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High time for Beckham to grow up

Ian Ridley sees Glenn Hoddle's most gifted youngster show his immaturity
England have played Brazil only 18 times in 43 years. The chances to acquire that evocative green and yellow symbol of footballing glory and style when shirt-swapping time comes around are rare indeed, even if the Brazilians will come to your stadium more often these days if the money is right. Miss one, and it is likely to be two years at least before another comes around. If you are lucky. David Beckham will miss one tomorrow night and he is unlucky.

And foolish. After his yellow card for a foul on Italy's Demetrio Albertini came a bizarre booking against France in Montpellier on Saturday night which has caused his suspension from the Paris match. Sitting it out and seeing that shirt go to someone else will be a painful and salutary lesson.

Beckham had taken a late, heavy tackle from the frequently clumsy Arsenal midfield player, Patrick Vieira. On came the England physio Alan Smith to treat his ankle. The referee, Said Belquola of Morocco, called for a trolley-stretcher but by the time it arrived Beckham was hobbling towards the sideline for more treatment and ignored instructions to climb on.

The caution, which England were considering an appeal against until discovering that only red cards qualified, was for dissent. The England coach Glenn Hoddle said that Beckham was adamant that the referee had said nothing to him but it was clear from the referee's gestures what was meant. Instructions for injured players to be carried off and then treated is part of Fifa's attempt to keep the game moving.

"It was a harsh lesson for all but a valuable one," Hoddle said. "When that stretcher comes, you jump on quickly." Indeed the more experienced Graeme Le Saux, scorer of England's goal against Brazil in the 3-1 defeat at Wembley in 1995 and clearly wanting another shot, clambered aboard later in the game despite his injury being facial.

Beckham's reaction to the incident, though lachrymose, recalled that of Paul Gascoigne, then only a year older at 23, when booked in the World Cup semi-final against Germany in 1990. Who can forget those pictures of Gary Lineker turning to the bench, his face fretting about Gazza's state of mind?

"I was nice and comfortable in the stand but I had to come down and calm him down," Hoddle said of Beckham. The wise Gareth Southgate also had a word after the Manchester United midfield player returned to the pitch and went straight to Vieira to issue a few angry comments.

For some 15 minutes, Beckham seemed more concerned about the whereabouts of Vieira than the ball and his temperament remains a concern about him, as well as a penchant for making the most of incidents. One recalls Beckham falling, apparently poleaxed but in fact untouched, against Rapid Vienna at Old Trafford last season.

A temptation for Hoddle must have been to withdraw Beckham at half-time but to his credit he persevered - to Beckham's advantage. After the break the youngster was once more England's most creative, visionary force, one reverse pass into the path of Ian Wright illustrating the necessary capacity for invention that can decide tight matches at the highest level.

Too soon to play him competitively in central midfield rather than wing- back? Not on the evidence of what have been surprisingly competitive matches in France. If he can mature rapidly amid the hurly-burly, England may have their on-pitch Hoddle de nos jours.

"He will learn," said Hoddle. "He must learn from that. We can't afford to pick up cautions. It shows you can learn from the negatives as well as the positives." It may not seem very positive to Beckham tomorrow night as he sees the opportunity to contest the midfield against Dunga, Giovanni and Leonard - and that shirt - slip out of view. But better now at Le Tournoi than next year at the tournament.