Fitting climax or ignominious exit for golden boy Beckham?

His career has been remarkable but as England's captain stands on the brink of his finest hour, his lasting legacy is still very much up for grabs. By Sam Wallace
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The casually dressed man with the discreetly intimidating way about him can normally be found the day after England World Cup matches sitting on one of the sofas in the reception to the Brenner's Park Hotel in Baden-Baden. His presence is a sure sign that the Beckham family - parents and three children - are having lunch in the restaurant beyond the double doors. The man outside is their bodyguard.

In the German spa town which time forgot it seems like a ridiculous measure to take, especially in a place where the only obvious physical danger is having your toe crushed by a careless geriatric in a motorised wheelchair. But this is not a Beckham family affectation, or an attempt to put distance between themselves and the hotel's guests, it is a small snapshot of life for the England captain at his third World Cup finals.

Madrid, where the Beckhams have made home for the last three years, has the highest rate of kidnapping outside South America and, like any wealthy family there, they are advised to have bodyguards to protect their children as a matter of course: in Spain or abroad. When he goes out alone, David Beckham refuses the option of security but, either way, a family outing will never really be the same again.

The bodyguard outside the restaurant is just one of the aspects of the life of Beckham that can look superficially ostentatious but is actually indicative of a very different reality. Beckham himself, is remarkably at ease in a hotel full of football reporters when he comes down to visit his family. He will stop for a chat in the restaurant, he holds open the doors of the old elevators for hotel guests so ancient even the most marketable face in the world does not provoke a hint of recognition. In short, he looks very calm for a man whose legacy to English football is surely about to be decided in the next 11 days.

Here is the great conflict at the heart of Beckham's career. He has 93 caps (57 as captain), 17 goals including, last Sunday, the free-kick that won England a place in the quarter-finals. This is his third World Cup finals, his last shot at the big one, the crowning achievement, he hopes, of a remarkable career. And yet, in spite of all that, he is facing the ignominy of a debate over whether he should even be in an England team that have reached a strange impasse, unprecedented even in his controversial career.

Beckham is a sensitive soul, but anyone who saw his last performance in front of the press at the training ground in Bühlertal will tell you that the arms folded in front of his chest were uncharacteristically defensive.

One of the most mournful moments of the last month was when Bryan Robson's criticism that Beckham should never have been made England captain was put to him and met with polite disagreement as well as the postscript that, despite what Robson had said, "he will always be my hero".

It is a uniquely English problem. Sven Goran Eriksson is not about to drop his captain potentially three games from their finest hour together so the debate is effectively redundant. Quite rightly, the English press does not take on the queasy role of many countries' media who become unquestioning, Pravda-like cheerleaders for their team. Beckham would love for it to be seen his way, to be the uncomplicated, heroic leader, but a life as complicated as his was never going to have such a simple ending.

Among England's more senior players there is a respect for Beckham that runs deep, regardless of the prominence he has had over the years. He is certainly not disliked for anything he has come to represent away from the football pitch, although the most noticeable disquiet about him in the recent past was when he was briefly afforded the holding role against Wales and Northern Ireland last September. His tendency to play long balls then that bypassed the central midfielders has not been forgotten, and a return to that position would be discreetly opposed. The Beckham perspective is straightforward: he believes he has delivered what has been asked, or, as he put it last week, "99 per cent of the time I'll put it in the right place for someone to score".

True to his word in that respect he provided two assists against Hungary, two against Jamaica, put in the free-kick that Carlos Gamarra scored an own goal from against Paraguay and set up Peter Crouch's goal against Trinidad & Tobago. If we are splitting hairs, he even gave the ball to Steven Gerrard to score in that game before he hit the winner against Ecuador. He has not had the overlapping full-back capable of driving back defenders, or at least giving Beckham the same room to manoeuvre that Cicinho affords him at Real Madrid, and Gary Neville to a lesser extent. In Spain's La Liga they record a statistic that counts the amount of goalscoring opportunities a player creates regardless of whether those chances are converted or not - this season Beckham emerged top. He feels he has done enough to earn his place in the side.

His major disadvantage is, as ever, his relationship with his manager or at least the way that relationship is presented. Eriksson's loyalty has sustained Beckham through the occasions when he has not delivered for England but being yoked, rightly or wrongly, to that particular Swedish bandwagon at the moment is doing him no favours.

Eriksson's unstinting public praise of his captain has not always been in Beckham's best interests. It diminishes his achievements. Away from the business of football, at this World Cup, it has been easy to miss the Beckham entourage - they have not been the most vociferous of the family groups in Baden-Baden this past few weeks. Victoria Beckham has arrived in town only around matches and has, for the most part, avoided the never-ending sequence of hen nights that the rest of the WAGs (players' wives and girlfriends) have embarked upon.

Sandra Beckham, David's mother, has helped take care of his children as well as her daughter Joanne. If this is supposed to be the most ostentatious family in modern football, then they certainly are not behaving that way. You could say Beckham invented the 21st-century English footballer - with global marketing appeal, conspicuous wealth and a place at the centre of English public life. Without the Beckham years we would not have an England football team with the same profile or success and the Football Association would be a good deal poorer - even the WAGs phenomenon would probably not have gripped old Baden-Baden in quite the same way.

One way or another, England's Beckham era is coming to an end - or at the very least some kind of climax in Germany within a fortnight. He is careful never to put a date on retirement or even hint that it is on his mind. One year remains on his Real Madrid contract and that is not likely to be resolved until after the chaos of the presidential elections, although all of the candidates have said that they want to keep him.

He finds himself in a peculiar situation - so much adulation in one lifetime and now, as he approaches the one accomplishment that he wants more than anything, a level of doubt that has never plagued him before. Like the bodyguard outside the door, it could be easily dismissed as the natural result of the life he has lived, but it is a burden that anyone would find hard to bear.