Here's a drop of irony to lace the pathos that has lapped around England's World Cup ambitions for 44 years. Could it be that David Beckham may, at his fourth attempt, be on the point of a most decisive contribution?
This is probably not the time to reopen the debate about whether his international achievements ever began to match his influence and his celebrity, but over one question there has never been any doubt.
It was that few players on the international stage ever matched his consistent ability to deliver the ball with accuracy and bite and, yes, sheer beauty.
This makes it the best of news that Theo Walcott, a joke selection four years ago at the age of 17 but potentially a huge factor this time, has gone on the record with his determination to be the chief beneficiary of Beckham's appointment as an honorary coach, official cheerleader and, if past form is anything to go by, chief scene stealer in South Africa.
Walcott –a wide-eyed spectator in Germany after Sven Goran Eriksson decided to take him without ever seeing him in serious action, and when he had still to play a senior game – has still to build on the astonishing impact he made when putting England's nemesis Croatia to the sword in Zagreb early in England's qualifying campaign.
Yet coach Fabio Capello was never likely to abandon such a sweet ability to dissect a team with such dazzling speed and there were some potent reminders of the good sense of this in an otherwise somewhat disquieting outing against Mexico at Wembley last Monday night. On several occasions Walcott made matchwood of the Mexicans but his final ball was lacking in both timing and precision.
Enter Beckham at a point which just might not be too late for the hope that Walcott can animate the English challenge with that blistering turn of foot. There is nothing so devastating in sport as authentic speed but too often in the last four years Walcott, for one reason or another, has allowed its value to dribble away.
Beckham's day-by-day presence on the training field in the highveld tribal lands at the very least seems likely to concentrate Walcott's mind on the need for both dispatch and delivery. The Arsenal flyer suggested this was so this week when he declared at England's Alpine training camp, "David has always told me to deliver the ball into space and if there is no one there, it is not your problem. You just need to put the ball into space and someone should get on the end of it. He is a fantastic crosser and having him at the World Cup can only help.''
It is a beguiling, if somewhat poignant picture, Beckham, the man betrayed often by a lack of the pace which Walcott has at his disposal to burn, working to develop in his young successor the consistency for which he always strived with such commendable application.
For Capello, currently preoccupied with uncertainties in defence and the need for more power pressure and coherence in midfield, the final schooling of Walcott is at least one project he can safely leave in competent hands – and, while doing so, bring a measure of credence to a Beckham appointment which for some of us, frankly, seemed like a throwback to the old days of Eriksson's almost religious deferment to a player granted a position of what at times seemed like outrageous privilege.
But then if Beckham can indeed build in Walcott a significantly improved awareness of the need to put the ball in the most dangerous places he will have performed a mission far outstripping the value of a thousand sound bites.
Another hope here is that Adam Johnson, Manchester City's splendidly inventive new arrival in the football big time, will get more of a chance to prove his value against Japan in Graz tomorrow than in the brief cameo provided by his late appearance against the Mexicans. Then, he had just time enough to turn his marker inside out in one moment of pure invention. Johnson may lack Walcott's acceleration but there is some impressive evidence that his creative instinct works with exceptional quickness.
For Capello it remains no more than a bewitching possibility, the combination of Walcott's raw speed and increased efficiency and Johnson's natural-born guile. Yet it it something to balance against fears that the midfield has been seriously disrupted by Gareth Barry's injury and concerns over Rio Ferdinand's fitness and John Terry's state of mind.
This is another huge point of optimism, of course, when we compare the preparedness of the squads of 2006 and now. Four years ago Eriksson took a strike force which contained the truly fit, Peter Crouch, the non-combatant Walcott, and the plainly wounded Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen.
By comparison, Capello's armoury looks impressively stocked and this will be especially so if Beckham can indeed rush through the most vital education of Theo Walcott. It would be a rare kind of Beckham glory, made in the shadows, but it would be none the less precious for that.
Protecting game's future is Platini's overriding concern
Michel Platini was a beautiful performer on the field and you have to be shot through with cynicism and resignation not to believe that he is seeking to reproduce some of that purity off it.
But, of course, the Uefa president will inevitably be besieged by claims that he is at best naive and at worst Anglophobic in his drive to bring financial sanity to the European game.
These charges will intensify with the executive committee of Europe's ruling body unanimously agreeing that the richest clubs must eliminate losses from 2012 if they want to compete in the Champions League.
The most legitimate of the complaints will centre on the fact that the richest clubs are bound to launch an orgy of spending in order to entrench their advantage, and maintain their revenue flows, by the time the profitability curtain falls in two years' time.
So will anything really change? Not so much initially, perhaps, but who knows? We might just have a dawning sense that a playing field which resembles less the north face of the Eiger will be of benefit to the future of all clubs, and not least the most powerful of them who are currently carrying shocking levels of debt.
Some believe that Platini's crusade is provoked by envy for the wealth of a few English clubs rather than the recklessness of the majority vainly trying to operate in their shadow. There is surely, though, another interpretation. It is that he wants to save the future of a game which he once so enriched.
Iqbal knock livens up Lord's after neurotic Trott
Jonathan trott, as anticipated, duly completed his double-century at Lord's and reminded us that if his neurotic preparations for every ball impinge on eternity – to the point of challenging the spirit of the game – they are something to be suffered in the cause of English cricket.
Still, let's hope he understands that for many it was a little death yesterday when Bangladesh's feisty little opener Tamim Iqbal was run out some time later.
Iqbal batted as though it was a chore to be relished. It animated the great old ground and encouraged the belief that some of the game's best values remain in good brave hands.Reuse content