John Carlin: Never mind England, David Beckham is now the spiritual leader of Real Madrid

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The Independent Football

But they are lasting longer than a lot of people in England might think. Seeing him play on Thursday in Real Madrid's 3-1 victory over Athletic Bilbao it was hard to avoid the thought, not for the first time this season or the last, that the man whose credentials as captain of England are under such scrutiny back home has become, for all practical purposes, the captain of Real Madrid. As an influential figure at the Bernabeu remarked yesterday morning: "If all 11 players played with the same intensity and desire as Beckham we'd win every game 5-0."

As poor old Woodgate experienced yet another twist of cruel fate, threatening at one point to lose the Bilbao game on his own, Beckham was the engine of what turned out to be a memorable comeback from 1-0 down at half-time.

The Real coach Wanderley Luxemburgo has positioned him, nominally, in right-central midfield. But he was all over the place on Thursday night. All over the place in the best sense: he sent over the crosses for two of Real's goals; he created two other good chances; he was on the left wing, the right wing and in the middle, and he was back in front of his penalty area tackling and intercepting. No one in the Real team covered more ground. No one ever does.

He is, in other words, the proverbial manager's dream. Luxemburgo and Real's back-room strategist, the Italian Arrigo Sacchi, fell in love with him almost at first sight. Beckham was, by common consent, the best player on the pitch in Real's 4-2 defeat of Barcelona in April. After that game Luxemburgo told members of the club board that if he had had a Beckham clone operating on the left of midfield, Real would have scored six.

As for Sacchi, in an interview with the Italian newspaper il Giornale in June he said that Beckham might not have "the great brushstrokes of an artist" but "with me, in my Milan, he would have played always". Sacchi's Milan, it will be remembered, was the Milan of Gullit, Rijkaard, Van Basten, Maldini and Baresi, the one that awed the football world and won the European Cup in 1989 and 1990.

Maybe part of the reason why Beckham's stock remains high in Spain but has fallen in England is that he is judged by different yardsticks. Maybe in England the expectation is that he will provide "great brushstrokes" whereas in Spain, and especially among the fans at the Bernabeu, he is seen as a never-say-die, all-action hero. At Manchester United he was the artist. At Real, where artists more gifted than he abound, he has become more of a Roy Keane figure, the player who leads by example, who fights hardest when things are going badly, who shows his desperation to win - or not to lose - by the at times demonic energy with which he covers every inch of the pitch.

The precise magnitude of Beckham's talent, or otherwise, continues to be a subject of great, often harsh, debate in England. And among some professional pundits in Spain, too. But what is curious to Spaniards is that there should be people in England who question Beckham's dedication.

Jorge Valdano, Real's sporting director during Beckham's first year at the club, said that he had come across players as professional as Beckham but none who were more so. Luxemburgo will tell you exactly the same thing.

And so will the Bernabeu faithful, who admire Beckham for much the same reason that United fans have always admired Keane. Because he is them on the pitch. Along with Raul, who has played far more poorly than Beckham these past two years but never stops giving his all, Beckham is the player who conveys the impression of wearing the team colours with the most passion.

The look on his face when the team is losing is the look of the season-ticket holder in the stands. His euphoria when the team wins is the season-ticket holder's euphoria. As one of Spain's leading sports writers said yesterday in a private phone conversation: "The way he celebrated Real's third goal against Bilbao, the way he embraced Raul and raised his fist to the crowd, showed as powerfully as anything his desire and commitment, and that is why the fans love him so much."

The same writer made the point that Beckham had proved to be an excellent signing for Real. "Never mind the marketing," he said. "As a player he's been worth every penny."

Yesterday the shamelessly pro-Real sports daily As made the point that if Real, who despite their perceived appalling form have won 10 more league points than Barcelona in 2005, are to have a great season it will depend not so much on their super-talented Brazilian galacticos as on the four Spaniards - Guti, Casillas, Raul and Salgado - and on Beckham. "Spanish bravura and English pride," As wrote. "That's what's going to get this boat to sail."