James Lawton: Beckham takes first prize for absurd portents of 2004

Less than a week into the new year and English football's brave and disciplined new world is already looking a little worn at the edges.

It is hard to say which was the most depressing portent for 2004 but we should probably choose from a quite formidable shortlist of three.

There was England captain David Beckham's assertion that Rio Ferdinand - who sometime in the middle distant future will serve an eight-month ban for failing to take a drugs test - is a likely candidate to one day take over the leadership of the national team. There was Harry Kewell explaining to a callow Portuguese player of Yeovil Town why it was necessary to cheat. And there was the serial Leeds United offender Alan Smith coming close to triggering another Arsenal riot.

Because Kewell may have been touching on a sad truth when he was alleged to have confirmed to Hugo Rodrigues that he had conned the referee and then added: "This is football, man, I had to dive", and because so little is now expected of Smith in the matter of discipline, we probably have to give the prize to Becks.

He is, after all, captain of England, a star of Real Madrid and apparently a model for the youth of the nation. He said, "This won't stop (Rio) becoming England captain in the future. But I'm not going to give up being national skipper easily!

"I have known him for a long time, even before he was at United. I knew him when he was at West Ham and even then I recognised how strong he was." Will the gibberish ever end? Will English football ever grasp the extent of the damage it does to itself? Let's do ourselves a favour: let's not ask the most celebrated English player in the history of the game. Let's pull the sheets over our heads... at least for a little while.

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