Has Fabio sold out?


Before the match against France, Fabio Capello sent his Italian side-kick Franco Baldini all the way to Dallas, Texas, some 11000 miles in all, to see David Beckham play for the Los Angeles Galaxy in a mere friendly.

When Fabio Capello, whom I have known first as player and then as manager for 35 years, accepted the England role, I was full of optimism. Here was a manager who would play no favourites, stand no nonsense, and would consign the wretched ineptitude of the McClaren years to the dustbin of history. There would be no more Beckhamitis, no more flying 6000 miles each way from London to Los Angeles to watch — or in fact not even to watch — David Beckham play in the junk football of the so-called Major League Soccer. As Steve McClaren did not once, but twice, having initially, when appointed England manager, dropped Beckham from his squad.

And things seemed to start well enough with Capello, who, in fact, as the manager of Real Madrid had himself dropped Beckham very abruptly, only in time to bring him back. Beckham was not a member of Capello’s first England squad for the friendly against Switzerland. But before the next friendly match, against France in Paris, what did Capello do but send his Italian side-kick Franco Baldini all the way to Dallas, Texas, some 11000 miles in all, to see David Beckham play for the Los Angeles Galaxy in a mere friendly. Baldini seemed satisfied by Beckham’s physical condition and was reassured about it by none other than Ruud Gullit, who after years of playing and managerial glory finds himself running the Galaxy. So Baldini returned to London, evidently reported positively to Capello; who proceeded to choose Beckham for the French game, both in the original 30 players, then in the final, diminished squad.

This is what he had to say about it. “Good players are good players, whether they play in the US, England or Spain. On top of that Beckham is fresher than other players at the moment, having just started his season. We will see him in training, but the important thing is that he is available and fit. He can always make an important contribution, because of his vision on the pitch and his crosses. He can always create chances and not just from free kicks.”

Questions begged while you wait! Good players are such, wherever they play? But Capello knows perfectly well that to be a good player in the Premier League or the Primera Liga, and a good player in the backwater of the MLS is a wholly different matter. This is simply illogical. So is the fatuous argument that, since the MLS is at the beginning of its mediocre season, Beckham will be “fresher” than English players operating in England. How fresh is fresh, when the surrounding standard is so low? How match fit can a player be when the MLS season hasn’t even begun? And even when it has, how match fit by the hugely superior standards of top European soccer?

As for the fact that Beckham’s cleverly flighted and swerved crosses, either from free kicks or open play, can bring goals, there is no doubt at all about that. Witness the two he fashioned in the last World Cup, the ones he brought about when England won in Estonia; but that is only half of the equation. By his own admission, Beckham doesn’t beat his opponents, nor has he the speed to leave them standing. In the 2006 World Cup, despite those goals, he was far more a liability than an asset. It was all too embarrassingly notable that when the swift and elusive young Aaron Lennon of Spurs came on to the right-wing, the whole attacking picture changed radically. Suddenly here was a right-winger in the classical mode, able to take on his opposing full-back, beat him down the flank on the outside, and carry on to the goal-line where he could pull back into the goalmouth the most telling pass in the game.

Yet amazingly, Lennon, though recently in bright form for Tottenham, wasn’t even chosen in the 30 for Paris, let alone in the subsequently reduced squad. The sentimental demand that Beckham be allowed to win his 100th cap would, one had hoped, surely be rejected by a Capello famous for his lack of that quality. Not least when by any objective standard Beckham should never have been allowed to play as many as 99 times for England. But above all, there is the matter of Blackburn Rovers’ David Bentley.

It was especially significant that, just four days before the Parisian game, Bentley, far and away the best player on the field, should have a superb match at Blackburn against Wigan. He was far and away the best player on the field in a 3-1 win by Blackburn, although they were reduced for most of the match to 10 men. Indeed he has been in scintillating form for Blackburn on the right-wing — which at times he can leave with profit and effect — all season. Discarded by Arsenal after a bright beginning, unfulfilled in his time at Norwich City, Bentley at Blackburn has been able to express the full range of his great abilities. Pace, ball control, flair, a powerful right-foot. Could it, at this moment, be seriously suggested that Beckham, whatever his free kicks, could be preferred to a player in such ebullient form?

Two other young players surely had far stronger claims than the ageing Becks to a place on the right-wing. With Bentley having put well behind him the contretemps which occurred late last season when he refused to play for the England Under-21 team in the finals on their European tournament in Holland. To be roundly and mindlessly booed by the oafish Wembley fans next time he appeared there for the full England team.

Shaun Wright Phillips, though he can be erratic, has had his excellent matches for England. He was chosen in the original 30, then cut from the squad. A player with speed and on his day the ability to create substantial trouble for any defence. Then there is the just 19-years-old Theo Walcott of Arsenal, seemingly enrolled as a potential striker, though his two fine displays as a substitute for Arsenal against Milan in their recent European Cup ties showed how effective he can be — abundant pace again — on the right flank. The way he left his opponents for dead to set up Arsenal’s vital goal at San Siro was as impressive as the way that previously, in London, he had given Emmanuel Adebayor the easy headed chance which he spurned, hitting the bar. In Milan however, Adebayor could hardly miss and didn’t.

If Beckham, in Paris, could come on and create goals with those supreme right-footed crosses, if he could even win the game for England, it would not have justified Capello and his depressing choice. The impression persists that he has alas dodged the column. A victim of Beckhamitis.