Battles won in the midfield

AP

Though Argentina's JUAN RIQUELME was the best player of the first weekend, England and Portugal captains David Beckham and Luis Figo produced moments of magic that made them the emotional favourites, writes N. U. ABILASH.

David Beckham counts on his most prized asset — his golden right-foot — to help him keep his tryst with destiny. The captain made a small beginning towards that unfulfilled journey in Frankfurt in England's World Cup opener against Paraguay. Four minutes into the game, the right-sided midfielder stepped up into the left channel to take a free kick. That the Beckham right-foot is at the heart of the multi-billion pound construction of `Brand Beckham' was evident when he curled the kick around the Paraguayan wall. The `wicked' delivery glanced the head of the Paraguay captain Carlos Gamarra and continued in its path into the far right corner of the net leaving goalkeeper Justo Villar stranded. Like the other accurate deliveries from the right that evening that found its targets in the centre but were wasted because of Michael Owen's lack of match practice and Peter Crouch being all hands and legs, the free kick once again proved that nothing about Beckham is as youthful as that magic right foot. Not even the glamour accessories such as the stud, the tattoo, the ever-changing hairstyle, the `Beckingham Palace', the flashy cars and the `Posh' factor.

Last November, on the eve of England's `friendly' against Argentina in Geneva, his 50th match as England captain, Beckham revealed his destiny. "I believe in destiny. I set a target for myself when I was given the captaincy and that was to reach the records of Bobby Charlton and Bobby Moore, both of whom were idols of me and my dad." Former Manchester United forward Charlton played 106 times for England, two less than the tally of former West Ham defender Moore, who is the most capped outfield player for England.

Beckham addressed two more related issues that evening, and left them hanging on loose ends almost by design. "It seems Argentina are destined to play a big part in my career," he said, referring to his infamous 1998 red card in France, the famous 2002 penalty that won England's group match in Japan and to his team's rivalry with the South American giants. "It is a special moment not only because it is my 50th as captain but because it's against our great rivals who are one of the best teams in the world. If we add to the trophy lifted by Moore in Wembley next summer we will also reach their level."

Over the next three weeks, we will see whether Beckham can fully keep his date with destiny; after all, the greatness of Moore and Charlton reside more in them being the `Boys of '66' than the number of times they represented England. Going by the Paraguay match, Beckham's road will be painful — "In football we must suffer," as his manager Sven-Goran Eriksson so philosophically said during the post-match press conference — and he will have to count on his right foot a lot in the event of the waning of Owen's scoring skills due to the complications of the metatarsal injury suffered by the Newcastle striker on New Year's Eve 2005.

Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, suffering from back spasm, was a shadow of his usual self against Paraguay in central midfield, where his partner, Chelsea's Frank Lampard, needs to be a bigger influence than the mild form he struck during the second half of the match. The question mark over Wayne Rooney's form and fitness will add to Beckham's list of worries.

All Lampard needs to do to understand the meaning of the word influence is to study the video footage of Argentina's opener against Ivory Coast, and narrow his field of vision to Juan Roman Riquelme's role in his team's impressive victory against a tough opposition. Riquelme's master class in ball possession, distribution and dictating the ebb and flow of the game left nobody in doubt, least of all Diego Maradona who was watching the match, as to who was the best player of the first weekend in Germany, though it must be added that Trinidad goalkeeper Shaka Hislop will be aggrieved at the popular choice.

The Villarreal midfield general set up both his team's goals — the first from a brilliant free kick taken from almost the same spot as Beckham fired in his delivery against Paraguay, and the second from a through ball of great imagination and vision to the impressive forward Javier Saviola.

Riquelme's brilliance in the centre for Argentina contrasted the trend of other leading contenders such as England and Portugal finding form wide in the midfield in their opening matches. The Netherlands also looked deadly in the flanks against Serbia and Montenegro, but it was not their midfielders but wide attackers — goalscorer Arjen Robben, who as The Guardian's Michael Walker memorably wrote "made his flank the centre of the game and changed the whole dynamics of the pitch" and Arsenal's Robin van Persie — who made all the difference.

The Netherlands' Wesley Sneijder and Phillip Cocu gave the creative and defensive back-up in the central midfield to the wide attackers. Germany's creative-defensive partnership of Tim Borowski and Torsten Frings impressed in the central midfield against Costa Rica in the absence of `injured' captain Michael Ballack, whose entry soon will ensure that Riquelme will not have it easy in what will be an engrossing tussle for one-upmanship between the world's best midfield generals. The inflection of Portugal's central midfielder Deco, who missed the opener against Angola due to injury, will ensure that the battle extends beyond a duopoly.

For purely emotional reasons, another right-sided midfielder, Portuguese captain Luis Figo, who is playing his last World Cup, will step up beside David Beckham to share the prize for providing the best moment of the tournament during its first weekend.

Figo's moment of magic early in the opener against former Portuguese colony Angola produced the only goal of the match as a far-from-impressive Portugal, like England, chose to lie back and defend. With a sudden burst of speed and great control, Figo broke free of the rival defender and set up striker Pauleta, who made no mistake.

There were a couple of more flashes of genius from the great player, who like Beckham is on his last ride towards fulfilling destiny. Figo, who was forced to move out of Real Madrid at the beginning of last season because of Beckham, is the last surviving member of Portugal's `golden generation'.

Much was expected of Portugal, the Under-20 World Championship winners in 1989 and 1991, but all they have to show till date are a semifinal place in Euro 2000 and a loss to lowly Greece in the final of Euro '04.

Over a quiet drink in Germany during the course of the next three weeks — there are no hard feelings between the two former club team-mates in spite of the professional competition that forced Figo to move to Inter Milan — Figo and Beckham are likely to evaluate their situations. One can almost hear Figo sympathising with his English counterpart's infinitely tougher task. Not just because of England's metatarsal conundrums, but also because of the millstones in the form of 1966 and those brutally invasive rags back home in London called the tabloid press.