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Becksy-Wecksy - fancy Dan or Great Footballer


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Plinky Linky

 

 

In the last chance salon

 

Supermodels might flock to his parties, but surely the England captain wants to be remembered as something more than an A-list celebrity with interesting hair? This month, writes John Carlin, he must grasp a final opportunity, after four unimpressive international tournaments, to prove that his talent on the pitch can match his fame off it

 

The most remarkable thing about David Beckham is that he is not all that great a football player. He is good, sure. Some days he is excellent. But he is not great. What sets him apart, what makes him unique, is that never in sport has the gap been wider between a player's talent and his fame.

Until Beckham came along, the formula was simple: to be the biggest you had to be the best. Pele, Maradona, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldinho have become famous because they are, or have been, indisputably the finest in their sport. Beckham's achievement has been to become the world's most famous sportsman and best known living Englishman (possibly even dead one - are Blair, Thatcher, Churchill, Nelson or John Lennon household names in Guatemala, Uzbekistan or Madagascar?) without at any point having come close to being the world's best football player. Only his most devoted fans would argue that he has ever made it into the top 10.

 

All of which, as Beckham enters the twilight of his career (he has just turned 31 and he probably will not be England captain beyond the summer), raises a question. Will he be remembered as a footballer or as a celebrity? Today the answer has to be as a celebrity. For it is here that he has truly excelled, that he has been number one, or a contender for number one.

 

But now, this coming month, he has a shot at redemption. If he plays well and leads England to the World Cup - if, in other words, his sporting success catches up with his fame - he will be regarded by posterity more in the way it regards Bobby Charlton or Bobby Moore. But it is his last chance to change his destiny: to be remembered 20, 30 years from now first and foremost as a famous man who happened to be a footballer, rather than as a footballer who happened to be famous; as a superstar without cause.

 

Beckham's three years at Real Madrid, on the other hand, have been more successful than a lot of people in England seem to think. Yet at the same time they have exposed his shortcomings as a player, rendered them more apparent than they were at Manchester United. He remains a great striker of the ball, a great deliverer of crosses and long passes, but his great weakness - and the chief reason why he has never entered the lists alongside Maradona and Cruyff, Platini and Zidane - is his discomfort on the ball; how easy it is to dispossess him on those rare occasions when he tries to slow things down in the midfield, look up, ponder his next move.

 

In English football you don't muck about the way you do in the Spanish game. You receive the ball and you ping it forward. The pace in England is relentless. In Spain players dawdle more, then explode. To be able to dawdle and not lose the ball you need quick feet. The defender has to know that if he commits to the tackle, the chances are he will be kicking air. That is what happens with Zidane, but also Real team-mates Guti and Roberto Carlos, and the young Brazil right-back (a potential replacement for Cafu during the World Cup) Cicinho. Beckham does not have quick feet. He lacks that ability to take on a player and beat him. You can count on one hand the number of times he has dribbled round his man these past three years.

 

And yet, and yet ... Beckham has not performed at all badly at Real. He has been one of the team's most consistent players. He has had some excellent games. Had he not had the misfortune to have arrived at the club at the precise moment when their great players went into decline, he might now be basking in glory. And, in a way, he is. The fans at the Bernabeu are the most exquisitely fussy in the world. Far, far from the 'we'll support you ever more' ethic of the English supporter (it is little wonder that Spanish players right now are queuing up to play in the Premiership), they sometimes regard attendance at a football match as an experience comparable to a night at the opera.

 

That said, what they do have in common with all fans everywhere is that they value effort. They want to see a player demonstrating his commitment to the club. Giving his best. And this is a large reason why, despite being a manifestly less skilful player than several of his team-mates, Beckham has become a big favourite at the Bernabeu.

 

When Real fans were polled in March by Spain's biggest radio stations and two national newspapers, more than 80 per cent wanted Ronaldo, Zidane and Roberto Carlos to leave at the end of the season - but 78 per cent wanted Beckham to stay. No less strikingly, the sports newspaper As asked readers last October whether they considered Beckham to be the de facto 'leader' of Real Madrid and 58 per cent responded 'yes'.

