Peter Corrigan: The difference between forgiven and forgotten

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The Independent Football

When David Beckham runs out at the Bernabeu stadium today for Real Madrid's key match against Barcelona, he does so in the sure and certain knowledge that if he makes a sparkling contribution to a vital win he will be guaranteed a sizeable measure of salvation from his troubles.

Perhaps not from the missus, but certainly from his club and their supporters, who have been visibly and vocally miffed by the allegations that he has been saving his best performances for more private venues.

Forgiveness in sport does not always follow the same pattern, but it seems that the bigger the hero, the higher the level of tolerance for his sins and misdemeanours. No more glaring example of this was evident only last week, when Diego Maradona was rushed into intensive care in a Buenos Aires clinic after heart and breathing problems reputedly caused by drugs. The 43-year-old had hardly been hooked up to the respirator before an avalanche of praise began tumbling in his direction from all over the world. Happily, he is recovering, but you would have thought he was as good as gone by the tone of the obituary-style approval of his brilliant footballing talents.

None neglected to remind us of his infamous "Hand of God" incident against England in the 1986 World Cup, but they did so in the context that he went on to lift that World Cup for Argentina at the age of 25. His excesses - he was banned from the 1994 World Cup after failing a drug test and has suffered several subsequent drug-related scandals - have failed to devalue his reputation as the greatest player of his time, and if he cares to study the cuttings during his convalescence he will have advance notice of how history will judge him.

What posterity will make of Ron Atkinson is open to speculation. His presence in the company of Maradona and Beckham can be excused on the grounds that he managed to shove both out of the headlines for an outburst that was intended for the ears of a fellow commentator but went halfway around the world via a microphone someone forgot to switch off.

Among the caustic comments caused by Chelsea's 3-1 defeat in Monaco, Atkinson saved his most scathing condemnation for Chelsea defender Marcel Desailly. His actual words were: "He is what is known in some schools as a f***ing lazy, thick nigger." When complaints came pouring in from the Middle East, where his unscheduled broadcast had travelled, Atkinson resigned after making profuse apologies all round. He was unfortunate that his words reached a wider audience but that does not reduce the severity of the gaffe, which was made worse by the growing campaign to drive racism out of football.

Anyone who watched Chelsea's display in Monaco would be sympathetic to Atkinson's frustration. After achieving a promising 1-1 scoreline by half-time they threw away a very strong position because of needless substitutions by Claudio Ranieri, rightly criticised in the tirade, and some poor individual performances, among which Desailly's was prominent.

I recall some choice comments I made that evening in the privacy of my own hearth, and I wouldn't have been proud of my language, but they did not include reference to colour. It's not as if there aren't enough other curse nouns to call a man who has incurred your displeasure, and if Atkinson had used any of them, obscene as they might be, he would not have been in trouble.

But he reached for the one word that carries the maximum offence. I'm of the same generation as Atkinson, and I was chatting in the bar the other night with men of the same age, and we all agreed that the "n" word is an unpleasant relic of a distant past and seems to be used these days mainly by rap singers and black actors. And a good thing, too. What adds to its offensiveness is that it has an insulting ring not only to the recipient but to any black person. For some it could have been worse - Atkinson could have called Desailly French - but the word he did select was totally unacceptable. Most newspapers, like this one, presented what he said as "f***ing nigger". Some may think the asterisks were in the wrong word.

Much has been said in mitigation, that Atkinson did more than most to encourage black players when he was a manager. Several are still his friends, and they have rushed to defend him against the charge of being a racist, but each has confessed to being hurt by the word he used, and I'm afraid we've reached the stage at which words speak stronger than action. I've yet to hear Desailly's reaction. Perhaps he is still considering whether the racial slur is worse than being called lazy and thick.

In the meantime, he has been banned for three European games for elbowing Fernando Morientes in the face during the game. It hasn't been a good week for him. But he will get over it quicker than Atkinson, for whom I'm profoundly sorry. He has been one of the game's genuine characters since he played half-back for Oxford in the early Sixties, and his colourful punditry has added much to ITV's football coverage.

Will he qualify for the aforementioned forgiveness that heroes can command? I have my doubts. I would like to see him back after a suitable sojourn in the wilderness, but in the present climate around these matters, pardons are not easily come by.

A dark shadow has been cast over the homespun, jokey image that was his strength. He took enormous liberties with the language, but he managed to communicate an accurate analysis of what was going on in an entertaining manner. I've no doubt that he will be offered a column in a tabloid, and he will remain a cult figure with a certain audience but, fairly or not, he is permanently branded by the one word that has destroyed his career.

Beckham, meanwhile, is far from destroyed. Whatever the past few weeks have done to his marriage, his terrace-cred won't have suffered. The pressure of the publicity might have damaged a more fragile soul, but he is accustomed to wading through limelight. He will be determined to prove that the furore over his private life will not affect his profession, and I would expect him to respond to today's challenge in some style.

He will never be rated in the Maradona class, neither will he succumb to the same temptations, but he compensates for his artistic failings by being a genuine worker around the pitch and an ace deliverer of the ball where it needs to be.

There must be some doubt about the length of his stay in Madrid. If his marriage survives, his wife will have every right to want him where she can keep an eye on him, and all the signs suggest that is likely to be Chelsea. Power struggles at the Bernabeu might hasten that move. Enrique Sobrino, the Madrid lawyer who is bidding to take over the presidency of Real, has denounced the distraction Beckham has been causing and has issued a clear invitation to Chelsea's owner, Roman Abramovich, to pursue his interest in the player. Be sure that he would be welcomed at Stamford Bridge. The fans there are not as forgiving as they used to be, but they will most certainly make an exception in Beckham's case.