James Lawton: A leading question

As David Beckham captains England for the 50th time today, James Lawton considers what the Real Madrid midfielder can learn from some of his illustrious predecessors
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The Independent Football

On the shores of the big placid lake, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that a storm of some malignancy is building around the head of David Beckham.

He was quick to say yesterday that his 50th match as captain of England today would be seen by him as a matter of unqualified pride and honour. However, the game is against Argentina, second favourites to win the World Cup but unchallenged masters at the art of provocation, and the fact that it is being played under the aegis of the peace-making United Nations provides only the barest of reassurance.

The first of England's four "friendlies" before the action starts in Germany next summer is for Beckham a milestone that only three previous English captains have passed. But when we say milestone, maybe millstone would carry more resonance? Beckham admits that Argentines have been queuing up to bait him ever since he flashed a petulant little kick at Diego Simeone in the 1998 World Cup: he said yesterday that it had been "unbelievable" that while playing for Real Madrid, every time he has had a problem it seems an Argentine is involved - but that disbelief would scarcely be shared by earlier generations of British footballers.

After the notorious World Cup quarter-final of 1966, when the brilliant but relentlessly belligerent Antonio Rattin took 10 minutes to leave the field after he had been dismissed, the England manager Sir Alf Ramsey described the Argentina team as animals and physically prevented the full-back George Cohen from exchanging his shirt with one of them. Diego Maradona's "Hand of God", a full-scale war in the South Atlantic, and something close to it when Celtic and Manchester United travelled to the away legs of the World Club cup finals in '68 and '69, were the building bricks of a vendetta exceeded perhaps only by the decision of Honduras and El Salvador to go to war over a disputed winning goal.

So much for history. Here on the sleepy lakeside, Beckham's place in the annals of football - one which he seems to yearn for quite as much as the fame and the celebrity which has made his fortune - might just hang on the knife-edge of the moment.

Long-standing questions about his suitability to the captaincy - yesterday he was asked about the claims of Chelsea's John Terry, and gave a perfectly diplomatic answer - would rear up once more if the Argentines were again able to get under his skin. This would be especially so in the light of his recent problems with referees and the admission last year that he had deliberately fouled a Welsh player to earn a "strategic" suspension.

While Beckham this week was measuring himself against previous captains, and noting that only Billy Wright (90), "Sir" Bobby Moore (90) and Bryan Robson (65) had led England on to the field more times, he was also implicitly recognising that he has just one last chance of beginning to rival the man to whom he bestows with every reference the knighthood denied by the makers of honours lists. Bobby Moore won the World Cup, which at this time separates him so profoundly from all his historic rivals, but he also won the hearts of his team-mates as profoundly as he did those of the nation. The idea of even a gnarled old veteran like Jackie Charlton turning - as Wayne Rooney did in Northern Ireland - and bellowing expletives at his captain would have been quite bizarre.

Here there is a little harshness in any comparison between Moore and Beckham. They are different men of a different age, one which in Moore's case would have made it utterly unthinkable that he would canvass for the job while appearing on a television documentary of his life. Beckham was 24 at the time, and when Sven Goran Eriksson succeeded the stand-in Peter Taylor, who first gave Beckham the honour on a misty night in Turin, there seemed to be no question that the prize so desired by the young celebrity would be withdrawn. The captaincy of England has been a huge commercial asset to David Beckham. For Moore, it was something he was asked to do, and it just happened that often it seemed it was a chore he might have been able to accomplish in his untroubled sleep.

Beckham's milestone this week provoked in Moore's team-mates some memories of the man who led them to the nation's only World Cup.

Alan Ball, the baby of the team, remembered both the beginning and the end of their relationship. "The first time I played for England," Ball recalled, "I was 18 years old and playing for Blackpool. My club had a game down south at the weekend and Blackpool told me to stay down in London. I had never stayed in London before and I was stuck in a hotel. Mooro heard of my situation and came along and said, 'Come with me, little man, I'm going to show you the town.'

"I don't want to compare Bobby Moore and David Beckham because they operate in different times with different values and I don't think there is much of a meeting point. All I can say is that, however you define a captain, Bobby was perfect. He had it all. He was magnificently unflappable on the field, but he saw everything and had a quiet word. But most of all he led by example. I never heard an angry word from him, but then I never saw anyone challenge him. He was the captain no one questioned, but he always had a common touch."

The end of the story came in the last few days of Moore's life. Though terribly weak, and aware that his battle against bowel cancer had been lost, Bobby Moore picked up the phone and called the Boys of '66. He thanked them for the memories he had of them, of how the days he had spent in their company had been among the best of his life. Says Ball: "I suppose that was an example of Mooro's consistency. He was not a great talker, unless he had something to say, and so of course I will always treasure those last few minutes on the phone."

George Cohen's testament is about the natural touch of a leader, something that so easily imposed itself on players who were themselves not exactly low on self-esteem. "People like Jack Charlton, Ray Wilson, Jimmy Greaves, Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles had been around the game long enough to know the score. They were powerful characters in their own right. I had captained Fulham, I revered Johnny Haynes, another captain of England, and had been deeply influenced by the great professional Roy Bentley. But Bobby's authority was so easily exerted. He didn't ruffle anyone. He just led the way, as we saw when we went a goal down in the World Cup final. Bobby just took the game to the Germans. When it mattered, he was so urgent."

Then when the Football Association announced England's winning bonus of £22,000 for the whole squad - the beaten Germans were believed to have received £10,000 a head - Moore's leadership took another form. The FA had suggested that the bonus be shared on a percentage basis depending on the number of match appearances. Moore made an arbitrary decision. It was for each member of the squad to receive £1,000 irrespective of whether they had played every game or not one.

"One of my first reactions was a professional one," recalls Cohen. "I thought, 'Does Jimmy Greaves need £500 of my money?' And then immediately I realised Bobby was right. We had all been in this together, and however it turned out we were all committed to the same goal." Cohen noted that the other day a five-man delegation of the current England team opened negotiations for bonuses in the coming World Cup finals. He imagined the figures would reach into the millions.

But then, as he says, it is a different age, and that is not a matter of rebuke for David Beckham. However, the old full-back is less approving of the crisis which came to England two years ago when the players debated strike action before a vital European Championships qualifying match following the suspension of Rio Ferdinand. "Mooro would not have tolerated that for a second," said Cohen.

Jack Charlton holds Moore in the highest regard, but he wonders about the mystique of captaincy. "It boils down to example on the field and great teams have more than one captain on the field. Don Revie offered me the captaincy of Leeds, but I told him I was too lanky, I would feel stupid running out there in front of Billy Bremner. If I was Eriksson, I would consider the claims of John Terry because I've always felt central defence is the best place to lead a side. You see everything from there, you are facing the ball, facing the game. Still, I wish David Beckham all the best in Germany. But he should not worry about his place in history. He should be more concerned about his place on the field."

That is Beckham's imperative today. History is made day by day, battle by battle and for England's captain a major one has blown in from across the lake. He has one chance of emulating the greatest captain in the history of English football, and it is by leading his team to the World Cup. It is something he must remember as the Argentines set their plots - the ones Bobby Moore treated with such untouchable contempt.