The Beckham myth

David Beckham good at set pieces and deliveries.-AP

Where Beckham has, beyond all doubt, excelled has been off the football field, with immense commercial success. Good looking, of modest demeanour, he has long attracted rich advertisers from a multiplicity of differing companies, writes Brian Glanville.

To a fanfare of trumpets and a very occasional dissenting voice, David Beckham has retired from football. Winner, one way or another, of 109 England caps, numerous honours with his original club Manchester United, hugely rich as the result of his infinity of commercial contracts, highly rated in past voting for the European footballer of the year, he has largely been lauded as a hero.

But is he? Was he? I have never been convinced. Look, not least, at those 109 caps, which put him one cap ahead of the sainted Bobby Moore, but there is one considerable difference. Where Moore made 107 of his 108 appearances for England over the full 90 minutes, the exception that emphatically proved the rule was the World Cup final at Wembley in 1966 when he captained his team to victory over 120 minutes, including the half hour’s extra time.

By embarrassing contrast, a plethora of Beckham’s later caps came during the reign of Fabio Capello as England manager. Capello, for some obscure reason, kept putting Beckham on as a second-half substitute, sometimes with a negligible period on the field. But each of those appearances, however brief, carried with it a cap. It was almost as though Capello himself had some strange motive for wanting Beckham to overtake Moore’s splendid record.

A significant dissenting voice amidst the chorus of eulogies came from another ex-England winger Chris Waddle, a late developer capable of playing on either flank, who played at Newcastle United, went South to Spurs and had successful seasons in France at Marseille, developing over the seasons into a shrewd and intelligent winger after a beginning in which his pace was paramount.

Scathingly, Waddle declared that he would not put Beckham in the top 1000 Premiership players. “He never had a trick, wasn’t quick but he was good at set pieces and deliveries.” Harsh perhaps, but not unfair. The essence of a classical winger is his ability to take on the opposing full back, go past him on the outside, get to the goal-line and pull the ball back into the middle for the most dangerous and productive pass in football. Beckham just could not do that. He hadn’t the necessary skill to put the opposing defender on his wrong foot, out of balance and then, with a flick of the right boot, go by him down the touchline. Nor did he have the pace to leave the back behind even if he had those particular skills. For these deficiencies, he to some degree compensated with this undoubtedly remarkable, powerful and supremely accurate set pieces, but to some extent he was like a field gun firing its howitzer shells from afar. It was with a gloriously, insidiously struck free kick that he gave England (even if the free kick should arguably not have been awarded) a perilously late and lucky draw at home to Greece in a World Cup qualifying game, enabling them to top the group and qualify for the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan.

I well recall once seeing Beckham score an amazing goal almost from halfway for Manchester United at Selhurst Park. In Stuttgart, in the second round of the 2006 World Cup against Ecuador, after an hour he won the match with a supremely elusive free kick that slipped home just inside the left hand post and won the praise of the Ecuadorian manager himself. In Frankfurt, he had won England’s opening game 1-0 with a free kick that provoked an own goal by the confused Paraguayan captain, Carlos Gamarra.

The previous World Cup had seen Beckham’s penalty beat Argentina in Japan’s Sapporo, some kind of revenge for what had happened when the teams met at Saint Etienne in the 1998 World Cup in France. It was there, a couple of minutes into the second half, that Beckham, fouled by the tricky Argentine Diego Simeone, later to become such a successful manager with Atletico Madrid, lay on the ground, kicked out at him and was promptly and properly sent off by the Danish referee Kim Nilton Nielsen. Aware of Beckham’s propensity for such moments, Glenn Hoddle, the England manager, had often warned him against such excesses, but in vain. England’s 10 men were forced to soldier on gallantly into extra time and even then were eliminated only on penalties.

Hard though it may now seem in the wake of Beckham’s ecstatic tributes, he became almost a hate figure among the more choleric fringes of English fans. There was a shocking incident when they left the field in Belgium’s Charleroi after a chaotic 3-2 defeat by Romania had put England out of the 2000 European finals: a group of foul-mouthed young English hooligans abused from close range not only Beckham but also his young family.

As for penalties, Beckham did not always convert them. When in the subsequent European Championship (Portugal 2004) it came to a shootout, Beckham took the first English penalty kick, missed — he seemed to think that he slipped — and the Portuguese ultimately won that quarter-final.

Where Beckham has, beyond all doubt, excelled has been off the football field, with immense commercial success. Good looking, of modest demeanour, he has long attracted rich advertisers from a multiplicity of differing companies. How significant it was that when he arrived at Real Madrid to play for a time somewhat sporadically, he was mobbed at the airport. The far more gifted Michael Owen came; all but ignored on arrival.