James Lawton: The crime that cost England victory was not Beckham's

Click to follow
The Independent Online

How easy it is to hand all the blame to David Beckham, how convenient in its removal of any need to explain at a deeper level a football disaster - and how wrong. Beckham missed a penalty, and at a moment so pivotal it will probably always haunt him, but there are greater crimes at the highest level of the game. The most damning is to give away the ball to brilliant opponents pouring at your goal. Unlike key team-mates, at no stage was Beckham guilty of this.

How easy it is to hand all the blame to David Beckham, how convenient in its removal of any need to explain at a deeper level a football disaster - and how wrong. Beckham missed a penalty, and at a moment so pivotal it will probably always haunt him, but there are greater crimes at the highest level of the game. The most damning is to give away the ball to brilliant opponents pouring at your goal. Unlike key team-mates, at no stage was Beckham guilty of this.

That was the gut reaction in the Estadio da Luz, and it is one that is surely confirmed by a second look at the sequence of events which allowed the great Zinedine Zidane to plunder victory from the growing certainty of defeat.

Yesterday Beckham was the most freely labelled of scapegoats. Wasn't his teary reaction to defeat, and the fact that he was last to leave the dressing-room, an act which required the arm of his coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, on his shoulder, the confirming evidence that the superstar captain was accepting his own guilt? What Beckham needed yesterday were not shoulders to cry on but a defence lawyer strong-minded enough to persuade him to change his plea.

Eriksson offered only a character reference by way of support. "He's mentally strong," he said. "He will put this behind him." Beckham's team-mate Frank Lampard offered more of the same, saying: "He has been through worse than this." So do we have to go along with the bend-it-all-on-to-Beckham line? Only if we believe in a connect-the-dots level of football analysis. For a start, we know that Beckham plays the drama queen as enthusiastically as any footballer on earth, which should mean we can toss away the prosecution's exhibit number one: his crumpled body language.

We also know that his ability to score spectacular goals from set-pieces has so often earned him such levels of praise it has made a mockery of other more basic football values. But on Sunday night, even in the shock of a disembowelling defeat, it should really have been recognised that suddenly the whole, overheated business had turned against Beckham with the same irresistible force that had inflated him so absurdly in the past. It was, for the moment at least, a case of celebrity worship devouring its own creation.

Beckham missed the penalty which would have given England the cushion of a 2-0 lead, but after the mishap - his second successive one from the spot - the team had only 18 minutes to continue to shut down the reigning European champions. Beckham, playing like a mature professional and - let it be said - a genuine captain, was flawless in pursuing that ambition, as he had been earlier. His coach and some of his higher profiled team-mates were not.

Eriksson made the catastrophic decision to replace Wayne Rooney with the hapless Emile Heskey, who, soon enough, was setting up Zidane's sublime free-kick with a misconceived tackle on Claude Makelele. Steve Gerrard gave the ball away in the most hazardous of circumstances, leaving the panic-stricken goalkeeper David James to crudely flatten Thierry Henry and give Zidane his conclusive penalty. For Gerrard, perhaps the new darling of popular opinion, this was a disastrous capping of a self-destroying pattern that had begun to wipe away some of his moments of natural brilliance. Here we truly were in the entrails of the defeat.

Lampard, who had played his way into the team with such fine aggression, had an almost completely anonymous second half in which the priority was for the midfielders to offer themselves for the ball, and then hold it and use it with control and an absolute priority of not giving away easy possession to the French, for whom the greatest gift was to be able to concentrate entirely on the need to score. Michael Owen, such a consistent force in the past, had a nightmare of irrelevance.

These were the realities which should have bitten more deeply than the fact that the French keeper, Fabien Barthez, guessed right and saved brilliantly when Beckham took his penalty. One Portuguese critic, perhaps conditioned by all the extravagant claims made on his behalf in the past, said that Beckham was a lamp with the light out. In fact, he played the ball with a fine precision throughout the match, and with a particular fastidiousness in the second half which eventually became a siege on the England goal relieved most effectively by the captain's astute and assured hoarding of the of ball and, to a growing degree, by Rooney's developing confidence.

Eriksson reported, without a hint of penance, that he would do everything the same again. Rooney, though plainly carrying more than a little terror into the hearts of a French, was tired, said the coach, and his replacement Heskey played well. There was no mention of Heskey's catastrophic tackle on Claude Makelele, which set up Zidane's sublime free-kick.

No mention, either, of that pattern of waste set in train by the new superhero Gerrard. The Liverpool captain's responsibility in the concession of the penalty which decided the game was quite self-evident. Less so, the numerous occasions he carelessly turned the ball over to France. Once, while in a good position on the ball, with space in front of him and the chance to develop a passing moment, he sent the ball back to James, who used his only option: a kick downfield. That gave possession to the French. Once, Gerrard kicked into touch - another gratuity handed to the French. And, on several occasions, Gerrard played balls into the front two in situations where the odds heavily favoured Lilian Thuram and Mikaël Silvestre. That was not the way to protect a hard-won lead. It was not the way to operate at the top of the game.

Eriksson said before his meeting with the team yesterday that he would spend just two minutes on the French game - and then talk about the future. But how do you deal with the future if you forget what happened in such a recent past? You don't brush away such a potentially damaging defeat with the simplicity of a penalty miss. Penalty misses will always happen, to much great players than David Beckham can ever hope to be.

Franco Baresi, arguably the greatest Italian defender of all time, missed one in the shoot-out of the 1994 World Cup final against Brazil in Pasadena, but there were no reproaches because it was acknowledged that Baresi had played phenomenally against the Brazilian stars Romario and Bebeto.

No, Beckham wasn't Baresi in the Estadio da Luz on Sunday night. He wasn't phenomenal but he was extremely good. In fact, he has rarely played better in an England shirt. Unlike most of his team-mates, he understood perfectly the nature of his team's situation. England had to get on the ball and play; they had to make the French think of something beyond mere attack, and there was no better way of doing that than denying them unbroken possession of the ball.

Except, of course, scoring the penalty that would have had his picture on every front page. Beckham would have been the great hero again. But then it would have been, not for the first time, for the wrong reason.

Comments