David Beckham: England legend – or a vain failure?
His international career may be at an end but the debate over the football icon's impact for his country will rage on and on, writes Sam Wallace
Tuesday 16 March 2010
In his last of his 115 caps for England in October, David Beckham was given the man of the match award despite playing only 32 minutes of the game. As weird decisions go, it was a good way of embodying the strange, polarising effect that Beckham has had over 14 years in the national team.
For some he will be seen forever as the man who went to three World Cups finals and failed every time; a self-regarding fraud whose best days as a footballer were 10 years ago. For most of the Wembley crowd he remains an all-English hero, whose loyalty to that Football Association marketing concept "the Three Lions" puts him up there with the greats who have represented England.
The argument is self-perpetuating: the more he is lionised by some, the more he is resented by others and so it goes until the basic questions anyone should ask about a footballer – can he still play? is he a good professional? – are lost in the debate about what he has come to represent.
Now that his England career has been ended so abruptly the chances of that debate ever being resolved sensibly, with him having one final hurrah from the bench at a World Cup, are gone. It is a debate that is only likely to be intensified if he accepts the invitation to go with the squad to South Africa as a non-playing member of the party/monumental distraction.
Let's get the debate about him as a footballer out of the way first. At 34, he is long past his best but in the 21 caps since his comeback under Steve McClaren in August 2007, he has contributed. I make it nine assists in those games, including two crosses for goals against Estonia in June 2007; the ball for Peter Crouch's goal in the Wembley defeat to Croatia the same year and even a short corner for Shaun Wright-Phillips to score from in his last game against Belarus.
But it will not be the statistics upon which posterity judges Beckham's England career, it is the whole caravan: the deferential England managers, the spurious bookings, the tattoos, the pre-World Cup parties and the general impression some have of Beckham that he thinks the world orbits around him.
The problem many people who love to hate Beckham encounter is that as an individual he is hard to dislike. He is not a bon viveur full of witty put-downs when he faces the press – that is Steven Gerrard's job – but Beckham is polite, mild and, even now, sometimes stumbles over his words.
The supporters at Wembley cannot all be wrong. They feel a connection with him that transcends the usual suspicion of modern-day millionaire footballers. They like the fact that he is rich, famous and lives in Beverly Hills but, like them, makes a regular pilgrimage to the stadium by the North Circular in the vain hope that one day the England team will get their act together.
Somehow, against all the odds, this hyper-celebrity with his improbably named children and Hollywood actors for friends has become a man of the people. He has done so because the older and less effective a footballer he has become, the more people have come to appreciate the way that he has hung on tenaciously to what is important to him – his place in the England team.
And, of course, every now and then he can still hit the kind of cross or free-kick that tells people that, technically, he is still an excellent footballer.
Off the pitch he is a more complicated figure. As his climb-down over the green and gold scarf at Old Trafford last week demonstrated, he runs a mile from controversy which is why bluechip companies have queued up to pour millions into his bank account over the years to take part in their mind-numbingly bland campaigns for razors, sportswear or hair gel.
Unlike the bad boys of English football he has never disgraced himself in drink, failed a drugs test or beaten anyone up. Rather, as England captain it was the aura of royalty that accompanied him – much of that generated by those around him – that contributed to his unpopularity.
There were some utterly absurd moments in his England career which, looking back upon, it is hard to believe he was allowed to get away with. His decision to have a traditional African "corn-row" plait hairstyle for England's 2003 friendly in South Africa – when he met with Nelson Mandela – was one.
Under Sven Goran Eriksson's regime, Beckham's influence within the England team grew to extraordinary proportions. He got the biggest rooms in hotels and he was a major voice in who played and who did not and where they played.
It is widely accepted now that during the 2006 finals Beckham refused Eriksson's suggestion that he played right-back against Ecuador in the first knockout-round game. He scored the winning goal – his last one for England – in that match but already he looked like a player struggling to merit his place.
Eriksson would have been best-served leaving Beckham out of the quarter-final against Portugal when, for a brief time after his withdrawal with injury and before Rooney's sending off, England had their optimal side on the pitch. Aaron Lennon was on the right wing; Owen Hargreaves in the holding position and Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Joe Cole supporting Rooney.
Beckham's behaviour that summer contributed to the sense that his influence was out of control and it was one of the reasons that McClaren dropped him altogether. The exile from the England team for 11 months under McClaren was not entirely useless – it reminded Beckham that he had to accept a different role in the squad.
On the pitch he had the worst disciplinary record of any England footballer – two red cards and 16 bookings. When he admitted to picking up a booking intentionally in the game against Wales in October 2004, Geoff Hurst said that he had "brought the country into disrepute". Beckham shrugged it off.
Off the pitch his temper has only been detectable in brief moments such as when England played Spain in February last year and Beckham won his 108th cap, taking him level with Bobby Moore, the record holder for outfield players.
When it was pointed out after the match to a delighted Beckham that he had also been booked for dissent that night he snapped back, "Is that what you want to write about?"
Given the provocation over the years it is perhaps surprising that he did not lose it more often. His equaliser against Greece in 2001 at Old Trafford will always be his high-point, when he was at his best as a player having won three straight Premier League titles at Manchester United and, at 26, very much in his prime. The broken metatarsal the following year was the start of his decline.
The FA will probably never have such a famous player at their disposal again and they will milk him for all his worth when it comes to competing to host the 2018 World Cup finals. At some point there will doubtless be a call for him to take over as England manager: you can only hope that he and the people around him realise that would be a step too far.
However, don't bet on Beckham seeing it that way.
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