Beckham the enigma looks past moment of history

Between fixtures at Pizza Hut Park and Dick's Sporting Goods Park, the most famous footballer in the world will be at the Stade de France tomorrow for a poignant moment of history. That he will become only the fifth English footballer of all-time to win 100 caps for his country hardly seems to matter anymore, because, until now, history has never accommodated a figure quite like David Robert Joseph Beckham.

It is a measure of the depths to which the England team have sunk that the only achievements it can celebrate these days are those ones that no-one, not even the opposition, have any power whatsoever to affect. This will be the English party that nobody can spoil. Even if Raymond Domenech's side stick five goals past England, it will not alter the landslide of plaudits that will be lavished on the man who goes into history as an England centurion behind Billy Wright, Sir Bobby Charlton, Bobby Moore and Peter Shilton.

It is the very nature of Beckham that makes his a difficult legacy to frame. Yesterday, he presented himself at England's Hertfordshire hotel, a model of humility and good humour. He was, he said, just pleased to be there and as positive about the team's future as ever. Of course, he has been saying that for well over 11 years, right back to his debut against Moldova on 1 September, 1996, a distant time when, fittingly, the Spice Girls were No 1 in the charts. Beckham's England career even pre-dates Tony Blair becoming Prime Minister although only one of them looks set for some kind of glory in his finale.

Not that he is thinking much about the finale because, as ever with Beckham, the possibilities are boundless. Only when Shilton's record of 125 caps was mentioned did he show the briefest sense of self-doubt. "125? I'm not so sure about that. Who knows?" he said. Beckham plays the patriot's card with an innocence that is staggering at times, especially when he suggested yesterday that even the cynics in the press corps should feel proudly patriotic to be reporting on England. But, this being Beckham, he did seem to mean it wholeheartedly. As ever there is a contradiction at the heart of it – it is difficult to reconcile the achievement of Beckham's 100 caps with his place in a chronically disappointing era for the England team.

Beckham said one of his lowest points was Steve McClaren's decision to drop him from the squad after the 2006 World Cup finals. "Yes, I thought my England career was over," he said. "I hoped it wasn't but, deeper down, I felt I wasn't going to get the chance to play for my country again and reach 95 caps. I didn't think that phone call was coming. It was in my mind, six months before, to retire as captain but I always felt I wouldn't be retiring from football at international level. I never thought I'd be told that."

It is at these points you feel like pointing out to Beckham that the purpose of the England team is not to accommodate his own ambition but then it is difficult to be cynical about his own passion for international football. "You'll accept anything if you're still part of the squad," he said. "Players have retired from England and in other countries to prolong their club careers, but it's all about how you feel personally. I'm very passionate about playing for my country and I want that to continue as long as possible. If I can play at the highest level, I want to be a part of that.

"There have been times when people have thought I've been great in games, and others when people have wondered why I'm doing such silly things on the field. It's been a roller-coaster with all you guys [the press] for the last 11 years. There have been more good times than bad, and I've appreciated that. Even when you've criticised me – because it's helped me as a player and a person. I've appreciated the majority of it."

This was classic Beckham; modest, understated but underneath there was the steely insistence that he regrets not a bit of this unique sporting journey. The kid who played alongside Paul Gascoigne in that 3-0 win over Moldova in 1996 now sports a winter tan and forearms covered in tattoos but he still likes to show his sensitive side. The low points he said were "getting sent off in 1998 [against Argentina], not qualifying [for Euro 2008] a few months back and losing the last game at [old] Wembley [against Germany in October 2000]." The high points? "My debut, the penalty against Argentina [in 2002 World Cup] and the goal against Greece [in October 2001 that secured qualification for the 2002 World Cup]."

Perhaps most remarkable about Beckham is his unquenchable optimism, even when all the evidence seems to suggest that he will not be in this England squad at the 2010 World Cup. It is a confidence born, no doubt, of his own enduring qualities. He is within three months of his 33rd birthday, living in semi-retirement in Los Angeles, and yet, after more than 11 years, there is still not a young tyro of the English game who has proved himself good enough to make Beckham an irrelevance to the right side of the England midfield.

So how about England being able to celebrate more than one of their own reaching 100 caps? "I think it's got to happen now," Beckham said. "I've said 'this is a competition we're going to do well in and we're going to perform', and we haven't done that. It's embarrassing when we say how good we are as a team and don't fulfil that potential. But we do have some of the most talented players in the world. Now we've got a manager who knows how to get the best out of players. If you're not playing well and don't respond, you won't be in the team. We've got a manager with very strong beliefs, but it's about fulfilling that potential on the pitch now."

Becks' Bumpy Ride: The Ups and Downs of David Beckham

UP 1 Sep 1996: Debut under Glenn Hoddle in World Cup qualifier in Moldova, won 3-0.

UP 26 June 1998: First England goal, v Colombia in World Cup group match in Lens.

DOWN 30 June 1998: Sent-off v Argentina in World Cup second round match.

DOWN 12 June 2000: Gestures to supporters after England surrender a 2-0 lead to lose 3-2 to Portugal at Euro 2000.

UP 15 November 2000: Awarded captaincy by Peter Taylor for 1-0 friendly loss in Italy.

UP 6 Oct 2001: Last-minute free-kick against Greece at Old Trafford sends England through to World Cup as group winners.

UP 7 June 2002: Scores only goal of the game from penalty spot against Argentina in World Cup group match in Sapporo.

DOWN 13 June 2004: Misses penalty v France in Euro 2004. England surrender a 1-0 lead to lose group match 2-1.

DOWN 24 June 2004: Misses in penalty shoot-out against Portugal as England exit the European Championships at the quarter-final stage.

DOWN 1 July 2006: Limps off field as England go out of World Cup on penalties to Portugal at the quarter-final stage. Resigns as captain the next morning.

DOWN 11 Aug 2006: Dropped by Steve McClaren for friendly with Greece.

UP 25 May 2007: Earns recall for friendly with Brazil and Euro qualifier in Estonia.

DOWN 21 Nov 2007: England fail to qualify for Euro 2008, losing 3-2 at home to Croatia as Beckham wins 99th cap.

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