James Lawton: Scheming Scolari lies in wait to expose Eriksson's bluster over Beckham folly

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The Independent Football

This would mean that Sven Goran Eriksson and Luiz Felipe Scolari would go into their third quarter-final confrontation in successive major tournaments. And so to the punchline: If Big Phil triumphs yet again does he get to keep Sven? Perhaps he might also claim the captain David Beckham as an extra souvenir trinket of a winning habit, against Eriksson's England for Brazil in 2002 and Portugal two years ago in the European Championship.

The point is not as flippant as it may seem because if Scolari appears to own Eriksson, tactically and emotionally and in most other ways you care to mention in relation to winning and losing football matches, recognition of one huge difference between the men is surely provoked by the England coach's feeble claims this week that his captain has not enjoyed an astonishing "favourite son" relationship.

Eriksson insists that he is not married, not even engaged, to Beckham, in which case this is surely a shocking case of a coach living in football sin. The indulgences granted to the captain are so many, so egregious, that it would be wearisome to list them all, especially in this quarter which over the past five years or so has received several offers of psychiatric help to counter an "irrational" belief that there is an ocean-sized gap between Beckham's celebrity reputation and his achievements on behalf of his country in four previous major tournaments.

However, it cannot be disputed seriously that if Beckham played for any other World Cup nation his place in the team would now be dangling on the edge of oblivion after his utterly insipid performance, and non-existent leadership, in the second-half shambles against Sweden earlier in the week. Eriksson's claim that "most" people believe Beckham should retain his position in the team - despite the brilliant cameo challenge of young Aaron Lennon in making such a major contribution to turning around the game with Trinidad & Tobago - is surely in need of serious revision. Celebrity parties, the milking of publicity, after all, can go only so far in obscuring the obvious when a player is exposed to the litmus test of World Cup football.

This is Beckham's third attempt at authentic glory at the highest level of football. So far the pattern is familiar enough: a free-kick of formidable flight and accuracy, leading to the only goal against Paraguay in a pitiful performance shorn of cohesion and the example of drive and leadership the captain is supposed to provide; a successful cross to Peter Crouch in the generally wretched exercise against Trinidad & Tobago; and nothing less than a virtual disappearance from sight when Sweden, modestly equipped Sweden, imposed pure panic in the English ranks earlier this week. This is not a profile of leadership, it is not the tilt at greatness about which he talked so relentlessly before this tournament, as he did prior to the previous World Cup in the Far East and in the European Championship in Portugal. It is the empty posturing that drove Sir Alex Ferguson to near distraction before he sold Beckham to Real Madrid, and damned the consequences - which in Real's case have not exactly been hugely beneficial.

As the most biting point of comparison, we need only look at Scolari's handling of a player who is revered across the length and breadth of Portugal - Beckham's old Real Madrid team-mate, Luis Figo.

In that Euro quarter-final which drifted away from England so relentlessly after the injury to Wayne Rooney, Figo, in his 32nd year and a fading force at the Bernabeu, ran to the limits of his ability.

He was not inspired, but he was involved, ferociously, at times despairingly so and it is of course a matter of football history deeply felt in Portugal that Scolari, the Brazilian, dragged off the motherland's national hero. Right there in front of the Lisbon faithful. Figo scowled and marched to the dressing-room. But Portugal, and Scolari, won and two years on what do we have? Figo playing once again from his heart and every bit of workable sinew.

Figo hasn't been a great burning light in this World Cup, not in the entirety of his effect, but he has been one of a generally brilliant tournament's better players. Again his desire has been palpable, and where it matters, out on the field. He took the blow from Scolari and through a mixture of pride and competitive character he has come back; not as some totem from the past, but as a fully contributing player, a wide man of guts and still clearly visible skill. He doesn't disappear from the game, as Beckham did so completely the other night. He gets on with the vital business and as he does he points out, by the way, the value of a coach who operates not on lingering reputation but what he sees before his eyes.

After the tournament in which Figo suffered, for him, the disgrace of being withdrawn from one of his country's most important matches, Beckham was indignant when it was suggested that he had produced less than forceful leadership and acceptable performance. So was Eriksson. He said he wouldn't have done anything differently, and that included his automatic selection of Beckham, who did later admit that he had been operating at less than optimum fitness - a problem, apparently, which was not of his making but that of the Real training regime.

What is so hard to shake, when the England coach denies that he has indulged Beckham at all points of his reign, is an awareness of one of football's soundest rules. It is that no one is beyond the imperatives of fitness and form, a reality that is hard on the memory of Beckham jumping so high out of a tackle that, if attempted, might just have headed off at source the goal that brought Brazil back into the World Cup quarter-final four years ago. It was said on Beckham's behalf that he could hardly risk a hard tackle in his state of fitness. But of course the apologists were right - and that was the problem, among others, of Eriksson's leadership.

For reasons that are too painfully apparent thus far in the 18th World Cup there is a growing reluctance to hark back to England's only success in the tournament, Sir Alf Ramsey's triumph in 1966, but if the urge to live in the present, however it is flawed, is reasonable, it does not mean the moratorium on old lessons fruitfully learned is so easy to tolerate. Compare, for example, the experience of Sir Geoff Hurst, the three-goal hero of the World Cup final, with Beckham's almost certain survival, despite his insipid efforts this week, when the team is announced tomorrow. When the World Cup winners put down their duties the day after the final, Hurst said a cheery goodbye to the coach. "See you at the next match, Alf," said Hurst. "If you are selected, Geoffrey," said Ramsey.

It might just be that England break out of their torpor and their confusions against Ecuador tomorrow, and that they draw sufficient strength to finally break Scolari's hold over their coach and their destiny, but it will not make right so much of what has carried the team to this perilous point. If Beckham does find a vein of gold, for the first time in his five major tournaments, he will be a star shining well beyond the expiry of normal time.

Meanwhile, we can scarcely dispute Scolari's assertion that his position would now be one game short of the near impossible had he had accepted the desperate entreaties of the Football Association and found himself pitted against the interests of his new employers. The obligation to put Sven and David in his pocket one more time would have been more than usually intense. But then, Sven might not have noticed, this is the end of the football business where you have to take the heaviest pressure - and still do the right thing.