upon him. The captaincy has become more about one individual, with all the commercial considerations that presumably involves. Not the team.

It may be that Beckham will respond positively to the doubts being expressed; that he will "lead" England to their most notable achievement post-1966. But now may be the time for someone to borrow from JFK and quietly advise: "Think not what the England captaincy can do for you, but what it can do for your country."

Comments