 

Admittedly that question was asked after Beckham had played a particularly good game, but what has remained a constant during his time in Spain has been the fans' appreciation of the fact that nobody in the team covers more kilometres per game than he does, no one battles more visibly for the cause. There is also an admiration for those qualities everyone knows he possesses, for the elegance and precision of his passing, for that uniquely sweet quality in the contact between boot and ball. He is a far from complete footballer, but he is an aesthetically pleasing one.

 

And what Real fans on the whole acknowledge, too, is that had Beckham been given a target man in the style of Ruud van Nistelrooy to aim at, a striker who would know how to make the best use of his crosses, his statistics at Real would have been significantly more impressive. Ronaldo is categorically not a player to make full use of the bounty Beckham offers, even if the Englishman has provided the rampaging Brazilian with a number of finest-quality assists.

 

In short, if Beckham spoke Spanish, the chances are there would have been a clamour a while back to make him Real Madrid captain. Because one thing is for sure: his contribution to the team has been immeasurably greater than that of Raul who, ever since being declared by Sir Alex Ferguson in March 2003 to be the best player in the world, has not only ceased to be anything close to the best, he has practically ceased to be a player altogether. Were the man who is still, bafflingly, both Real and Spain captain to be judged solely on his performances since the start of the 2003-04 season, not a team in Europe would give a million pounds for him. Beckham, especially if you judge him on his performance during the first six months of his first season at Real, was well worth the minimum ?25m investment - as a player, and not just because of the undoubted marketing benefits that his face and name have delivered to the Bernabeu coffers.

 

So, if he has been worthy, in the view of some, of being Real Madrid captain, does it follow that he deserves the England captaincy? It came as a surprise to some when he was selected for the job by Peter Taylor in 2000. He was a player with only one goal in his first 38 internationals and a foolish sending-off in a World Cup game against Argentina in 1998. On the other hand he was a star of the 1999 treble-winning Manchester United team and, by Sir Alex Ferguson's reckoning at any rate, the best player in that epic Champions League final that United won with two goals in added time, both of them emanating from Beckham corners.

 

He rose to the occasion, amply, during qualification for the 2002 World Cup. One commanding performance after another once Sven-Goran Eriksson had settled him in the captaincy accounted, as much as any other factor, for England making it to Japan. In the tournament itself he was poor, in part because he was not fully fit; in part because it was in the Orient that Eriksson was unmasked as a craven, defence-obsessed Serie A man. Ever since, Eriksson has played Beckham as a sort of permanent wing-back, curtailing by 50 per cent or more his opportunities to do what he does best, namely tee-up goals. As for scoring them, not much luck there either. In the past 25 England matches he has scored just four times.

 

There again, neither has the rest of the team gelled. England have been poor all over for a while. Players such as Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, and even Wayne Rooney, have played below their club level for England. The thing about Beckham, whose fame always generated expectations higher than he can deliver, is that he needs the rest of the team to flow in order to play well himself.

 

As we saw during those first six months at the Bernabeu, when his performances were vastly better than they were when he played for England. This was when the Real team were firing on all cylinders, generating as much excitement as Barcelona are now - probably more, because of the world-famous names in the team. At this point Zidane was still fast and hungry, as well as naturally gifted. Ronaldo could not stop scoring goals. Roberto Carlos remained a bullet train down the left flank. Luis Figo was still a great right-winger.

 

Into this virtuoso orchestra stepped Beckham and he shone. His talents blazed, for a while, like never before. Not just the Bernabeu, but Spain, fell at his feet. He was, the sports writers said, the field marshal, the midfield general, the orchestra conductor. The inspiration of the team, the never-say-die Englishman who led by example, he scored in his first La Liga match for the club. His passes seemed to be more sublime than ever, for the simple reasons that the players on the end of them had a first touch the like of which Beckham had never smelt in a team-mate at Manchester United. A 50-yard pass for a goal that Zidane scored on the run, on the volley against Valladolid, will linger in the memory of everyone who saw it.

