Wistful Beckham promises to return stronger after summer of discontent

There was a hint of melancholy in David Beckham's voice. He is not 30 but it almost feels like he is a veteran.

Once tomorrow's less-than-keenly anticipated friendly with Ukraine is out of the way, Beckham will begin preparations for his third and last World Cup qualifying campaign and, asked if the public will be unforgiving if they fail to take the trophy in Germany, he replied wistfully: "Probably, but that's football. We know what happens when you don't succeed. You have to accept it because if you play well you enjoy what people say about you. If you don't then you have to be strong enough. I am strong enough and so is the manager after everything he has been through."

His oblique reference to the Faria Alam affair certainly comes from the heart, especially after the England captain found himself scarred by a similar kiss-and-tell revelation by his former personal assistant in Madrid, Rebecca Loos. Unlike Alan Shearer, who gave Glenn Hoddle not one word of support when his job as England manager was hanging by a thread over his religious beliefs, Beckham very early and very publicly supported Sven Goran Eriksson.

Eriksson backed Beckham over Loos and again when Beckham sent his penalty blazing into the stands of the Estadio da Luz as England once more failed in a penalty shoot-out at a major tournament. The aftermath of defeat differed from the fall-out from St Etienne when he was the very public villain after his sending off against Argentina. Then, it was played out in public, this summer was a time for slow and perhaps painful reflection.

Asked how many marks he would have given himself for his displays in Portugal, Beckham replied: "Not as low as some people gave me. I set high standards and when I dip below them it hurts. I've played a lot better.

"Football means the world to me. People know how much my family mean to me; it's the number one, but football is my career, my life. I have been criticised over the years for taking endorsements off the pitch but I have never been criticised for my on-field play and that's what people were saying. Of course it affects me.

"In Portugal, I was asked what I was doing after the tournament and I said I had a soccer school, but when I got back to England my wife had cancelled everything and we just went away for three weeks (to the south of France) and did absolutely nothing. It's what I needed and it was something I hadn't done for a while.

"I know what I've got, it's God-given. That can't disappear like that, and for four games in Portugal I didn't perform like I know I can. There were a few doubts put in my mind but when I have a strong family base like I have, including my parents, when I have people like that behind me then it's good."

His second season at the Bernabeu may not be as awkward as his first, despite the fact that Carlos Queiroz, a man he knew at Old Trafford, has been ruthlessly replaced by Jose Antonio Camacho, a man who has little time for the celebrity side of a galactico. His knowledge of Spanish has progressed beyond "fijo di una puta" which got him sent off when directed at a linesman and he now has another Englishman alongside him in the shape of Michael Owen.

Beckham admitted that with Raul, Ronaldo and Fernando Morientes to displace, Owen's introduction to La Liga would be harsh. "When I went there, people were saying: 'Where is he going to play?' You have got to work hard to get in this team. It doesn't matter what name you are, you are going to have to fight.

"This manager we've got now - Jose Camacho - is a very strong character. If you are not performing, he won't play you. It is difficult communicating on and off the pitch because Camacho speaks hardly any English and my Spanish is not what I would like. I am learning and it's getting better. I knew it was going to be hard.

"I don't regret anything about moving because things happened that were out of my control. I love living in Spain, my children have found a school and I'm looking forward to life there. After Christmas, when my form dipped it was hard and things that were said about me off the pitch that simply were not true."

Yesterday, the Real president, Florentino Perez, made another statement; that Real Madrid's notoriously uncertain defence would be shored up by Fabio Cannavaro from Milan. "Real Madrid go after great players and he will fit into the team perfectly. We have talked about strengthening the squad in the summer and we have proved we can."

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