Interplay of style & substance

David Beckham's reign over free-kicks, in particular, was undisputed during the late 90s. It often didn't matter how many men linked arms in the wall or how high they jumped. Beckham would trick a cunning ball through, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

Sometime after David Beckham cold-chipped Wimbledon's goalkeeper from the halfway line, it isn't clear exactly when, the debate on his footballing merit divided like a log split. Never the best bedfellows, populist appeal and critical acclaim stood irrevocably apart.

A clinical analysis of Beckham the footballer was made difficult by the media-spun evolution of Beckham the celebrity. How could bias not play a part? There he was, for instance, bending the ball around walls, making it dip and curve as a performing monkey. But, equally, there he was right field, out-run, out-dribbled, out-thought, out-tackled.

Worse, it was becoming impossible to tell which scenes were studio-shot and which were footage.

Criticism of Beckham's football is often condescending, so much so that its authority is questionable. "He cannot kick with his left foot, he cannot head a ball, he cannot tackle and he doesn't score many goals," said George Best, gifted, irascible, and great. "Apart from that he's all right." There is truth in what Best said. But also a measure of hyperbole, which detracts from it.

The other aspect to the criticism is that it is in response to the ridiculous portrayal of Beckham as a great footballer; or in comparison with an exemplar — Brian Glanville, the respected journalist who also writes a column for Sportstar, put it thus: "Essentially a one-trick pony whose right foot is his fortune, he has none of the true winger's gifts of pace and swerve, the essential ability to reach the goal line... Beckham's presence hobbled the free flow of the attack."

Beckham's attempt to reinvent himself as a deep midfielder in Spain spawned criticism too. Alan Hansen, former footballer and current television pundit, damned him, first with hyperbole, then, lavish praise: "Never in a million years is David Beckham going to evolve into a holding midfielder. The simple reason is that position is 90 per cent destruction and 10 per cent creation — and Beckham is masterly as a creator."

So, just how good is Beckham?

It's immediately apparent he isn't great. Not great like Pele or Maradona or Cruyff or Di Stefano or Beckenbauer. Or even his English predecessors Charlton and Keegan. The question is best addressed in two parts: with regard to the interplay between style and substance, something that has marked Beckham's career; and with regard to his ability, specifically, in the dynamic and static components of football.

The lazy, uniformed view on Beckham's football states it emphasises style over substance. Central to this strain of thought is the erroneous interchangeable use of style and flair. But, we can only play the cards we're dealt. The argument will be countered on its definitions. The image, the Fancy Dan shoes, the many, many hairstyles: the easy inference is that of style.

But, as sportswriter David Mosse writes, "The man who seemingly epitomises style over substance is not terribly exciting to watch".

Indeed, Beckham's one claim to creative genius, the curling, weighted ball, isn't as much down to inspiration as it is to method. Alex Ferguson, his coach at Manchester United, said it was "practiced with a discipline to achieve an accuracy that other players wouldn't care about".

Flipping the stereotype around and drawing from Ferguson's observation, Beckham is nothing if not substance; the kind of hard-earned substance that always is appreciated in England. An experiment in Manchester United revealed that Beckham ran 8.8 miles during a match. No other player came close. Little wonder that not even his most ardent critics question his commitment or work ethic.

Fabio Capello, under whose regime at Real Madrid Beckham began by warming the bench, commended his professionalism.

The interplay of style and substance in Beckham's case isn't dissimilar to Russian tennis player Maria Sharapova's. Sharapova's tennis is rarely instinctive, original or fashionable — qualities that are attributed to her image. Tennis writer Peter Bodo's line — "She can recite poetry, but can't write it" — cuts to the bone. But, her desire and commitment to being the best tennis player she can be have a certain purity of purpose.

Criticism of Beckham's ability usually pertains to the dynamic periods of football. Much holds him back on his favourite right flank. He can't ignite and explode past a defender in a sudden gust of acceleration; he couldn't in his twenties when he was faster, and he certainly can't now.

His ball control isn't poor — he has shown a capable first touch on occasion — but, he hasn't made his name dribbling through defences. And bereft of an adequate left foot, he needs to work twice as hard to create the space he requires. His expert crossing ability helped him make up, especially in the early part of his career when the quality of tackling and marking in the English game wasn't high. But, as defences cottoned on, he didn't do what a great player might — find another way.

Standing an even six-feet tall, Beckham hadn't the physical presence to own deep mid-field. It was inevitable that he would struggle. That his fitness levels reportedly fell during his time at Real didn't help. Hansen's criticism is borne out by Beckham's mediocre performance in Spain. In his defence, Beckham did manage a patch of football this season that forced Capello to say a "major fault of his was not recognising Beckham's potential".

Of football's static periods, the set-pieces, Beckham was king. His reign over free-kicks, in particular, was undisputed during the late 90s. It often didn't matter how many men linked arms in the wall or how high they jumped. Beckham would trick a cunning ball through. It was here his athleticism — painfully absent on the hoof — stood out. The measured step up, the oiled hip turn, the slanting contact with the ball: the pain that went into it almost didn't show.

Beckham's skill with set-pieces could be his key to entering the American market. The image of Beckham holding a defensive wall and a goalkeeper to ransom is perfect for an audience with short attention spans. It makes for easy iconisation: the legend that grows through `YouTube' downloads.

Beckham's dead-ball ability didn't always extend to penalties. But, he bulled on — like a lunatic optimist, wrote eminent sportswriter Simon Barnes. Beckham always chose to take another penalty. "It was stupid, wrong, insane;" wrote Barnes after a qualifying match against Estonia. "It was also deeply touching, absurdly courageous and utterly revealing. It was out of step with reality, but great sportsmen change reality. Well, Beckham is in the class of the not-quite-great, but he was the man England and McLaren needed this week."

Beckham has dealt admirably with adversity. Whether recovering from a damaged metatarsal or helping Real to the championship despite being benched for arranging his transfer to Los Angeles Galaxy, Beckham has over-achieved as a footballer. He failed to become great, but it wasn't for want of effort. Perhaps, he should be allowed his oysters and wine with Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes.

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Name: David Beckham. Date of birth: May 2, 1975. Position: Right-winger, central-midfielder.

Named in Pele's FIFA 100 list of the greatest living players.

Married to Victoria, the couple has three sons.

Beckham's career began when he signed a professional contract with Manchester United, making his debut first-team appearance in 1992, at the age of 17. While with Manchester United he played a key role in their dominance of the FA Premier League in the 1990s and early 2000s, being pivotal in accomplishing The Treble of the League, FA Cup, and UEFA Champions League in 1999. He left the club to become only the third Englishman to sign for Real Madrid in 2003, after Laurie Cunningham and Steve McManaman, helping them to win the Supercopa de Espana in 2003 and the La Liga title in 2007.

On January 10, 2007, Real Madrid Sporting Director Predrag Mijatovic announced Beckham would leave the club when his contract expires in June 2007. On January 11, 2007, Beckham agreed to a move to the Major League Soccer (MLS) team Los Angeles Galaxy on a five-year contract commencing on July 1, 2007, after his existing deal with Real Madrid expires.

Beckham led the English national team from November 15, 2000 to July 2, 2006. He stood down as captain in 2006, after England's quarter-final exit at the World Cup.

Only English player to score in three World cups.

Compiled by V. V. Rajasekhara Rao; Graphics: R. Ravikannan