 

But then, as the team fell away, so did Beckham. And here is the point. Beckham is never going to rank among the football greats because he lacks that ability (save for that one amazing exception that proved the rule in the 2001 World Cup qualifier against Greece) to turn a game around single-handed. And he himself knows it.

 

I interviewed Beckham on the day he signed for Real and what came through, amid the global hoopla, was his humility, his feet-on-the-ground understanding that he was not in the same league as Zidane and Ronaldo. His strength, as he said, was as a team player. He was emphatic about it. He was not a galáctico, but a team player. And so it has proved. When the rest of his team-mates were going great guns, he did too. When they waned, and in fact practically disappeared altogether as has been the case since Easter 2004, when what should have been an epic treble-winning season ended in disaster, Beckham waned too. Or his influence did. Because he himself, and this is the reason why the Bernabeu has remained loyal to him, has never ceased to give his best. He has never hidden. He has been what fans and players alike acknowledge to be a 'genuine' player. He is as good now as he was when he arrived.

 

And, on the odd occasion this past season when Real have recovered their best form, Beckham has shone again. Real's last home game of the season, and Zidane's last in the club colours after announcing his retirement, offered a case in point. The rivals were Villarreal and the final result was 3-3. It was Zidane's day and, sure enough, he performed cameos, did things with the ball, that Beckham could never pull off if he practised for a hundred years. But, as every commentator agreed, Beckham stole the show. He was the best player on the pitch. The most effective, the most influential. The provider of two goals and the creator of more chances than anyone could remember.

 

Michael Robinson, the former Liverpool forward who played for Osasuna and is now a famous name on Spanish television, told me recently he was proud of Beckham. Partly because, like Robinson, he adapted admirably to the culture and made himself widely liked as a man, but mainly because of the spirit he had shown. 'His detractors say that he is not such a great, brilliant talent; that he is not Zidane. Well, sure,' says Robinson. 'We all know that. But he is a very good player. And he battles like hell and, as a fellow Englishman, I'll say it again, I'm proud of what he's achieved at Real Madrid.'

 

Robinson also shares the view that everyone who has met Beckham seems to have. That he is a very pleasant fellow. In Spain, at Real Madrid, there is no one I have come across who has a bad word to say about him as a man. He is decent, considerate, loyal and attentive beyond human understanding to the fans who clamour for his autograph everywhere in the world at every time of night and day. And yet there are so many people in the football world who have developed something resembling a visceral hatred of him. Rarely can there have been an individual so nice who was on the receiving end of so much venom.

 

His curse, in this regard at least, has been his looks. And his knack for capturing the fashion of the times. His detractors say that were he just an ordinary-looking bloke he would never have been reckoned worthy of playing for, let alone captaining, his country. They are wrong. They are blinded in their judgment of him as a player by their distaste for his lifestyle. They are unable to do what he has managed to do so well, namely to separate one thing from the other; to place a wall between Beckham the player and Beckham the celeb.

 

No one who has played with Beckham or coached him, with the possible exception of Alex Ferguson in the grouchy last days of their time together at Manchester United, has doubted his professionalism. Jorge Valdano, Real Madrid's former director of football and a World Cup winner with Argentina in 1986, told me that before a game he would look around the dressing room at the players to try to evaluate their mood. Beckham, he said, was the one player whose face was always a study in concentration; the one whose single-minded determination to play his best and win he never doubted.

 

More people in the game would have detected these sterling qualities were it not for all the hoo-ha surrounding him and which he himself - with his wife as chief accomplice - has sought out. Had he been more ordinary-looking, and less exhibitionist off the field, he would have been spared the destiny that seems to await him of being remembered, many years hence, not as a fine sportsman chiefly, but as a social phenomenon; as a symptom of a peculiar age; as a man famous for being famous.

 

Short of glory in the World Cup, that is the price he appears condemned to pay. In a saner, more measured, less celebrity-mad world, he would have gone down in history the way he might have wished to go down: as a very good and gutsy player; as one of the better footballers that England has produced.

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