James Lawton: Beckham's genius for self-advertisement revels in the revival of a singular talent

Beckham flicks away crisis as other men dismiss a bothersome fly
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We can start at the most basic level - the picture decorating so many breakfast tables yesterday. It shows the aftermath of the Brazilian Julio Baptista's goal for Real Madrid. Baptista could be anyone, given that the only part of his face that is clearly visible is his left ear. There is a better view of one of Baptista's unnamed team-mates, who is reaching out a right hand to pat the hero's shoulder. You can see it is the great Zinedine Zidane. But then who dominates the picture as he straddles the goalscorer, his right hand around his neck, his left hand pressing his head, his legs against his waist? Who do you think? Our David, of course.

Whether Beckham's first impulse always to be at the side of the goalscorer was a product of his own genius for self-advertisement, or the advice of one of his wife's publicity gurus, or, maybe, sheer exhilaration at the success of his team, is something lost in the years, but the urge to ask the question has a certain relevance when you know what is on the horizon.

Beckham's public relations sprang back to life quite seamlessly on Sunday when Wayne Rooney and his fiancée, Coleen McLoughlin, were flown to Madrid for some repairing of the angry collision between the players on that bankrupt night in Belfast a few weeks ago. A thoughtful move by the England captain you might say, and so it was. No doubt Coleen enjoyed a little chav heaven when Posh was persuaded to bring her healing touch to the dinner table. But then another question: couldn't Beckham have created just the same effect by taking the boy aside some time over the next few days? Captains and coaches do this all the time. It's called fostering team spirit, bringing on a lad in an optimum environment.

Madrid on the night of a big Real game is a somewhat different kettle of Rioja. It is teeming with media. It can so easily become another Beckham show, and this is especially the case when he is plainly in a vein of excellent form.

The fact is that if this is going to be a Beckham week, as we all must believe, it is underpinned by some encouraging facts. Beckham is palpably fit, something that has not been true for much of the last few years, and was particularly the case last summer in the European Championship in Portugal when he blamed his shortcomings on the training regime in Madrid. He is also playing in his correct position, wide on the right, from where he can exert one of football's most singular talents, an ability to deliver passes and crosses unrivalled in their skill and their acumen.

Indeed, one of the great bonuses of this Beckham week is that it should not cause any distortion of reality when the embattled Sven Goran Eriksson comes to pick his team for the World Cup qualifier against Austria at Old Trafford.

Rooney, who is suspended for Saturday's game and will return against Poland next week, reminded us yet again that he is by far England's most significant player with his exquisite work at Fulham last Saturday and it is something that, all modesty aside, almost certainly increased his frustration in Belfast when being played out of what he considers his best position. That his fate had been shaped by Eriksson's reverential treatment of Beckham to the bizarre point of planting him in front of the back four, from where the captain explained, straight-faced, that he had the capacity to play like Claude Makelele, was no doubt an added ingredient to Rooney's ferocious response to the ministrations of the captain.

No one is saying that Rooney isn't in need of some discipline, and maybe flying him to Madrid was not guaranteed to diminish any sense of his own importance, but if there is any redemption in some of his recent conduct it surely lies in the transparent fact that he is passionate about the game and that he is incapable of delivering less than his most intense commitment. That this approach can sometimes spill into the behaviour of Harry Enfield's teenager Kevin is regrettable, but hopefully it is a phase that will pass at least to some degree.

Meanwhile, Beckham sails on, impenetrable in his ability to re-arrange the facts according to his self-image. Currently, he is showing the best of himself on the field, which is hugely heartening to both Real Madrid, who have not picked up a bauble since his arrival three seasons ago and until the last week or so were staring into another unmitigated disaster, and the embattled Eriksson, whose acrobatics on behalf of his captain were finally lurching into ludicrous ground during the games against Wales and Northern Ireland.

The best hope now is that Eriksson, as he sees his credibility shrink by the day, will find the strength to grant himself a little distance from his captain, but the difficulty of this challenge might need no more analysis than the totting up of the column inches occupied by both men when the action against Austria and Poland is over.

In all of this, Beckham's equilibrium is astonishing. He flicks away crisis, in his private and professional life, as other men dismiss a bothersome fly. After Sunday's victory over Real Mallorca, in which he again provided a steady stream of menace from the right, his disdain for "premature criticism" was almost statesmanlike. He declared: "We shouldn't be surprised by winning consecutive games 4-0. People talked far too soon about a crisis and us playing badly, but we have proved with our recent performances that we are improving."

After his sparse contribution to England's effort in last summer's European Championship he seemed genuinely astonished by criticism, turning on one interrogator when it was suggested that his personal mark was among the lowest of the squad. When he missed a shoot-out penalty against Portugal in the lost quarter-final, his body language was not of despair. Instead, he looked querulously at the offending penalty spot.

Eriksson was equally aghast at criticism of Beckham. It was outrageous to suggest that the captaincy was in doubt, as it was that someone else might step up to take a penalty. Now Beckham's revived fitness and his impressively effective performances for Real obviously take the heat out of the first part of the debate. With his place, for the moment at least, secure on the right, John Terry's outstanding candidature will no doubt return to the margins of the coach's thoughts.

It means that Beckham, after his failure to make any kind of real impact on four major tournaments, two World Cups and two European Championships, is well placed to recover much of the momentum that left his strictly playing career when he declined at Manchester United, while still managing to make Sir Alex Ferguson the villain, and slid into mediocrity and worse after a bright start in Madrid.

So the Beckham caravan rolls on, beyond doubts, beyond sustained questioning, beyond any imperative, at times, other than his own survival as the richest footballer in the world. That he has pulled it off again is as much a matter for awe as regret, and this is something that even his harshest critics find no hardship in admitting.

They might crave different values. They might wish for a time when the organs of publicity were not so susceptible to one player's manipulation, and when an England manager might one day tell his leading players, as the World Cup-winning Sir Alf Ramsey did, that they should not assume that their next invitation to play was as automatic as the electricity bill, but then who can argue with the weight of David Beckham's presence? He has proved, and never more so than this week, that he is an immovable, untouchable factor in the nation's football. This is not a matter of blame. It is the extraordinary reality of his life and his times.

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