James Lawton: Bluster reveals Beckham's refusal to face own limitations

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Sven backs David. David backs Sven. The nation mourns. A majority think England were robbed. David says: "We want Mr Eriksson to continue because we respect him as a person and a manager - he takes a lot of responsibility off the players."

Sven says David has done very well in the tournament, and why wouldn't he be his captain right up to the World Cup in Germany in two years time? Mark Palios, hard-driving boss of the Football Association, says that Mr Eriksson is utterly bombproof and would have survived even defeat by B-list Croatia the other night. As always, everything is fine with England, masters of high-profile potential and second-class performance.

Meanwhile, this Championship rolls on seeking out a team worthy to call themselves champions of Europe. If you love English football, if you believe that the young Wayne Rooney in the last week or so has recalled a time when the nation's footballers were judged on their performance and not their image, when they went out to compete properly with the world, you are entitled to weep.

Not to weep for one defeat against the superior skills of a Portuguese team much more conversant with the demands of international football - a defeat that, after all, came in a penalty shoot-out and after a controversial decision by the referee to disallow a late England goal - but for the culture of self-enhancement that has grown around the national team, where double-talk and denial are always the first response to failure.

Remember Japan two years ago? Then it was the freak kick of the brilliant Brazilian Ronaldinho that did down England in the World Cup; nothing to do with England's palsied tactics and performance in the second half. Here at the Estadio da Luz on Thursday night it was the error of Swiss referee Urs Meier. England lost because of unkind fate not, apparently, because after Michael Owen's early strike they didn't display a clue about how to control the game and conserve the ball because two of England most celebrated players, the pillar of the team Beckham and his most touted lieutenant Steven Gerrard reached new lows in ineffective performance.

Yesterday Beckham responded angrily to claims by a television interviewer that many England fans had lost belief in his power to inspire his team - or produce inspirational performance. "What do you think?" snapped Beckham. The hapless man replied: "I'm telling you what the fans told me." But Beckham persisted, "No, no, what do you think?" he asked again. "I don't have an opinion," said the questioner.

If denial has become a religion in the English dressing room, Beckham is surely its high priest. Yesterday he brushed aside his second missed penalty of the tournament and insisted that he had played well.

He said: "I've handled a lot more emotional things than this in my life, I'm a strong person and I'll come back fighting. That's me. We can take a lot away from this competition. No, no regrets... I think after the game you can always look back at things like that, but all the players were saying before every game we have no regrets and you just can't look back and say we could have done this differently and that differently... of course we could have kept the ball better, we could have attacked more, could have defended well, got a bit of luck and won 1-0. But that's football."

No, that's not football, it's escapism and a hard dose of reality is surely on the horizon for the player who for years has been lauded to the skies while operating at a level which in the course of just a few games young Rooney has utterly exposed.

Beckham is no longer the great inspiration of England, the miracle worker, growl the critics, but whenever was he that?

One interrogator, looking to put as kind a face on things as possible, asked Beckham what had happened to the great uplifting performances of the past, like...well, the free-kick against Greece and the goal against Finland?

There in one awful moment was the reality which has been so vividly highlighted by the match-winning efforts of the 18-year-old Rooney here. Beckham's vast body of work is, when you break it down, slight indeed. A beautiful striker of a dead ball, no doubt, the crosser of perfect balls when given time and space on the right, no doubt, but the field general of his own and Eriksson's imagination? The myth is on the floor and lying in pieces.

Here Beckham, after his dreadful form at Real Madrid and the slide in performance which provoked Sir Alex Ferguson into approving his controversial dispatch from Old Trafford, was supposed to re-state his credentials. He was supposed to lead England with verve and style. He talked a wonderful game, and his friend Gary Neville was telling us that this was the best, most talented England squad he had ever seen.

But Beckham's England has beaten Switzerland and Croatia on the back of Rooney, lost to France and failed to exploit the early advantage of Owen's goal against Portugal. England, it should be said, are not a bad team. They have points of considerable merit. While David James is a cause of considerable apprehension among goalkeeping specialists, he has averted disaster in this tournament. The defence has generally played well in all but set-pieces, and from Ashley Cole, whose reputation has been built on attacking flair rather than defensive security, there was an outstanding performance against the rampaging Cristiano Ronaldo on Thursday night.

Rooney has been in a class of his own, the star of the tournament by some margin thus far, and but for injury in the 26th minute it is entirely reasonable to believe he might have found a way to win - especially in view of the fact that his strike partner Michael Owen had applied such splendid application to his own crisis in form.

But that leaves the midfield, Beckham and Gerrard's patch, and it is there where England are still rooted in the abyss of that World Cup quarter-final two years ago.

Then, it was said that Beckham's dubious fitness and the absence of Gerrard were killer blows to England's chances of getting past the Brazilians. Two years down the road, they were apparently ready and able but mostly their performances were wretched. Beckham did play well in the first game against France, holding the ball in a way that might have brought escape from the relentless pressure of Zidane and company. But since then he has crumbled and yesterday it was rather staggering to notice his reluctance to look into the real world rather than the one that he has had created for him.

Here is more Beckham in the wake of another question about his failure to inflict himself on a fourth successive major tournament: "You'll go and write what you want to write, whether it is fair criticism. I don't believe it is. I can only give my best and I believe I have given my best in every game... whether it's not good enough for some people, so be it. I believe in my own ability and I'll carry on doing this. As far as I'm concerned, I want to stay as captain of England - I want to stay as an England player and as long as the manager and the players want me it doesn't matter what anyone else says. You'll have to ask the other players if they want me to be captain. I'm proud to be England captain - and I will be until I'm relieved of the duty."

There was not much more sense to be had out of Eriksson yesterday, or more reflection. He said that Beckham had played well. All the players had played well and speaking for himself, what had he done wrong? He couldn't think of anything. Of course not. England wind along their happy road, talking themselves up - and then going down.

Maybe Eriksson's task is impossible. Maybe the way the Premiership is played makes the fashioning of a genuine winning force on the international stage too much of a challenge. Perhaps Gerrard and Frank Lampard, who despite his goals has also been an unpersuasive figure on the ball here, need to be among midfielders who know how to craft their way to a winning performance. If Eriksson believes this, he should say so, and return to the rich rewards of club football for which the evidence suggests he still pines.

What we are left with is an England coach and a team who believe they can re-write their own performance as they go along. However, this happy, insulated world has finally been punctured... not by the character and the football instincts of Portugal, but from within. Rooney was England's most potent weapon in the European Championship, but he was also the team's most searing reproach. He showed what a real world-class footballer can do when given a big stage. While he was around, England looked as if they could win any game. When he left, we were left with the old reality: big, even huge names - and, when it mattered most, pygmy performance.

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