Graham Kelly: Beckham can surpass Best's legend

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The Independent Football

David Beckham could become the first British-based player since George Best, in 1968, to be voted by the correspondents of France Football as European Footballer of the Year.

In an effort to rein in the Beckham bandwagon, Best was once curtly dismissive of his talents. Maybe by the end of the 2002 World Cup he will have revised his opinion.

Both Best and Beckham won European Cup medals early in their careers, but Best subsequently faltered under the burden of expectation that he would continue to pull rabbits out of the hat, first for Wilf McGuinness, then for Frank O'Farrell, after Sir Matt Busby retired as Manchester United's manager. Despite growing disillusionment at the club's failure to make big signings, Best was United's leading scorer in the four years from 1968 to 1972, so Beckham still has something to live up to in this respect. United fans hope the succession after Ferguson will be smoother.

Beckham, thankfully, is rarely called on to exhibit the raw physical courage that Best regularly demonstrated against brutal defenders determined to discolour his legs, and at a time when teams were becoming more organised as well as cynical. The Irishman's retort was invariably to go into one more midfield tackle on the muddy pitches of the day, jink into the area, and, if they hacked at him from behind, to stay on his feet with his beautiful balance and slot the ball in the corner of the net.

Beckham is blessed with marvellous athleticism, and if Best, with his low centre of gravity, could tackle like a tiger, the 6ft Beckham can run like a thoroughbred. Best was completely two-footed in the same way as Bobby Charlton and Trevor Brooking were, but Beckham's left is now perfectly serviceable under pressure.

Although he played no part in it, England's World Cup success of 1966 had a significant effect upon Best's life, for, just a few months earlier, he had hit the front pages by scoring two goals in Manchester United's stunning 5-1 European Cup demolition of Benfica in Lisbon and, as football's first pop-style icon, he was ideally placed to capitalise on football's new-found marketability. Always seen with a beautiful girl on his arm, a quiet night at the local snooker hall was no longer possible for the original "Goldenballs".

David Beckham, too, had his life dramatically affected by the World Cup. After his moment of stupidity against Argentina in France, he found himself on the front pages. He was vilified throughout the land, but somehow he found the mental reserves to pull through. He lasted the course when many feared he was surrounded by airheads determined to make him look a publicity seeking prat.

Georgie tried, but he gave pleasure and exasperation in equal measure. He turned it on and earned the bonuses for the team for as long as he could, then he played fast and loose. Sometimes he went missing, other times he annoyed colleagues by not taking training routines seriously.

Best was probably the last of the great street players, who learned the game in rough and tumbles against older boys. I once stood on the Scoreboard End at Old Trafford for an FA Cup tie against Burnley in the company of a Clarets' fan. Burnley were a goal up with five minutes to go and Best lost his boot. He promptly picked up his boot, collected the ball, and without stopping to put on the boot, crossed with his stockinged foot and United were level.

Best was disappointed with his performance in the 4-1 1968 European Cup final win over Benfica which sealed his election as European Footballer of the Year in 1968, saying he only played in snatches. One of those "snatches" saw him dribble through the Portuguese defence and round the keeper for his goal. But, presumably, the boy who grew up with a football under his arm dreamt of scoring hat-tricks in every final.

Beckham for his part seems to have had a clear idea of his destiny from the time he won a Bobby Charlton Soccer Schools holiday, but, did it, I wonder, embrace the captaincy of England? Towards the end of England's nervously dire performance against Greece, he resolved to rescue the game and began to take defenders on in the manner of Best in his prime, and, in Athens also, there was a welcome glint of steel when United needed it that hasn't always been apparent in his game.

He was, Sir Alex Ferguson said, "desperate" to play last Wednesday. The game with its rotation systems has changed so much since Best grew bored with the demands being placed on him. He, in his own way, was even more desperate to play. Sadly, no one realised. He signed playing contracts without even reading the wages.