Nick Townsend: Beckham caught in middle of a dilemma

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The Independent Football

As if the persistent invocation of the spirit of '66 hasn't been enough to contend with - you suspect it has become an irritant rather than a stimulus - David Beckham and his men are beseeched to emulate Martin Johnson's behemoths. And being the diplomatic, downright decent chap that he is, the England captain plays along obligingly and issues the following declaration of faith: "It has come to the point where it has to be our time. We want to go to Euro 2004 and do what the rugby boys did in Australia." Which presumably means performing below their collective potential, placing overdependency on a golden boy with an unerring foot for goals, but still bringing back the trophy.

In Japan, it was not meant to be, from that pre-World Cup moment Beckham fractured that metatarsal bone, an injury which, even after it had healed, rendered him a force below his optimum. This summer, barring a similar calamity, he should be at the summit of his powers at 28, with the most sumptuously gifted players in the world now surrounding him - Figo, Ronaldo, Raul, Zinedine Zidane and Roberto Carlos - having assisted in the honing of his abilities. And in central midfield, too, where according to Figo, he has developed into a "monster of soccer... Beckham's constant work ethic means he will go down in history as one of the best of all time".

Therein lies Sven Goran Eriksson's dilemma. Beckham's establishment of a rhythm for the England team is as influential as John Lennon's guitar was for The Beatles. But how can his powers be harnessed most efficiently? It is a vexing problem, which has hardly been resolved by Wednesday's grand irrelevance, in which Beckham was initially returned to his Manchester United and England role of right-winger and was then deployed more centrally, but by this time surrounded by team-mates who are unlikely to be his starting comrades at Euro 2004. The complexities of the whole midfield strategy require the input not so much of a football manager as the design qualities of a James Watt or Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

"Weird" was how Beckham described his return to crossing duties on Wednesday after more than half a season as a playmaking central midfielder at the Bernabeu. He has been much lauded in that role, and has discovered swiftly that when you move into such a wealthy neighbourhood, in footballing terms, as Beckham has done, the prosperity tends to rub off on you.

For Eriksson to achieve the same within an England midfield framework is an entirely different proposition. Beckham is resigned to an existence on the right flank essentially for a negative reason: there is no plausible alternative among the four other most gifted midfielders in the country: Paul Scholes, Steven Gerrard, Nicky Butt and Frank Lampard, and just one outside them, Owen Hargreaves. With Beckham nailed to that right touchline, a strict 4-4-2 demands balance on the left, which is at present not forthcoming if the claims of a left-sided specialist such as Celtic's Alan Thompson are ignored. Instead we are faced with the prospect of Gerrard, Lampard, Hargreaves, Joe Cole or Emile Heskey, press-ganged there, out of their respective favoured positions, or the upgrading of Wayne Bridge or Ashley Cole from full-back.

The alternative is Eriksson's penchant for a diamond formation which can accommodate Gerrard on the left and has the advantage of answering Beckham's desire to drift inside, while also restricting the central thrust of England's opponents. However, disconcertingly, it deprives the team of real width - the expression "wingless wonders" comes to mind - and places a hefty burden of responsibility on the full-backs, Gary Neville, Danny Mills, Ashley Cole and Wayne Bridge, a quartet whose defensive prowess is far from commensurate with their undoubted attacking capabilities.

There is no absolute solution to this midfield quandary, though a Scholes-Beckham-Gerrard arrowhead, with support from a more defensively minded Butt or Hargreaves, appears the most potent in a squad who are equipped to secure that elusive championship. At times, Eriksson must wish he had at his disposal the versatility of Sir Clive Woodward's midfield personnel. But at least, as he spends the next four months pondering his team to face France, the England coach is aware he can depend on a Beckham fired up for the occasion, just as Woodward could with Wilkinson.

Passport to convenience

It was the late, great comedian Tony Hancock who, defending the "purity" of his blood when asked for his nationality by a nurse in the TV classic The Blood Donor, responded with typical smugness: "Ah, you've got nothing to worry about there. It's British. British. Undiluted for 12 generations. One hundred per cent Anglo-Saxon, with perhaps a dash of Viking. But nothing else has crept in."

That sketch came to mind when Christian Dailly declared that he would lead a revolt if "foreign imports" were imposed on the Scotland squad, such players' rights to represent the country based on the five-year residency rule which entitles them to a British passport. "If it came to it, I would rather lose with a team of Scots than win with foreigners in the side," he said with almost uncanny prescience ahead of the 4-0 defeat by Wales.

Apparently, Fifa now permit any players who have represented the country of their birth at Under-21 level downwards to switch nation at senior international level if they fulfil residency criteria. It would mean that, in theory, Celtic's French winger Didier Agathe or Blackburn's Italian defender Lorenzo Amoruso could represent Berti Vogts' team. It has long been mooted, of course, that Chelsea's Italian-born Carlo Cudicini could bolster Eriksson's goalkeeping resources, a suggestion he has rejected.

It is prohibited at present, anyway, because of an agreement between the home nations drawn up in 1993, but that could change when the subject is debated by the chief executives of the four nations on Saturday. There will also be a proposal that UK-born players can select which of the four nations they represent, regardless of blood lines, a notion that would prove highly satisfactory for England, who could trawl the kingdom for the most able performers, but be hugely unpopular with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

If such a policy was agreed, and spread to other sports, it would render the whole concept of international competition largely irrelevant. But aren't we approaching that situation already? Playing for the land of your father simply does not carry with it the honour it once had. All that counts now is: how can playing for a particular nation enhance my chances of success? Increasingly, we read of a sportsman "representing his adopted country". Everywhere, flags of convenience flutter gaily in the breeze. My colleague Gary Lemke, a South African, can name a complete notional rugby team, composed of his compatriots, who are playing or have played recently for five other nations. They include Mike Catt, Stuart Abbott, Matt Stevens, Michael Horak and Geoff Apple-ford (England), Gert Peens and Roland de Marigny (both Italy) and Brian Liebenberg, Pieter de Villiers and Steven Hall (France).

We joke about national associations employing more genealogists than physiotherapists, to explore the background of potential winners. No doubt Wales assumed the talented Sale flanker Chris Jones hailed from the Valleys. But if he possesses any trace of Welsh ancestry it dates back beyond his grandparents, and he is thus ineligible to represent the Principality, even if he was willing. Hence his first start for England yesterday.

But in future that may not be necessary. A player won't be selected, he will choose his team. And, in doing so, instigate a whole debate on the subject of national sporting pride. I remain defiantly British but, unlike Tony Hancock, with blood probably considerably diluted over generations, and with affinity for all of the home nations. In this job, it makes life a whole lot easier.