James Lawton: Beckham is at the height of his powers, but these are not the strengths Capello needs

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The Independent Online

It is simply no longer good enough to hand David Beckham the faint praise involved in describing him as a genius of self-enhancing public relations. In this age of all ages it is saying quite something, of course, but the truth is that it is only the half of it.

If anyone doubted this they surely know better now after 48 hours of personal publicity which must have left even the great woman of public affairs, Jordan, panting with admiration. Where Beckham's supreme talent lies, we have seen, is not in his ability to rescue triumph from the jaws of disaster but to make that tricky manoeuvre pretty much irrelevant.

For a still significant footballer last Wednesday night could, after all, scarcely have been more forlorn. Yet by stooping to pick up a gold and green scarf of the Manchester United supporters' movement, and wearing it briefly around his neck, he persuaded several allegedly serious newspapers that he was much more deserving of large parts of their front page space than Wayne Rooney, the footballer who could scarcely have owned the events of the night more thoroughly had he wrapped them up and dumped them in the boot of his car.

If that had been the extent of Beckham's achievement it would have been impressive enough, even by the standards of the most inspired of Hollywood press agents, but of course it didn't end there. Another tidal wave of publicity came 24 hours later with his careful explanation that his gesture was absolutely unrelated to any comment on the state of the action in the attempt of the Red Knights group to wrest control of his old club from the Glazer family. "It's nothing to do with me how the club is run," declared Beckham.

While firmly denying that he would take any part in the struggle, he managed to please just about everybody. He gave the Manchester United Supporters' Trust campaigning group a massive whiff of oxygen, he paid his respects to the sovereignty of the club, he praised Rooney for being "one of the best players in the world" and then he left as the man who, according to many observers, had stolen the night.

So what was the airtime and the front page space really all about? Of course it was David Beckham. Not a Beckham who told us anything about the state of his game that has not been apparent ever since he defected from serious football to take his huge contract with Los Angeles Galaxy several years ago, namely that it is still adorned by some fine skill but is now plainly unsuited for anything more than cameo roles of debatable relevance at the highest level of the game, including this summer's World Cup finals in South Africa. No, it was once again a Beckham reminding us quite effortlessly, if not artlessly, of the importance of being Beckham.

You may say all this is essentially harmless and in a way it is true. But in another it is not. There is a downside, a survivable one, no doubt, but still apparent enough to anyone who has the temerity to suggest that Beckham worship, and the deference paid to it in such large areas of the media, continues to grossly inflate the meaning of his career.

The received wisdom that Beckham's career is one of the greatest in the history of English football, even the world, is now so entrenched that you challenge it only in the certainty of feverish abuse. But challenge it, I am afraid you must.

An exceptional career, of course, one conducted mostly with admirable application and adorned with special ball-striking and passing gifts but a great one to place alongside those of club-mates like Law or Charlton or Best or, in the long run Scholes and Giggs, or one with the physical and striking impact of a Ronaldo or that currently being displayed by Rooney; surely, even in the glare of the neon, we cannot be serious.

One abusive little polemic sent in this direction this week produced a familiar clinching argument, the feat of arms produced by Beckham in the vital qualifying game against Greece at Old Trafford in 2001. That was a fine captain's performance, and a trademark free-kick, but England were not playing Brazil or a recognisable Germany, they were playing Greece, they were playing wretchedly and Beckham showed admirable determination to rescue a place in the World Cup that appeared to be draining away. But if that is the cornerstone of the greatness of his England career, if it is something that is beyond compare in three World Cup finals and two European championship, perhaps we have here a certain lack of perspective.

England's head coach Fabio Capello will be required to provide a distinctly hard one soon enough when he comes to choose his World Cup squad and certainly the inclination here is to acknowledge the Italian's proven instinct on the value of certain players, including a Beckham who is plainly seen as, at best, a substitute who might just come on late with some effective late delivery of any ball he possesses in some space and with a little time.

Capello's demand on Beckham was that he must prove his fitness and competitiveness at the highest level of football, a challenge which even to the eye of the most committed admirer cannot be said to have been met with anything like overwhelming conviction in his latest stint with Milan.

Still, the idea that he may yet be excluded from his fourth World Cup at the age of 35 is still enough to provoke national rage. If Capello had been tempted to forget it, Beckham's reminder could not have been more thunderous. It was as effective as any old free-kick and certainly more than mere smoke and mirrors. What it was, of course, was David Beckham at his matchless, unceasing work.

England in dire need of inspiration – not Wilkinson's invention

Jonny Wilkinson's declaration that he is about to fall back on his instincts has rightly spread fresh alarm among the ranks of supporters of England's rugby union team.

Wilko has many fine assets but they do not include a deep well of invention and what we may be hearing, surely, is the last gasp of the regime of coach Martin Johnson.

Certainly it can only highlight the desperation with which England seek victory at Murrayfield today. Laboured wins over a madcap Welsh team and the brave but limited Italians, only underlined the need for some kind of inspiration, both on and off the field.

That Wilkinson, after giving so much over the years, should now feel it necessary to offer the one thing he has never truly possessed is surely the ultimate evidence of a lost cause.

When will the RFU recognise that it has made a grievous mistake? It will be remain impossible to know if it misses the meaning of Wilkinson's heart-breaking resolve. If this doesn't persuade the RFU to start again, surely nothing will.

James reminds us what 'league' really means

David James's efforts to help sacked club workers at financially embattled Portsmouth speaks well for the instincts of a member of a profession which is supposed to live in its own world of flaming £50 notes and erupting champagne corks.

It also serves another purpose. It reminds us all over again of the dereliction of responsibility that is at the heart of such a scandal in the league which has so long boasted of being both the richest and most powerful in the world.

Each new stage of the Pompey crisis carries us a little further from the meaning of the word league. It is supposed to be something formed for the collective benefit of all its members, a resolve that has always been underpinned by the belief that it can only ever be as strong as it weakest member.

James's initiative is both a kindness and a massive reproach to the Premier League, whose response to a shaming situation has been negligent to an almost numbing degree.

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