Should we allow England captains to bend the rules like Beckham?

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James Lawton: No... this is final straw in faltering leadership of the publicity king

James Lawton: No... this is final straw in faltering leadership of the publicity king

The case against the England captaincy of David Beckham can be waged at many different levels but maybe we had its ultimate prosecution here on a sunny afternoon when Sir Geoff Hurst unveiled a statue of the linesman who ruled that one of the nation's greatest football heroes had indeed scored the goal that delivered the World Cup 38 years ago.

It was a moment of the warmest nostalgia and pride. The stony features of late Tofikh Bakhramov, who is alleged to have murmured the word Stalingrad when asked why he stood so defiantly in the face of German protests, were no less resolute when Hurst took away the sheet flapping in the breeze. Another Tofikh Bakhramov, a grandson, posed with Hurst for a battery of cameramen.

But there was, you did not have to strain to see, a tightness around the eyes of the man who produced the hat-trick that provided the highest point in English football history ... and also in his words when he was asked what he thought about Beckham's admission that he had deliberately committed a foul in order to receive the yellow card that ruled him out of tonight's World Cup qualifier here.

The words might have been chipped out of the same stone that commemorated his Azerbaijani benefactor, but when they came they delivered a crushing verdict.

"It is not a question of what Bobby Moore would have thought of this action of an England captain, what is important is what Sir Alf Ramsey would have said. He would have said: 'Thanks, that's it'."

So what, another generation might ask, is so relevant about the opinion of an ageing icon of days that in some ways, as Hurst himself said, might have happened on another planet?

It is maybe because in football, just as in life, a few things do not change. The best qualities of leadership do not change. The priorities of making a team are quite immutable. What Hurst was saying yesterday is what some of us have been saying for a few years now. It was that the captaincy of Beckham has become untenable.

Apart from anything else, it is a supreme distraction. Always the centre of attention is Beckham. The last time he was missing from a significant England match - a European qualifier against Slovakia which came after he had been suspended following another extremely dubious yellow card, which as it happened allowed him to undertake a promotional tour in America - the stand-in captain Michael Owen said that the only place he ever wanted to see his own name and picture was on the sports page.

At that moment Owen came closest to saying the unsayable. It was that Beckham had turned his leadership, rather as he had his life, into a circus.

Here again England's preparation for an important match was swamped by the issue of the absentee captain. The coach Sven Goran Eriksson side-stepped the crisis and said that he would be dealing with the issue when more pressing business was out of the way. But it was the big question, dwarfing the smooth return of Rio Ferdinand to international action, the dramatic development of Ashley Cole as arguably the world's best left back, the revival of Owen, and the majestic flight path of Wayne Rooney.

We were back with Beckham business, back with the day-long newscasts and bulletins about a player whose contribution to the England cause, if you take away last Saturday's brilliant, albeit long overdue strike, has been negligible to the point of embarrassment.

Why? Because Beckham was so miffed by weekend reports of his irresponsible tackles on the Welsh full-back Ben Thatcher he had his publicist call a sports writer on Monday and set up a telephone interview. The burden of Beckham's case was that he had realised he had broken ribs and decided that he would clean up his threat of suspension with a tackle that would ensure his suspension from a game in which he would not, anyway, be able to play. Staggeringly, Beckham thought this was a dramatic refutation of charges that he was perhaps somewhat less than magisterial in his power of thought.

Whatever you think of Beckham's decision, whether it was just another example of the cynicism of today's football, or whether it was a daunting mixture of both recklessness and stupidity, the mind is required to reel again when you consider why Beckham would go public?

Why indeed? Could it really be the desperately sad requirement of a daily tank of the oxygen of publicity? That is one suspicion which is grounded in Beckham's long history in playing the media for all it's worth. There are other realities, of course. His marriage is again battered by red-top revelations. Maybe Beckham's Sunday morning angst, which led to the disaster of his self-serving phone call to the football writer, came with the realisation that the old formula no longer worked. At Old Trafford he had scored a wonderful goal, more technically brilliant than the free-kick which rescued England's World Cup qualification campaign on the same ground, but no longer did such a moment cover all the cracks appearing in his life ... and his performance.

No, the goal was celebrated only in the margins of his latest scandal ... and fresh evidence that he was temperamentally unsuitable to the demands of the captaincy.

The Beckham circus has many characteristics, but the most enduring one is an unprecedented thrust of self-promotion. Now, however, the results are increasingly negative. The most crushing irony is that when he made his fateful phone call he thought he was being smart. Nothing could have been further from the truth. It was something that Hurst had the charity not to say. But then maybe he had already spoken eloquently enough for all those who believe that for some time the England captaincy has been left in inadequate hands.

Brian Viner: Yes... it was a smart move, but the really silly thing was to own up

The notion of dishing out red and yellow cards to signify sendings-off and bookings was conceived in 1966 by the English referee Ken Aston, who cleverly realised that if the colours replicated those of traffic lights, they would be globally understood.

To extend the traffic analogy, some people now believe that David Beckham has recklessly crashed a set of lights, causing ethical if not physical carnage. His admission that he copped a deliberate yellow card in England's World Cup qualifier against Wales, because he knew he was injured and that his suspension from today's match against Azerbaijan would therefore be irrelevant, is held by Beckham's critics to undermine the entire moral framework of the beautiful game.

