James Lawton: Beckham's feet must do talking

David Beckham is not the first foreign celebrity player to be sent off in Spain for calling a match official a "
hijo de puta" but this shouldn't lull us into a dismissive shrug. This from the vastly celebrated but currently hapless England captain was rather more than a slip of the tongue.

David Beckham is not the first foreign celebrity player to be sent off in Spain for calling a match official a " hijo de puta" but this shouldn't lull us into a dismissive shrug. This from the vastly celebrated but currently hapless England captain was rather more than a slip of the tongue.

Some translations here rendered the phrase down to the relatively benign "sonofabitch", which of course in America can be almost playful, as in "howyadoin' you ol' sonofabitch". But try that in the Spanish-speaking world and you would be best off wearing a bullet-proof vest.

Hijo de puta permits only one interpretation. It means "son of a prostitute" and saying it on a football field is to guarantee you are either engulfed by a profoundly insulted opponent or dismissed by an official. Either way, it is an act of mind-spinning stupidity. For the record, Beckham's fate befell Diego Maradona in Barcelona in 1982 when playing for Argentina against Brazil.

However, Maradona was 21 at the time and widely seen as a brilliant but problematic son of the slums of Buenos Aires. He hadn't been captain of his country for years and lauded as an inspirational field general.

Another difference shouts out. For Maradona there would be plenty of redemption, not least as a 25-year-old who won a World Cup as near to single-handedly as was humanly possible. Four years on, when he was 29 - the same age as Beckham is today - Maradona carried a threadbare Argentina into another World Cup final in Rome. When all this is considered it is impossible not to return to the old question: what, in the end, will Beckham's career amount to beyond a mountain of publicity?

The Real Madrid president Florentino Perez's body language was thunderous when Beckham was shown a red card, for a second time this season, on Saturday early on in another defeat, this time against ill-considered Murcia.

Inevitably, this will strengthen suggestions that Beckham will return to England, and almost certainly Chelsea, at the end of a season in Spain that, both on and off the field, can now only be described as catastrophic.

It would be tedious to go over all the old ground of the Chelsea possibility after so many weeks of speculation, but in the light of still another Beckham controversy - and on a day when Sven Goran Eriksson was announcing his English fighting force for the European Championship in Portugal - there is one pertinent area of debate. It centres on the quality of leadership we can expect from Beckham.

The uncomfortable fact is that if we put on one side the supreme moment of Beckham's England captaincy - when he sent in that late free-kick against a lowly-ranked but obdurate Greece at Old Trafford three years ago during World Cup qualification - the record is hardly likely to create a groundswell of confidence.

Before he got the job, which he touted for with great energy, he had done well to outgrow the appalling lapse of judgement which saw him sent off for a childish lunge at an Argentinian opponent in the World Cup in 1998. But since his appointment the marks of true distinction - and significant leadership - have been disappointingly few.

In some ways his second World Cup was as unfortunate as his first. Clearly not fully fit, he provided a corner for one goal and then converted a penalty against Argentina in the group games.

But in the quarter-final against Brazil, who up to that point had struggled - at times desperately - England became a leaderless rabble in a second-half performance that remains grimly unforgettable for its lack of both enterprise and fight.

Sometime later, Beckham admitted that England left the half-time dressing-room with "nothing left", a sad admission from a captain so widely lauded for his determination to beat the odds and who, disastrously, had jumped out of a tackle immediately before the Brazilians scored the goal that put them back into the game - and on course to win their fifth World Cup.

More recently, Beckham was missing from one qualifying game for the European Championship - against Slovakia - because of suspension, one earned in part by an amazingly reckless performance against Turkey in Sunderland, when despite disturbances on the terraces which spilled on to the field - and which threatened England's place in the tournament - he ran into the arms of an already turbulent crowd to celebrate the conversion of a penalty.

Fortunately, in Beckham's absence - he was on a brand-developing tour of America at the time - his deputy, Michael Owen, who said quite pointedly before the game that he much preferred to see his name on the back rather than the front page, had the professional wit to win a decisive penalty.

All this will no doubt be forgiven if Beckham, rejoicing in his liberation from a long and doubtless painful trial in his football and his life in Madrid, can provide the leadership of England for which in the past he has perhaps been overgenerously credited.

Certainly his latest pratfall in Spain should underline one overwhelming reality. It is that the time has come to put away the platitudes, however publicity friendly, and deliver some overdue performance.

Fracas at Old Trafford turned tide for Arsenal

For a little while at least, Arsène Wenger, by right of conquest and a unique and beautiful achievement, can say more or less anything he likes. He is even permitted an assertion that in some ways Arsenal's unbeaten Premiership season can be placed above triumph in the Champions' League.

Much less contentious, though, when you consider the Premiership's huge division in competitive standards, is his selection of Old Trafford, 21 September, as the turning point in the title run. For what reason, however, does the Arsenal manager make his claim? He suggests that it was because Ruud van Nistelrooy's controversial late penalty smacked against the cross-bar and cost United two points and momentum in the early going of the championship.

Another, and better guess is that the real significance of that day came later, when Wenger and his players were not only hit by FA punishment for the disgraceful scenes that followed the Van Nistelrooy miss but also admonished by their own chairman.

Wenger was finally called to account by his boardroom for his refusal to face up to the one weakness of his brilliant regime - a dogged refusal to acknowledge that no team was so good it could indefinitely ignore the need for proper discipline.

In the weeks that followed even the chief culprit Martin Keown publicly admitted that Arsenal had gone too far beyond an acceptable line.

Result: a superb consistency and spirit from a team whose artistry and vision became a source of unbroken delight. Yes, unquestionably Old Trafford was a turning point. It was the time when Arsenal were suddenly obliged to grow up.

Ferguson uses public convenience

When Sir Alex Ferguson granted a rare interview to his favourite Sunday newspaper at the weekend he made it clear that he would set the agenda.

No questions on John Magnier or David Beckham, just the chance to say that Rio Ferdinand's decision not to appeal his dead-to-rights conviction for missing a drugs test probably cost United the title, give his version of the Roy Keane controversy and make public the depth of his hots for Liverpool's Steven Gerrard.

However much you admire Ferguson's achievements, it is hard not be outraged by his rejection of any sniff of public accountability. The Premiership meekly goes along with his refusal to talk after a game to anyone other than a representative of the house television channel. A self-respecting league simply wouldn't allow it.

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