James Lawton: Healthy Beckham ready to take on the world again

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The Independent Football

Here in the city of Harry Lime, David Beckham, 29, has conceded that the zither music of foreboding might just be playing for him and his England team.

As never before, the most celebrated player of his age has looked into the future and seen the possibility that his hugely-hyped international career might just pass without the distinguishing mark of a major tournament success. The result here yesterday in the Viennese sunshine was a Beckham willing, even eager, to discuss his chances of fighting out of the shadows that came to both his football and his life this year.

"Maybe my legs will keep going for a few more years," said the England captain on the eve of the opening of the World Cup qualifying campaign here, "but maybe it is my last shot at a World Cup campaign and to win something as big as that.

"When you go into a big tournament with a high profile and having set high standards for yourself and you drop below them, even if it's not by much, you get criticised and you can go into your shell and not perform again. Or you can fight back. My mentality is to fight back. I still have to believe I can win something with England. If I get to the end of my career and haven't won anything with England, yes, I would be disappointed. I won't see it as a failure because I've done so much in my career, won so much, but it would be the one thing that was missing."

Here in this beautiful city that history has passed by, it is curious to see the Beckham crisis of identity unfolding before the disbelieving eyes of the Austrian football aficionados and the casual observers who see the man in the diamond earring not as a footballer facing a trial of confidence but the inhabitant of a rare and wondrous planet.

Every newspaper is filled with picture splashes of Beckham, including one that charts the evolution of his hairstyle. In the park next to the team's city-centre hotel, a matron studied the front-page lead of her newspaper. The headline: Beckham Mania.

All over again you are required to marvel at the durability of the Beckham legend - and his own ability to push to one side the desperate collapse of his form in the European Championships in Portugal, the nightmare second-half of his season with Real Madrid and the apparent troubles in his marriage before the happy announcement that his wife was pregnant with their third child.

His impressive form in Real's opening league game in Majorca last weekend is accompanied by the announcement that he feels that he has recovered physically and psychologically from the ravages of the year that brought him crashing back to earth.

He says: "There were a few things that contributed to my loss of form but I feel good now and that's the most important thing. I feel so much better. I had a good summer after the disappointments with Real Madrid and England, had a good break with my family and I've worked hard in the pre-season. I'm not doing the weights anymore and I've been concentrating on my football - and enjoying it."

If Beckham has genius - and in strictly football terms it is a claim that has never been under heavier siege - it may be in this easy ability to reignite an aura that his public relations have so skilfully helped to create. Yesterday, the FA's media man Adrian Bevington eventually had to clear the big conference room of cameramen, so insistent had been the whirring and the flashes of their work. Beckham may have been through one of the most serious slumps ever suffered in a front-rank football career, but the Viennese have been right not to guess it.

What they might be forgiven for not noticing, though, was that most of Beckham's pronouncements here have been necessarily delivered from the back foot. Most persistently, he was asked to explain the difference between the expectations so relentlessly created by England and the failure of delivery. The killer question: Is the English public right to ask if your team can ever get past the quarter-finals in a major competition?

Beckham said: "I suppose it's a fair question because in the last two competitions we haven't got as far as we said we could do... and were expected to. With the talent we have in the team we should get further in competitions, but hopefully 2006 is going to be our year in Germany. That's what we have got to believe. We've got to go into this World Cup starting tomorrow believing we can win it.

"That's all we can do. Sometimes after competitions when things have gone badly people say we're just offering excuses... but sometimes there are real reasons why we haven't had success. When you say you didn't get any luck this is often dismissed, but everyone knows you do need a bit of luck to win competitions. When you get knocked out of a competition you know you're going to be criticised, and we understand that."

Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps what Beckham understands better than any of his contemporaries is the need to talk the talk, and walk the confident walk. In the depths of England's European campaign, and his own agony of missed penalties and depleted morale, Beckham rejected all personal criticism. He said that he would go on taking penalties as long as he could. When asked to rate his own performances, he invited his interrogator to give him marks out of 10.

Yesterday, he dealt coolly with the prospect of a violently disrupted English midfield tonight against Austria if Steven Gerrard failed a fitness test in the wake of the international retirement of Paul Scholes. Yes, of course he would move into central midfield. It was something he had done before for England and Real Madrid. "I've always said I like the responsibility of playing in the centre of midfield. As England captain I think I've handled it pretty well. I can do that tomorrow. Responsibility makes me play better. I'll be comfortable doing it if the manager decides Steven is not fit.

"I prefer playing in the centre because you can see more of the game - you have options, you can pass left and right." If it happens, the new force of Manchester City's Shaun Wright-Phillips will probably operate along the right, hopefully with the panache that has given him such a fast-rising reputation. Beckham generously acknowledges the potential of his young rival. "He's faster than me and, like Luis Figo in Madrid, he goes at people. I don't. The important thing for me is to play for England in any position."

Harry Lime in The Third Man spent his final days skulking in the sewers of Vienna. If Beckham is in crisis, it is a strictly relative matter. He walked into the sunshine to a mob of admirers. Form comes and goes but a legend, it seems, is for keeps.