I see it differently. Well, as a premeditated foul it contravened the spirit of the game, but I can't find the moral difference between that and a deliberate foul to stop a goalscoring chance, which happens all the time.

Moreover, you can't undermine something which long ago ceased to exist. Football has no moral framework any more, and to stick the boot into Beckham for bringing the game into disrepute, in the week in which Wayne Rooney's agent, Paul Stretford, was found to have misled a Crown Court jury in a blackmail case involving gangsters allegedly enlisted by Kenny Dalglish, surely misses the target as comprehensively as Beckham himself did from the penalty spot in the quarter-final of Euro 2004.

In fact, I think we should thank the England captain for doing what he did. There is no doubt that hundreds of footballers have bent the law like Beckham, but as the most high-profile transgressor, his action will surely lead to an overdue review of the suspension system. That is, if the stuffed blazers at Fifa have any sense, which is still a matter of conjecture.

In the meantime, it is plainly idiotic that a player can, with a bit of guile, choose which game he is suspended from. It is even more idiotic that a player from team A can be booked for a foul against a player from team B, which later contributes to a suspension benefiting teams C, D and E. Even if he is sent off, that might happen in the 88th minute, in which case it yields little advantage to the opposition.

In the Premiership recently, Everton's Tim Cahill was badly injured in an appalling tackle by Tottenham's Jamie Redknapp. Cahill was thus removed from the game, while the referee somehow judged the offence worthy of only a yellow card. That it was later made a retrospective red and Redknapp handed a three-game ban was of scant consolation to Everton, who lost 1-0.

A solution would be for a booked player to be consigned to a sin-bin for 10 or 20 minutes depending on the severity of the offence, and for a player sent off after, say, the 70th minute, to be made ineligible for the next match against the same team. This, too, would throw up anomalies - especially in international football - but the system would still be fairer than it is now.

As for Beckham, he is manifestly not whiter than white, least of all the back of his neck. I don't mind lambasting him for that grotesque tattoo, which he must have known would have his more impressionable fans, some of them schoolkids, going under the needle. And to cite his guile on Saturday as an example of his cleverness, as he has since done, merely exemplified his stupidity. He should have kept his mouth shut.

But he scored a great goal and he used a warped system to his and England's advantage. He deserves to be praised for the former, and not to be vilified for the latter.

PREVIOUS CONVICTIONS: HE DID THE SAME THING IN MARCH

There has already been one apparently clear-cut case of David Beckham seeking a "tactical booking" so as to serve a suspension in time to return for a future key fixture. It came on 24 March 2004, during Real Madrid's 4-2 quarter-final, first-leg win over Monaco in the Champions' League. In injury time, Beckham, who already had a yellow card in the competition, lunged at Monaco's Jaroslav Plasil to pick up another yellow, meaning he would miss the return leg but be free to play in the semi-final, which at that stage seemed likely to be against Arsenal. Beckham did not admit it was deliberate but it was widely assumed to be so in the Spanish media.

The practice is sufficiently common in Spain, that they have a term for it: forzar una tarjeta amarilla - "forcing" the yellow card. Far from castigating Beckham for his actions, the Spanish press applauded them, as John Carlin noted in his new book. "The Spanish sports press saluted Beckham's wisdom" he writes in White Angels: Beckham, Real Madrid and the new football, "and celebrated the glorious return to life of the Galacticos..."

As it transpired, Beckham missed the return leg and Real lost 3-1 and were knocked out of the competition.

Beckham has also been accused of collecting a "tactical booking" during England's 2-0 win over Turkey in a Euro 2004 qualifier on 2 April 2003. His booking meant he missed the next qualifier against Slovakia, allowing him to visit America on a promotional tour. However, since the booking - for dissent - came after only eight minutes, during a frenzied opening to the match, others have doubted that Beckham would have earned it deliberately.

STATE OF DISGRACE: TEAM LEADERS WHO MUDDIED THE COLOURS

Douglas Jardine and the 'bodyline' tour

Jardine led England's "bodyline" tour of Australia in 1932-33, winning the series 4-0, but was criticised for ordering dangerous short-pitched deliveries aimed at the body. Australia planned a boycott until the MCC declared such tactics unsporting.

Bobby Moore and the emerald bracelet

Moore was accused of stealing an emerald bracelet from a shop in Bogota shortly before the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. Moore was put under house arrest but was later cleared of all allegations.

Mike Gatting and the Shakoor Rana incident

Gatting and umpire Shakoor Rana had a furious shouting match on the pitch at Faisalabad during England's 1987 tour of Pakistan. Rana later refused to take to the field, claiming that Gatting had launched a foul-mouthed tirade at him. The Test match continued only after pressure from the Foreign Office.

Will Carling and the '57 old farts'

Carling was sacked as England captain in 1995 after branding the RFU committee "57 old farts". However, the squad protested, leaving the RFU with little option but to reinstate him.

Lawrence Dallaglio and the 'honey-trap'

Dallaglio was accused of claiming that he dealt in drugs, and he later admitted to experimenting with them as a teenager, having been caught in a "honey-trap" by the News of The World. Saying he was "naive and foolish", Dallaglio resigned.

Michael Atherton and the soiled pockets

Atherton was accused of dipping into soil in his pockets and rubbing it onto the ball to thereby gain reverse swing. Atherton was fined £2,000 by the ECB's chairman of selectors, Ray Illingworth.

Matt Denver, Sam Clark and Claire Turvey

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