In his nightmares, David Beckham must imagine walking into Fabio Capello's hotel room on a bright May morning. In a nod to the traditions of the England football team, the atrocious Kenny G is playing in the background. Capello shrugs and looks him in the eye. "David, eez bad news," he says. "You are not in the World Cup squad."
It is a scenario that will haunt Beckham until he finds out in eight months' time, whether he is going to his fourth World Cup finals next summer with England, providing they qualify of course. He was just a young buck in Glenn Hoddle's squad in 1998 when the then-England manager decided that Paul Gascoigne's increasingly erratic behaviour meant that he had to be left out of the squad for France.
As Hoddle famously recalled in his subsequent book, the ill-advised "1998 World Cup Story", when he told Gascoigne the bad news, "I had Kenny G playing in the background because I felt that some of the players might be a bit nervous." It was not nerves that were the problem with Gascoigne, it was rage. In response to the announcement, the player trashed his own hotel room.
To the relief of the staff at England's very expensive Grove hotel in Hertfordshire, Beckham confirmed yesterday that he would take a rejection next May philosophically and without recriminations. Ahead of tomorrow's World Cup qualifier against Croatia – win it and England are going to South Africa – Beckham said he knew he was by no means certain to go to the tournament.
"I'm an England fan and if I don't end up being in a squad that goes to South Africa, that won't mean I don't support the lads and want them to win," Beckham said. "Of course I want to be involved in every squad possible. But, if I'm not selected, it's because the manager believes he'd have a stronger squad and stronger players without me. I would accept that."
Spoken like the true diplomat, although he has not always been quite so ready to compromise. When Sven Goran Eriksson asked him – in private – to play right-back against Ecuador in the first knockout round match of the 2006 World Cup, Beckham famously declined and Eriksson re-jigged the team to accommodate him on the right wing. In fact, talking of Eriksson, had he been in contact recently?
With Beckham needing somewhere to play in Europe after the Major League Soccer season finishes in November, one place springs to mind. With Eriksson trying to recreate a World All-Stars team at Notts County these days – albeit a team of players who were at their peak around 2001 – could Beckham's former England manager have been on the phone extolling the benefits of Meadow Lane?
"No, I haven't spoken to Sven for a while," said Beckham, almost seeing the funny side of it. "Obviously, I have got options. Milan have made me aware that they want me to go back there, play there and train there, and I'm more than happy with that. But I have got other options. Once I have that time to decide, I will. Three or four clubs have made offers already."
There is an array of attacking talent on the right wing for England – Theo Walcott, Aaron Lennon, James Milner and Shaun Wright-Phillips – although none of them have the experience or delivery of Beckham. He joked yesterday that "they've all got pace that I've never had" but deep down, even in this most supremely confident footballer, there must be a fear that he could come up short in the two places for a right winger.
"The players have realised that nothing's certain about being in England squads," Beckham said. "Every player has to work hard to get the manager's attention. If you're playing well, you've got a chance. If you're not performing, you haven't got a chance. I wouldn't have any reason to feel guilty [if he was picked ahead of a young player for the World Cup squad]. The manager will pick the squad he thinks he needs for games. If I'm in it, then great. If I'm not, it's good for the other players. We're really lucky at the moment with the players we have."
Beckham was an unused substitute for England on Saturday against Slovenia. Incredibly, that was the first time he had been in an England squad but not played since the win over Tunisia in the first game of the 1998 World Cup finals. "It doesn't worry me at all," he said. "The manager has his own views. He's the manager and decides who plays and doesn't. There were four or five others who didn't get on, too. That's always the case."
He would not rule out a return to the Premier League in the new year even though he has always said he would find it difficult to play for an English club against Manchester United. In October he also has the option to get out of his five-year Los Angeles Galaxy contract and his admission "there is a possibility that the contract might break in the autumn" made it sound like more than just a possibility.
Beckham said he had been in contact with Florentino Perez to congratulate him on winning back the presidency of Real Madrid but did not indicate he would be going back there. In the space of 10 minutes he had name-checked some of the biggest figures in European football. The message was clear: even at 34, this bloke won't struggle to find a new club in January.
So can he still do a job for England as a late impact substitute? "Of course, that's what substitutes are for, whether they are 24 years old or 34 like me. If I can help the team with the experience I have, I will."
Comeback kid: Beckham, a serial victim of being written off
"He was not focused, he was vague. Maybe his club need to look at that further. He's got to understand football comes first." Glenn Hoddle, June 1998
"I can't imagine anyone in our team doing that [deliberately getting booked]. I would argue he brings the country into disrepute." Sir Geoff Hurst, October 2004
"He can't play out wide because he hasn't got the legs. He can't play as the holding player because he hasn't got the legs to go forward or scamper across the front on his back four." - Terry Butcher, September 2005
"Beckham will train but won't play. A player who has such an important contract with another club, we cannot count on." - Fabio Capello, January 2007
"He was never a problem until he got married. Getting married into that entertainment scene was difficult. From that moment his life was never the same." - Sir Alex Ferguson, September 2007
"It will be very tough for him to get to the next World Cup. He is not playing in a great league. The manager is not going to pick players on reputation." - Alan Shearer, March 2008
"All that we care about is that he committed himself. That has not proven to be the case." - Landon Donovan, July 2009Reuse content