The England captaincy has been the making of David Beckham and yesterday he got out before it became too great a burden. Composing himself as his emotions threatened to take over, Beckham walked into England's training ground headquarters yesterday and saved Steve McClaren from the hardest decision of his new reign as England manager.
The nature of Beckham's departure was simple, honest and brief, and a welcome departure from the grandstand events that accompanied his every word when his fame was at its height. Compared to, for instance, his famous personal tour of Asia three years ago or his arrival at Real Madrid that same summer, this speech had thankfully much more of Beckham the man, than Beckham the brand.
Even after almost six years as captain, Beckham is still not completely comfortable with the thrust and parry of a full-blooded exchange with the press, so he made the decision to read from a prepared statement. While his voice quivered with emotion at times, he fought the tears off long enough to read a speech that was mercifully short of hyperbole and did not maintain the agony for too long.
What Beckham did not mention was that he badly damaged the Achilles tendon of his right leg in a challenge with Nuno Valente in the second half of England's World Cup quarter-final against Portugal on Saturday. The injury is a tear to the tendon rather than a much more serious rupture, but there is now no doubt that Beckham would not have played in the tournament again had England progressed.
Before he goes on holiday, Beckham will have to return to Real Madrid for X-rays which will also examine a lesion he has on his right knee ligaments. Certainly, the severity of his injury would explain why, when he was substituted by Aaron Lennon in the 51st minute, Beckham was on the bench in tears. It might have seemed self-indulgent at the time, but it was a man contemplating the end of his involvement in the World Cup.
He may have saved McClaren from the unpleasant task of sacking him - jumping before he was pushed - but Beckham was clear yesterday that he wants to carry on playing for England in the Euro 2008 qualification games. He is only five caps away from being the fifth England player to reach 100 caps and the importance of that landmark to Beckham cannot be overestimated. However, there is no guarantee that McClaren will not encourage him to retire from playing for England altogether.
That would be a severe blow to Beckham, even greater than the loss he felt yesterday when he walked out of England's headquarters after his resignation speech and into an embrace from Terry Byrne, his personal manager. Byrne, a former England team masseur, was the only member of Glen Hoddle's coaching staff in 1998 who followed Beckham to the changing-room after his red card against Argentina and their friendship has grown from that day.
It is understood that Beckham had discussed with his advisers and his family the prospect of giving up the captaincy six months ago and yesterday the player said he had made up his mind to resign, regardless of how England fared in the World Cup, "some time ago". It had been, he said, his "childhood dream" to captain England and that the "time is right" to pass on the job.
"This decision has been the most difficult of my career to date, but after discussing it with my family and those closest to me, I feel the time is right," Beckham said. "Our performance during this World Cup has not been enough to progress further and both myself and all the players regret that and are hurt, and are hurt by that more than people realise."
His voice caught with emotion when he discussed the "hurt" of that failure, and what lies ahead for Beckham now is tinged with uncertainty. He has one year left on his contract at Real Madrid, a club whose chaotic changes of manager have done nothing for his career, and will have to wait until after the presidential elections at Real to conclude negotiations on a new deal.
The rise of Beckham has been underpinned by his captaincy of England, which he was first given by the then caretaker manager Peter Taylor in November 2000, and the success he achieved at club level.
Real's three fallow years have deprived him of that success, while he is also now without the captaincy that has defined him. The creeping threat of injury as he gets older is put into context by his latest setback.
McClaren will have to decide whether, with the emergence of Lennon, there is still a place for Beckham and also whether his presence will have an inhibiting effect on the new captain.
John Terry remains the favourite to take the job when England face Greece in their first friendly of the season at Old Trafford on 16 August, but Steven Gerrard is still under consideration.
Gerrard is certainly the more comfortable of the two men in dealing with the media, an element of the job that has become increasingly important during Beckham's years as captain. He will have just turned 30 at the next World Cup. However, the knotted brow and tendency towards introspection may count against the Liverpool captain when he is compared to Terry.
At 25, and only six months younger than Gerrard, Terry has certainly proved himself an indomitable leader at Chelsea in a club environment where he feels comfortable and secure.
His challenge would be to impose that same authority upon the England team and after he experienced a shaky World Cup there are doubts as to whether he is capable of it.
Beckham described his captaincy as a time when he "lived the dream". For an emotional man, whose life unfolds in a series of triumphs and disasters, it would be difficult to imagine him seeing it any other way. For his successor, the Beckham years have made the job into something that goes far beyond football.
Whoever gets the nod now will have to define it for themselves, whether Beckham is still in the team or not.
Contenders for the captaincy
* STEVEN GERRARD
International debut: 31 May 2000 v Ukraine
England caps: 47
Club honours (Liverpool):
Champions' League 2005
Uefa Cup 2001
European Super Cup 2001
FA Cup 2001, 2006
League Cup 2001, 2003
Captaincy experience: Aged just 23, Gerrard was named Liverpool captain by Gérard Houllier in 2003. His greatest achievement was lifting the Champions' League against Milan in 2005, after leading a remarkable comeback from 3-0 down. Gerrard made it 3-1 with a header before Liverpool went on to score two more goals and then won the tie on penalties.
* JOHN TERRY
International debut: 3 June 2003 v Serbia & Montenegro
England caps: 29
Club honours (Chelsea):
Premiership 2005, 2006
FA Cup 2002
League Cup 2005
Captaincy experience: Took the armband during the 2003-04 season when Marcel Desailly was injured. But became the club captain once Jose Mourinho became manager for the 2004-05 season and led Chelsea to back-to-back titles. Now first-choice centre-back for England, overtaking Sol Campbell and Rio Ferdinand.