James Lawton: Beckham's longevity no match for Moore

Even if it is indisputable that Bobby Moore was a football god who in one of the greatest games ever played fought Pele to a standstill, no-one should sneer the word sacrilege if it should happen this evening in Seville that his total of 108 caps for England is matched by David Beckham.

Much better, surely, to avoid any lynch mobs formed by babbling victims of several decades of the celebrity culture and do what so many old pros, including some who played alongside Moore that day when he lifted up the World Cup at Wembley, have been obliged to do for some days now. Namely, to point out all the considerable virtues Beckham has displayed while playing all those times for England and achieving so many commercial and photo opportunities he could have persuaded even the most hard-bitten Hollywood agent that there is a heaven and that sometimes it has been known to exist on earth.

Some of the veterans of the team led by Moore to England's only World Cup triumph did better than others in this tricky test of historical perspective.

The Charlton brothers, Sir Bobby and Jack, were most diplomatic, while the full-backs, football's least sentimental breed, struck the most contentious notes. George Cohen said, "My view is that in the major tournaments he [Beckham] has played [three World Cups and two European Championships] we have been poor and I don't see the necessity now to have him around when we have young players in the squad – also I can't understand why these cameo performances as a sub should earn a cap. You used to have to play 90 minutes to win one."

Seven years ago the incorrigible Cohen was called up by a newspaper and asked for his reaction to the decision not to grant the England quarter-finalists in the 2002 World Cup in Japan a parade and a Downing Street reception. After some delay, the reporter pressed the old full back, who said, "I'm probably not the right man to ask – in my day we didn't celebrate finishing eighth."

Ray Wilson, an undertaker who called up Cohen for his measurements when his full-back partner was fighting the first of several successful battles against cancer, was in similarly dry mood this week when he said, "David has been a fantastic player or he wouldn't have played for so long for all his clubs but I'm not so sure about when he was playing in America and still got called up to win his 100th cap. He was effectively playing third division football by then. By that token, why don't they call on Geoff Hurst now, put him on the pitch for a minute so that he can win his 50th cap because he got left stranded on 49."

Such levity was not designed to amuse those who argue fervently not only for Beckham's chances of eventually outstripping even goalkeeper Peter Shilton's all-time mark of 120 caps but also being knighted.

Before a possible Sir David versus plain old Moore, OBE, debate has been triggered, the Beckham fan club argues that he has been an outstanding example to youth, an exemplary family man and an inspiring captain and, to be fair, two out of three isn't so bad. The Beckham case is at his strongest when the subject is less to do with his disciplinary record – an unprecedented two red cards and an infantile claim that he was doing the right thing when winning a yellow card against Wales's Ben Thatcher – and more about a superb consistency of technique in dead-ball kicking and passing. Beckham's talent has been exceptional, but when you gather together his body of work does it begin to touch the qualities of competitive character and tactical nous so consistently displayed by Moore?

When one advocate of Beckham's right to a place alongside Moore was asked to cite supreme examples of why this was so for the benefit of a national radio audience he produced, naturally, the former's flat-out performance and World Cup-qualifying free kick against Greece.

It was an inevitable response. The inescapable fact is the one made by Cohen. In three World Cups and two European Championships, Beckham, apart from some good work at setpieces and moments of virtuoso skill, was unable to inflict significant influence. In his first World Cup he was sent off for a schoolboy flick of his boot and at the end of his last one, marked by all-round wretched performance, he tearfully resigned the captaincy.

Now the case for him to enjoy a fourth opportunity in South Africa next year, against Moore's three, is that he has pulled back from the oblivion of American football and given England coach Fabio Capello the chance to assess him in the rather more demanding arena of Serie A. That he has received good notices in Milan, where there is also a frank admission that his presence has at least something to do with brand possibilities, is to his credit and his performances no doubt add some badly needed credence to his attempt to fight his way through to next year's World Cup finals. But as one Italian football expert was saying yesterday, the tempo of the Milan game, softly, softly, with moments of explosive action in the last third of the field, is perfectly suited to his current needs.

If he plays tonight, against reigning European champions anxious to confirm their status in such a high-profile game, Beckham may find rather less open space than he enjoyed against a 10-man Bologna in his most spectacular performance in the latest leg of his extraordinary career. Certainly, on past records, he is unlikely to strike the level of inspiration once produced by the man whose place in football history he may now be about to share.

Here is one impression of the presence of Moore. "I was focusing on containing the threat of Beckenbauer and when I edged the ball away from him into the path of Bobby Moore it was plain that England's captain was reacting quite ferociously to the setback. Bobby, as has been said so often, was not the quickest mover but he never made a single step on the football field without knowing precisely where he was going – and to what purpose." This is Sir Bobby Charlton describing how his young captain took charge of the fightback after England slipped a goal behind in the World Cup final.

No, maybe you shouldn't say sacrilege, even if you think you know what Bobby Moore meant – and what 108 caps still should.

If the cap fits... The roll of honour

England's most capped:

Peter Shilton 1970-90 125

Bobby Moore 1962-73 108

David Beckham 1996- 107

Sir Bobby Charlton 1958-70 106

Billy Wright 1946-59 105

Should Beckham play tonight he will equal Bobby Moore's 108 caps, to sit second behind Peter Shilton

The world's top five:

Mohamed Al-Deayea (S Arabia) 181

Claudio Suarez (Mexico) 178

Hossam Hassan (Egypt) 169

Cobi Jones (USA) 164

Adnan Al-Talyani (UAE) 164

There are a further 90 players who have won more than 108 caps

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