James Lawton: Beckham the star, Owen the winner

In choosing the England captain the nation inflicted on itself a serious case of fly-blown idolatry
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Only in an arena so detached from the realities of performance, and so subservient to the all-pervasive force of mere celebrity, could a straight face be applied to the announcement that David Beckham, lately of the Manchester United's substitutes' bench, had beaten Michael Owen in the popularity contest known as the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award.

In a world bedevilled by rather more serious examples of twisted values it is probably not a matter on which to expend too much nervous energy but, all the same, what the nation inflicted on itself last night was a fairly serious case of fly-blown idolatry.

It said that it would examine merit only so far as it didn't interfere with the need to kneel at the altar of manufactured fame pretty much as South Sea islanders waited to worship the floating cargo of a shipwreck. Beckham, no question, is an extremely talented football player. But Sports Personality of the Year? How has this personality inflicted itself beyond a handful of exceptional performances on the field and a series of self-serving interviews across all branches of the media? Is it a personality which has depth and constancy? Does it contain the obsessive rigour of all great sportsmen, and which was so dramatically encapsulated in the nature of last year's winner, Olympian Steve Redgrave? The current evidence tends to say not.

To be fair to the BBC they do not call their winner the Sportsman of the Year, though the implication is heavy that Beckham got his trophy not for such fashion initiatives as half-shaving an eyebrow and having, at a particularly violence-ridden phase of human history, red paint poured over his head before a photo session, but his deeds on the football field.

Some of those accomplishments were, of course, notable. His best performance as captain of England, by some distance, was against Germany in the memorable 5-1 victory in Munich. He also played impressively in the second half of a vital World Cup win over Finland and, in the absence of Owen, was the hardest-working member of the team which played wretchedly in the climactic qualifying match against Greece. In that game he probably, though not certainly because these days we cannot precisely chart the power of publicity, nailed down his BBC award, and the doubtless others to come, with a brilliantly taken free-kick in the fourth minute of extra time – a strike that ensured England's place in next summer's World Cup finals. That, pretty much, is the extent of Beckham's portfolio. It is one that obviously has been hugely augmented by an unprecedented forest of positive headlines, some of them triggered by his wife Victoria's bestowing upon him the nickname Golden Balls.

What is troubling is that Beckham's deification has been accompanied by performances for his club, Manchester United, so devoid of life and resilience and, let's be frank, basic grit that they came to a natural conclusion when his embattled manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, decided last week the superstar wasn't worth a place in the team for one of the season's most important games.

Yesterday Beckham's England manager, Sven Goran Eriksson, who has much reason to be grateful that the player's commitment to his country has been so manifestly more intense than that to his club, told the nation via Sir David Frost that it is a long season and that it was good when leading players were able to have a rest. In the circumstances, the relentlessly diplomatic Eriksson could say little else, and the famed interrogator seemed in no mood to probe too deeply into the implications of a hugely rewarded, vastly celebrated young footballer being removed from the line of duty halfway into a critical season.

This is plainly a widespread instinct, and one confirmed by the BBC voting. Certainly, the force of Beckham's celebrity overwhelmed the case for the feats of Owen, which, when you get down to it, take rather longer to list than those of the winner. What is particularly startling about them is the background against which they have been achieved. It has been one of near universal doubt. Twelve months ago even his club manager, Gérard Houllier, while operating a rotation system that worked against Owen's ability to snap back from injury and the psychologically devastating treatment he received from the former England coach Kevin Keegan, questioned Owen to the point of saying: "He has to prove himself a man for England."

Now, as he prepares to celebrate his 22nd birthday, he can be seen to have done it with a precision and a consistency that makes him not only a young sportsman of daunting proficiency but a working example to a whole generation of young people that with sufficient will and dedication the most onerous odds can be beaten.

Owen, for the record, scored vital goals in the World Cup qualifying games against Albania, both home and away, and against Finland, when he shot England back into a game that was threatening disaster. Against Germany, he was unplayable and his cartwheel of celebration after the completion of his hat-trick seemed, for some if not a majority of voters, to be rather more than a reflection of one night's success but a whole body of extraordinary work. It included, unforgettably, his virtually single-handed fashioning of the FA Cup final victory over Arsenal and a driving force in Liverpool's annexation of three trophies and a place in the League of Champions. This season it has been extended into a run of 20 goals in 20 games and a huge contribution to Liverpool's leadership of the Premiership. In a year Owen has not so much restored his reputation as become a national institution, a watchword for consistent performance at the sharpest edge of the national game.

That all of these extraordinary facts were not regarded as decisive last night is perhaps not something over which too many will be inclined to lose too much sleep. It is, after all, the age of celebrity, of unstoppable fame, and balls so golden even the subs' bench is incapable of taking away their bounce.