James Lawton: A Mickey Mouse milestone to cap Beckham fantasia
Wednesday 26 March 2008
Appropriately or not, David Beckham's 100th cap will be achieved here in the northern suburb of St Denis, home of the Stade de France, and not up the road in Disneyland. This is just a little sad for Mickey Mouse, who may have fancied a run-out himself on seeing the morning headline most rooted in the life-enhancing fantasies of old Walt.
"Goldenballs," it declared, "to win his 100th cap, but he won't stop until he catches legend Moore."
The Moore in question is, of course, the late Robert, captain of England, winner of 108 caps, the World Cup, and the respect of every opponent down from the uniquely competitive Pele, who, after their soaring duel in Guadalajara in 1970, tore off his shirt and entered an embrace known only to the bravest and the best of warriors.
Also in the firing line, of course, is another Robert, Sir Bobby Charlton, who scored more goals than any other Englishman in international football, won the World Cup and was told that his 106th cap would be his last immediately after he had guided England into a winning position against West Germany in the 1970 World Cup quarter-final, only to be pulled off because, in the one great aberration of his brilliant career, Sir Alf Ramsey wanted to keep him fresh for the semi-final against Italy.
The trouble with Beckham's self-promotion and the sentimentality which has swept him to tonight's milestone here is that it appears to owe no debt to the reality of football history, the smidgeon of it his career represents and the mountainous scale of those of men like Moore and Charlton.
Counting caps becomes a ludicrous exercise that cannot begin to be supported by some of the self-serving nonsense Beckham has been delivering to a breathless audience these last few days.
Here he is on the great goal of surpassing Charlton and Moore, the dream fashioned in the minor league parks of North American football: "I actually started playing with even more passion and I didn't think that was possible. It's important to carry on. I want to take it beyond that [100 caps]. I'm very honoured to be in the same category as some of the greats of the game, players I've looked up to throughout my entire career. But I want to take it beyond that."
Beyond what, precisely? Beyond the meaning of Moore and Charlton and other authentic legends like Tom Finney and Stanley Matthews and Jimmy Greaves and Johnny Haynes, who in those days when Sven Goran Eriksson wasn't tossing England caps around like so much confetti, never assumed on any one day they had a right to a single cap, let alone 100? Nat Lofthouse isn't a bad case in point. He played 33 times for England, scored 30 goals and will always be known as "the Lion of Vienna", for a performance of unforgettable courage in a shrine of a stadium in the Prater woods.
Now we are told of the desire and the belief and the unbreakable spirit of David Beckham – not so unbreakable, sadly, when he jumped out of the tackle that set up the move for Brazil's equaliser in the 2002 World Cup quarter-final – and some of the great moments of his England career are listed.
They do make for exhaustive reading. The free-kick against Greece. The penalty against Argentina. When you set them against three World Cups and two European Championships of the most minor impact, two of them played while plainly unfit, the last one concluded in tears of self-pity and the abandoned captaincy, it is all the harder to credit the suggestion that somehow Beckham might be closing on the places in the pantheon occupied by Moore and Charlton.
Those who believe that Fabio Capello represents a return to more enduring values, and assessments of individual playing merit, may be a little disappointed that he appears to have swallowed so much of the Beckham hype, especially after the impressive debut of David Bentley in his first start against Switzerland, but they should perhaps allow him a little ground to work through what can only be described as "the English phenomenon".
The suspicion here is that Capello has been utterly bemused by the clamour for Beckham's 100th cap. He knows the quality of Beckham's passing and dead-ball kicking and he brought him back into the title-winning run of Real Madrid once the player had convinced him of his fitness, but then he also had no compunction in withdrawing him from the decisive match in which Real trailed while Beckham was on the field.
As he attempts to build a new England, Capello probably reflects that the Beckham bandwagon, which is hitched so far from significant club football action, could never happen in his native Italy and a football society rather more sophisticated, if not riotously cynical. So he gives to Beckham what a soccer nation which has so wretchedly underachieved for nearly 40 years believes is his due and resolves, you have to guess, to return to the serious business of making a team at the first opportunity.
Meanwhile, other members of the "golden" generation such as Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Michael Owen are required to prove their worth without the massive backing Beckham can call upon simply by announcing a press conference. Despite the conflicting evidence of the Beckham decision, it seems that Capello is attempting to create a team culture where the importance of performance at last outstrips the force of reputation and celebrity.
He has been sharply impressed by the competitive "authority" of Gareth Barry and Rio Ferdinand is rewarded for some stunning performances for Manchester United with a trial run at the captaincy. Some of Ferdinand's antecedents, including his failure to take a drugs test and some responsibility for the grotesque United Christmas party, do not scream leadership. But then his rival John Terry's off-field behaviour has scarcely been faultless and it may be that Ferdinand, on his day arguably the world's most polished defender, has felt the tug of a more serious destiny.
This, at least, is something we may be able to cherish here in the extended parish of Mickey Mouse.
Centurions of English football
PETER SHILTON (125 caps) Made his debut in the 3-1 victory against East Germany in 1970 and bowed out in the 1990 World Cup third-place play-off. Would have won even more caps had it not been for Ray Clemence in the 1970s.
BOBBY MOORE (108) His first cap came in a 1962 World Cup warm-up against Peru. Led England to the 1966 World Cup victory and won his last cap in friendly against France in 1973.
BOBBY CHARLTON (106) Made his debut in 1958 and is still England's record goalscorer with 49. His swansong, infamously, was his substitution during the 1970 World Cup quarter-final.
BILLY WRIGHT (105) Inaugural member of the 100 club for any country, he won his first cap in 1946 and led England at three World Cups before retiring in 1959.
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