Zidane's high praise fills Beckham with pride

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The Independent Football

On its own, as has regularly been demonstrated down the years, effort, like mindless patriotism, is not enough. Crucially, however, a greater awareness of the importance of technique is at last growing at all levels of the game. England's captain, from his unique vantage point in the Bernabeu dressing- room, believes the combination is making the country's football the object of not just less derision but genuine admiration.

"Playing in Spain, that's one thing that I've realised, how much respect the English players get," he said in Manchester on Friday. "In my documentary Zizou said all English players have got the will always to want more. The Brazilians joke and laugh if I give them a strong pass that they call an English pass, but I don't think they like playing against an English team."

In assessing England's World Cup prospects, the holders loom larger for Beckham than most, surrounded as he is week in, week out by the likes of Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos and Robinho. Additionally the spectre of Shizuoka four years ago, when 10 men of Brazil defeated an exhausted England, needs to be exorcised. "There's one team that is the best in the world and that's Brazil for me," Beckham admitted. "I think they're as good if not better than last time. I've played with five Brazilians for the whole season, and technically they're the best players in the world.

"In that game, when Michael Owen scored we felt we could do it, but when they scored it knocked it out of us. When we went in at 1-1 and looked round the changing room everyone was dead, not just from the goal but the climate. But I think it helps playing [the tournament] in Europe, and our fitness levels this time are exceptional."

For once the captain is leading from the front in that department, having been passed A1 in the recent tests and in the squad's top three, with Frank Lampard and Gary Neville. It is a huge relief after the anxieties of the past two tournaments, when a broken foot and back trouble respectively clearly limited Beckham's contribution. While the phrase "touch wood" is dropped into the conversation at regular intervals, he is understandably more optimistic about the outcome this time, with or without his fellow metatarsal victim Wayne Rooney.

"Of course we all want Wayne in the team, but we've got some of the best players in the world in our squad. If he doesn't play the first few games we have to try to win games in other ways, and I believe we can. You can see in the players' eyes that they believe in this team. No matter who we come up against, we believe we can beat them, and you have to have that. This is the best squad we've had, the strongest and most confident team going into a competition like this and the best chance since I've been in the team, which is almost 10 years now."

Ten years; it was September 1996 when Glenn Hoddle let a 21-year-old Beckham loose in Moldova, a debut for both of them. On Saturday against Paraguay he enters his third World Cup, aware that another one might be beyond 35-year-old legs. What are the lessons from the past two, apart from not retaliating to provocation from Argentinians or jumping out of crucial tackles against Brazil?

"You learn that it only takes a second to change a game and knock a team out," he said. "Unfortunately, in the last couple of tournaments we've had goals disallowed, or things going against us. And if you don't start off well, it always puts an added bit of pressure on you.

"I don't think the games are going to be as easy as people have talked about. I think Paraguay will be a very tough team to come up against and each team has got some players that can upset us. It's vitally important to get off to a good start."

As astonished as everyone else by the number of flags, shirts and shopfronts already reflecting football fever, the national team captain might be excused a tremor of apprehension at two o'clock on Saturday. Instead, he will be surprisingly calm.

"I don't get nervous at all. I feel safest on a football pitch, that's when I'm most comfortable. There are so many things that have happened in my life and career, and when I'm on a football pitch there's only one thing I think about and that's the football, winning and scoring and making goals. I've got no injuries, got no problems.

"So I want it to be a special tournament for myself and the team. Winning trophies is always an emotional moment. Unfortunately, for three years I haven't lifted one, so it would be nice to change that this summer."

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