James Lawton: Media frenzy puts Beckham's role in jeopardy

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The Independent Football

David Beckham, we are told, consulted good-taste guru Sir Elton John before coming up with the atonement/birthday present for the aggrieved Victoria: a million-pound pink diamond. This, we have to suspect, will produce another glassy smile from the anguished, "show must go on" heroine.

It is some show, of course, making Beckham by some distance the richest young sportsman in British history, and even though it may lack the dramatic intensity produced by Richard Burton and Liz Taylor in Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, the audience is apparently still agog.

However, beyond the Beckham genius for publicity which continues to burn so much more brightly than any other aspect of his career - or any vestige of decency in those for whom the professional cultivation of prurience is not so much an instinct as a guiding star that justifies even the cruellest of intrusions - there surely lurks a rather important question. This is so, at least, for those who remember that Beckham's business is really supposed to be about prosecuting a top-flight football career.

Is Beckham, now that the old, mindless idolatry has turned into a vicious sleuthing of his every imperfection, any longer able or fitted to be captain of England going into this summer's European Championship? Can he be relied upon to provide the necessarily focused leadership that was the spectacular gift to the sporting nation of England's rugby union captain, Martin Johnson, before World Cup victory last November?

This is not a moral question but a practical one, and its parameters were set by no other than Beckham himself a few months ago.

You are forgiven if his initiative slipped your mind while peering at the pictures of the Beckhams so forlornly laughing away their cares in Switzerland last week while on special compassionate leave from Real Madrid.

As the England players began to fix their thoughts on the summer challenge in Portugal, the captain advised his team-mates that they should refuse to put their names to ghosted columns on the build-up to and during the second most important international competition on the football calendar.

If the reasons for this recommendation were not self-evident, Beckham was good enough to spell them out. He said that if the team focused on the finals rather than making some extra cash on the side, everyone would benefit. The biggest bonus of a self-imposed gag, said the captain, would be that it would promote privacy at the training headquarters and help to avoid damaging "distractions".

That would have been a plausible message had it come from a wayside pulpit rather than the biggest goldfish bowl in the whole wide world of modern sport.

Beckham's England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, has been quick to reassure us that his captain's head will be in the right place when the action commences in Portugal, presumably just as his own was so manifestly when he prepared England for their shocking performances against Slovakia and Macedonia in the wake of revelations of his dalliance with a TV girl.

There is no inclination here to pass judgement on what happens in private lives; you name some of the great figures in all of sport and there's every chance that in more than a few cases you will also be identifying some of the most spirited sexual athletes since Casanova.

However, this is not the point. Beckham does not have a private life; he is not a private person. He is a brand name, possibly the richest in sport since the apex of Michael Jordan's career. He has sold almost every normally private event of his family life - marriage, births, christening and birthday parties - to glossy magazines, and he is in a tough position to complain now if the beast he has fed so rewardingly is snarling for every last detail of those few occasions he naïvely wished to keep to himself.

Another problem is the huge disparity between the size of Beckham's image and the much more limited extent of his achievements. So far he has played in two Worlds Cups and one European Championship. In one World Cup he was sent off for a schoolboyish caution; in the other he was performing on essentially false pretences, injury making his contributions quite marginal. In his one European Championship his performances were ordinary.

For months now his former Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, has been assailed for deciding that Beckham's publicity baggage had begun seriously to disfigure the culture of the club.

But now there is also a review of the pluses and minuses brought by Beckham to Real Madrid, who before his arrival had no reason to place special curbs on media access to such luminaries as Ronaldo, Zidane, Raul and Figo.

Beckham is, of course, not responsible for the sprawling, voraciously distracting disease of celebrity worship, but then few have ever played its game quite so enthusiastically.

Now the Football Association is obliged to plan a new media strategy on the road to Portugal. Beckham, so often the ace in the positive publicity hole - he was most effectively wheeled out in Istanbul on the eve of the vital qualifying match in Turkey after days of strike threats by his team-mates over the banning of Rio Ferdinand - has suddenly become a point of vulnerability.

This more than anything calls into question the value of his captaincy, something he has prized so highly ever since he made a play for the job during the course of a fly-on-the-wall documentary.

But if not Beckham, who? There is only one serious candidate. It is Michael Owen, who qualifies for two reasons. One is his impressively consistent performance for England ever since his arrival as the teenaged star of the 1998 World Cup. The other is his aversion to the celebrity game.

Unlike Beckham, he has always seen it for what it is - an animal that can turn at any moment, and with a terrible, destructive force.