James Lawton: Beckham must lead by example and live up to his legend

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At 29, and going into his fourth major tournament, it seems that David Beckham remains thoroughly distracted from the truth that now eats away relentlessly at the heart of a career that has been projected quite amazingly over the last five or six years. It is that in football sooner or later you have to deliver. For Beckham, the growing consensus is saying, this is the time here when the best team and the best players in Europe are required to announce their status.

At 29, and going into his fourth major tournament, it seems that David Beckham remains thoroughly distracted from the truth that now eats away relentlessly at the heart of a career that has been projected quite amazingly over the last five or six years. It is that in football sooner or later you have to deliver. For Beckham, the growing consensus is saying, this is the time here when the best team and the best players in Europe are required to announce their status.

Not by reputation or image. But by the ultimate litmus test. By performance when the stakes are around their highest.

You can fuel a million soundbites and headlines, a thousand glossy picture spreads, an autobiography that sells a million copies before it leaves the warehouse and a score of television documentaries, but in the end it all comes down to the simple question of what you do out on the field in the course of 90 minutes.

Beckham, no one could have reasonably argued in all the time his celebrity has been outstripping performance, has never lacked extraordinary skills and he could rarely be charged with being a slouch. But, with the rise of players like Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard, and the continuing commitment of Michael Owen and Paul Scholes, a groundswell of scepticism about Beckham's elevation above all others in English football is plainly spreading.

What has Beckham done for Real Madrid - or, more relevantly, for England recently beyond that endlessly eulogised free-kick against Greece nearly three years ago? The question is being asked with a cutting edge not seen before on the eve of England's opening European Championship game with the reigning champions, France, here at the great Eusebio's old hunting ground at the Estadio da Luz.

Estadio da Luz, of course, means Stadium of Light but in the matter of Beckham's precariously balanced reputation an increasing amount of speculation is beginning to suggest that arguably the most celebrated footballer in the history of the game - at least in terms of world-wide popular culture - is in danger of provoking not brilliant illumination tomorrow night but encroaching shadows.

Yesterday in the grounds of the old Estadio Nacional, where Jock Stein's Celtic won British football's first European Cup 37 years ago, the possibility had never been put more bluntly. He was asked if he was happy with his own form for England and did he have any sense that he owed the team a big performance - or was that idea inaccurate. Beckham's reply was swift and insistent. "I think it is inaccurate," he said. "I don't think I owe the team a big game. I want to play the best game I can. In every game I play I give 110 per cent and that's all you can ask from players. But of course I want to be the best player every time I play. That is what every England player wants."

He said that he welcomed the rise in public appreciation of the quality of potential world-class performers like Gerrard and Rooney and rejected the idea that his huge engine of publicity had systematically relegated the importance of his team-mates. "I've always wanted it to be about the team," Beckham protested. "I'd rather the team win than me score a hat-trick or whatever. That's my mentality. I've always wanted the team to do well rather than me do well, and that's the way it is." But then the England captain did admit that it was with a sense of relief that he had rejoined his international team-mates after the horrors of late season at the Bernabeu, when his Real Madrid side trailed away without a single trophy and Beckham's good early season form dwindled away to be replaced by jarring controversies around his personal life and the sending-off for calling a linesman a "son of a whore."

Beckham said: "I was pleased to meet up with the lads because the first six months of the season in Spain were probably the best football I've ever played in my career - and then obviously the team tired and things went wrong and we ended up winning nothing. So it was refreshing to meet up with the England players and then I realised how much my fitness level had gone down."

Beckham says that after the last few weeks he is in good fitness now, and is buoyed by the support of his "strong and beautiful" wife Victoria and his two sons. He says that England have the talent and the character to beat a brilliant French team and he says that there has never been a fiercer sense of unity. But still the questions lapped around him. Was it possible that he was in danger of being famous just for being famous? "My answer to that," he said, "is no. If we won [the European title] it would cap everything off in an amazing way for me as a person and a player." Cap "everything"? Of course, he has had his brilliant moments, helping to win those titles at Old Trafford and being involved in the dramatic European Cup win at the Nou Camp, when United sprang back to beat Bayern Munich in the last minutes. He did, certainly, rescue England's World Cup qualification drive with the free-kick and unrelenting effort against the Greeks, and on a day when today's stalwarts, Gerrard and Scholes could scarcely complete a pass. He scored a vital penalty against Argentina in England's best performance in the World Cup two years ago. But maybe for the first time the legend of Beckham is being held up to a harsher light.

Not though, of course, by his patron, Sven Goran Eriksson. The England coach remains endlessly deferential to his captain in a way that Sir Alf Ramsey, who won the nation's only major tournament, the World Cup of 1966, would surely not have contemplated despite all his affection and respect for his own leader on the field, Bobby Moore. Eriksson was asked the same question that had been put to Beckham. Did the captain not indeed need to produce something special here in Portugal, was there not a growing gap between the inspiring image and gut-level performance? Eriksson said: "If you think of all the competitive games we have played since I came, maybe even before, David Beckham always lifts his players. He feels if he is captain he has to do even more than the other England players. He loves England and he believes he is doing it for England."

It is here perhaps that the reality of Beckham's image, much of it self-projected it has to be said, is in need of most scrutiny. Two years ago in Japan England had their best chance of winning the World Cup since Sir Bobby Robson's 1990 team missed out on penalties after a forceful performance against the eventual champions, Germany, in the semi-final in Turin. They led by a goal scored by Owen, who, like Beckham, went into the tournament at less than full fitness, against a Brazilian team that had not been awesome on their way to the quarter-final. But in the second half of that quarter-final game England were not lifted by anyone, least of all the captain who just before half-time had jumped over the ball that was directly moved on to England's goal for a shattering equaliser. Of that second-half disintegration, Beckham said: "We had nothing left." That was something to know deep in your bones but maybe not to say.

Earlier this week Beckham went off for a private training session. He is said to have worked on the art for which, whatever happens here over the next few weeks, he will probably always be remembered. He took free-kicks; he moved the ball this way and that, he curled it and he bent it and he showed, if it was necessary, that no one has a sweeter right foot in all of football.

But then there has never been much question about that. The issue is not Beckham's talent, which, when channelled on the right side of the field, is quite peerless in terms of crossing the ball, and remains one of England's great weapons. It is about his true value as a football player and a captain. The truth is that the best captains have one unfailing device when they seek to inspire their teams. It is to produce the highest level of performance. Bobby Moore did, with quiet but deeply ingrained passion. That is the kind of lead the great David Beckham is now required to follow. Estadio da Luz, tomorrow night, is where the talking has to stop.

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