James Lawton: Marketing men's madness complements footballing ignorance of England officials

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The Independent Football

One of them said that contenders to succeed Sven Goran Eriksson as England's coach would be asked about their intentions in the matter of the captaincy. Would they continue with David Beckham or start afresh? The point of the question, we have been told, is that the answer is of great interest to a potential major sponsor of the Football Association who has noticed that our David is maybe, among self-publicists, the world's greatest genius.

This means, so the story goes, that any decision about backing the FA could very well depend on the profile of the man who leads out the team in the spellbinding opening of the European Championship qualifying campaign against Andorra at Old Trafford next September. Or put another way: no Becks, no dosh.

John Terry might be an altogether better bet in the leadership stakes, but how many headlines would he generate in comparison to Beckham? How should we describe the possibility of such an equation being made at significant level among the leaders of the national game? Egregious? Insane? Contradictory to every principle of sound behaviour in a competitive context? Basically unbelievable? Of course, but it would be all the more so but for the belief of some distinguished football men that Beckham's selection for the last World Cup could not begin to be justified in anything like strict football terms.

That conclusion, so firmly voiced, inevitably led to the kind of suspicion which no doubt provided the basis, however slender, even perhaps imaginary, for yesterday's story.

It was that Beckham's appearance on the fields of Japan was more to do with the vast commercial possibilities of his impact on the Far Eastern football market than any faint chance that he might overcome his grave shortfall in fitness. Ensuing events certainly brought a welter of circumstantial evidence. Beckham's impact on the play was negligible, and on one vital occasion actively counter-productive when he jumped out of a tackle and then watched Ronaldinho set up Brazil's equaliser. But this did nothing to diminish the number of Beckham shirts worn by Japanese fans - or the frequency with which his face stared out of television screens, newspapers and posters.

Beckham's lack of true match fitness was palpable and here is George Cohen, a World Cup winner, on the subject: "The decision to take Beckham to Portugal for the 2004 European Championships, as it was two years earlier at the World Cup, was highly questionable from the word go. After Portugal he admitted to the press that he had a problem with his fitness and suggested this was because of the training regime at Real Madrid. I could only shake my head and try to imagine the reaction of Sir Alf Ramsey if his captain Bobby Moore had made such a statement.

"Prior to the World Cup, Beckham hadn't played for seven weeks. When it was announced that he would play right at the start of the tournament I couldn't help remembering the agonies Alf went through when he debated in his mind the fitness of great players like Jimmy Greaves and Johnny Haynes.

"Against Brazil in the World Cup and France and Portugal in the European Championships England achieved an advantage and had created the foundation for victory but on each occasion there was a failure to deliver. In Japan the lack of options, Eriksson's failure to inject new life into the effort, had to be placed alongside the lack of fitness and leadership displayed by Beckham."

Set those comments against the FA's current cash-strapped situation, the background to Eriksson's unflinching support of Beckham - despite criticism from another World Cup hero, Sir Geoff Hurst that if his own captain, Moore, had behaved in Beckham's fashion (when he admitted to deliberately fouling an opponent in order to earn a "tactical" suspension) he would have been immediately removed from office - and the obvious need for new financial support, and it is not so hard to see the foundation of The Sun story.

The newspaper did wheel in, anonymously, someone claiming to be involved in "important negotiations" who said: "It is interesting to all of us whether Beckham will still be captain. He's probably the most famous player in the world. Beckham is very important to sponsors and the FA. It would be a huge blow to everyone commercially if he lost the job."

Here no doubt is a creeping, perceived reality. At Chelsea there is said to be a furious debate between the chief executive, Peter Kenyon, and the coach, Jose Mourinho, over the desirability of bidding for Beckham - shirt sales against the fundamentals of building a winning team. What is a matter of history now, of course, is that the argument has been exhausted at Real Madrid, a club which helped to skewer its reputation, and chances of success, by seizing on the celebrity of Beckham and rejecting Ronaldinho because, in the words of one Real insider, he was simply "too ugly". That was a development which Luis Figo, who was , of course, around when Real were still winning trophies, claimed recently to have introduced "days of circus".

Such a caution is unlikely to impinge too deeply on the thinking of a prospective sponsor who knows that the job of doing anything like filling Old Trafford for the Andorra game, will be harder without the Beckham publicity machine. Still, can you imagine telling a serious football man that he has to work with a team composed of leading players who can be trusted more in the soundbite than the tackle? It is unbearable to think it might happen but, given the disbelief that surrounds so much of today's football, far from impossible to reject the possibility out of hand.

It goes without saying if the Beckham question was posed any self-respecting footballer would do what the great Jock Stein did when, while being interviewed by Dunfermline for their vacant managership. He was asked which school he went to, a euphemism for the hard question about a man's religion. Stein, who as someone brought up a Protestant was in position to provide the right answer, got up off his chair and walked out of the room.

The other bizarre story of the week is that Gérard Houllier is figuring in the thoughts of the FA panel who will choose the new England coach. Again, it is one made vaguely believable only by the growing sense that just about anything is possible when the game is ruled by men whose instincts and knowledge of football is so deeply flawed by their lack of professional experience.

Houllier, it is reported by a reliable source, has the regard of some circles in the FA, while the Premiership chairman, Dave Richards, a member of the panel, is known to be tempted by the idea of a two-tier regime, an old hand and a young runner like Manchester City's Stuart Pearce. Houllier's credentials are seen to centre on his influential work in the development of the French system that produced the 1998 World Cup success, a claim that is rendered less striking when it is remembered he was fired as French coach when, four years earlier, a sucker punch from Israel allowed Bulgaria to qualify for the finals in America in place of France.

Houllier was fired at Liverpool after spending more than a £100m on a Liverpool team that was demonstrably going backwards. His assessment of players was so catastrophic the club are now desperately searching for fresh investment to fuel the team-building of Rafa Benitez, whose winning of the Champions' League in his first season, with the addition of a handful of modestly priced signings, including the outstanding Xabi Alonso, will always be regarded as one of the great miracles of English football.

Now, after inheriting serial French champions Lyon and progressing to the quarter-finals of the Champions' League, it seems that Houllier's reputation is entirely reinstated in at least one corner of the FA. This is as mind-blowing as the idea that an England coach might just be asked, decisively, about the value he places on preserving a commercial and celebrity icon as the captain of his team.

If you are patient enough, however, you might just collide with something that says that football hasn't gone entirely mad. Thank heavens, then, for the small encouragement of the news that a survey has announced someone new at the top of the list of football's most marketable footballers. It is Ronaldinho, the world's best player. Just fancy that.