Its final chapter proved instructive of the distortions that have pervaded not just one, epic international career, but the entire culture dominated and distilled by David Beckham. For even as Steven Gerrard was showing the next generation how to break the fetters of celebrity, all the attention was ultimately wrested by a man who was minding his own business, 5,000 miles away.
Beckham has long stimulated a surfeit of both adulation and resentment. With that in mind, the fact that he was a fairly unwitting accomplice in Fabio Capello's garbled pronouncement of a new era should itself be acknowledged as apt. Many argue that Beckham's talents, outstanding as they have been, never warranted the excesses of his hagiographers. Insofar as he ever collaborated in the idolatry, however, he never shed an essential humility – even when the twin impulses to his stardom united in his disappearance to Hollywood.
However decorative his public stance – whether addressing a football, or a flashbulb – he scarcely ever permitted anyone to discover the sort of grotesque self-regard that nourished the simmering fury of the crowd here last night. On and off the field, Beckham became the epitome of football's new glamour. Unlike too many of his peers, however, he instinctively comprehended the need to retain a kernel of dignity in embracing the opportunities they shared.
To the young men who last night sampled the full, confusing spectrum of life as an England international, that should be a bequest every bit as precious as Gerrard's magnificent example. The captain had run on to the turf here knowing that it had become no man's land, following a World Cup that disastrously divided players and fans. He left the trenches with a whistle at his lips, and came back with two brilliant new medals on his chest.
Next up the ladder came Theo Walcott and Adam Johnson. The former's pace went a long way to explain Capello's conclusion that Beckham has now reached obsolescence. And the latter showed a daring and dexterity to complete the compound needed to fill the void.
Johnson might have taken the heat out of things had he not fired over when artfully picked out by Walcott after just 12 minutes. With more experience of nights such as this, he will put such chances away, but only a player of legitimate international instinct would have appeared where and when he did.
Walcott was far too hot to handle, during his 45 minutes. But it would be naïve to imagine that he would necessarily have played the same way in South Africa. Here, he had his point to make. There, he might easily have succumbed to the contagion of nerves and weariness that infected so many who did make the trip.
As it was, they disappeared at half-time to a sudden, exasperated swell of booing. Moments later, a parade by England's U17 European champions was received with pointed approval. The inference was clear. Many in the stadium would have liked these same lads to take over for the rest of the game.
It did not require the melodrama that followed, however, for the folly of these excitable, vindictive times to become apparent. For those viewing this summer as a ghastly hangover, following prolonged intoxication with a "golden generation", should not now expect some kind of effervescent panacea from gilded youth.
The ambiguity over Hungary's goal was in piquant contrast to Frank Lampard's effort against Germany at the World Cup. But it reminded us not to deceive ourselves that problems, in football, are ever black and white –no less than solutions.
There will have been old men watching in Budapest, after all, indignant to hear so many aggrieved yearnings for some ephemeral golden age. Even in 1966, England offered few pretensions to the legacy of a Hungary team that went four years unbeaten until denied consecration by West Germany in the 1954 World Cup final.
It was their 6-3 humiliation of England, in the old stadium here a few months previously, that had made the fog that day seem a perfect metaphor for sunless insularity in our own game. And yet the same, glorious nimbus supposedly wreathes each new generation of Englishmen.
Capello needed his gesture over Beckham because he could not discard the entire, elite rump of his World Cup squad. It is all very well for people suddenly to decide that he should build a new team around Jack Wilshere. The boy has yet to gain any meaningful foothold in the first XI at his club.
In starting with Walcott and Johnson, Capello expressed due contrition for his own failings. And he knows that Gerrard, John Terry and Lampard (wholly anonymous last night) may all be following Beckham to the exit after 2012. But he can legitimately expect them to shepherd the next generation.
When Gerrard was replaced by Wilshere, it at least felt as though they might begin groping forwards together. The future may not be golden but nor, at least in terms of coiffure, is it grey.Reuse content