Does David Beckham belong to the history or to the mythology of football? Was he remotely worth those 115 England caps? Does a predecessor on the England right being Chris Waddle have a valid point when he declared that Beckham wouldn’t get even into the top thousand of Premiership footballers: “He never had a trick,” says Waddle, he wasn’t quick but he was good at set pieces and deliveries.
What Beckham possessed beyond all doubt was a supremely powerful and accurate right foot, ideal for exploiting and indeed often converting free kicks. Such as the one he so memorably convert in the closing seconds against a Greek team deservedly in the lead, thereby enabling England to scrape a draw in that 2002 World Cup eliminator and go on to qualify for the finals in Japan and South Korea.
In the 2006 tournament his cleverly elusive free kicks gave England two victories, one against Paraguay, whose captain Carlos Gamarra was confused enough to put through his own goal, the other perfectly executed against Ecuador which even their manager eulogised, which slipped home just inside the left hand post. Sometimes one idly wondered whether his ideal situation would have been in a sport which emulated the American gridiron game, in which a designated kicker is brought off the bench simply to take a place kick after which he sits down again.
Beckham seemed able to endear himself to successive England managers. So much so that Sven Goran Eriksson was once induced to deny that there was any kind of “marriage” between them! As for Fabio Capello, he indulged Beckham with a bewildering series of what one can only call cheap caps, caps for substitute appearances, sometimes of extreme brevity. That he should surpass Bobby Moore’s achievement of 108 caps bordered on the farcical. Moore won them, with a couple of notable exceptions, for 90-minute appearances. The first exception being the 1966 World Cup final against West Germany at Wembley when he captained England to victory over the 120 minutes which involved extra time. The other occasion being the 1970 World Cup quarter final defeat to West Germany, when he again played the full 120 minutes.
One remarkable fact omitted from all the reverent eulogies is that Beckham in the 1998 World Cup finals in France fell into disgrace. Two minutes into the second half of the match in Saint Etienne, versus Argentina, he was fouled by Diego Simeone. While on the ground, though warned by England’s manager Glenn Hoddle that he should always contain his temper (the eternal rule of Never Retaliate) he petulantly kicked out at Simeone and was promptly and was properly sent off by Kim Milton Nielsen, the Danish referee. Which condemned the ten English players left to soldier on all through the next 73 minutes, including the half hour of extra time, only to go out on penalties.
This made Beckham something of a hate object among the wilder fringe of English fans for some time to come. A couple of years later at Euro 2000, playing in which proved the last game of a struggling team beaten by Romania and thus eliminated, he came off the field to be viciously confronted by a group of English toughs who vilely abused even his wife and son.
That Beckham should have risen from the ashes of such ignominy to become the very icon of English football was not the least of his achievements. A fame which, with his boyish good looks and modest manner, guaranteed him colossal commercial success. Nor did his five years with the Los Angeles Galaxy in the backwater of the American Major League Soccer varied, admittedly by spells in Milan and Paris, do anything to diminish his commercial ascendancy.
In his own way, he has been something of a phenomenon, with a definite disparity between fame and actual achievement. How notably ironic it was that when he joined Real Madrid for a period of mixed success, huge crowds met him at Madrid Airport. But there was hardly an aficionado to greet the infinitely more gifted Michael Owen when he got there to play for Real.
What Beckham never had, and here Waddle cannot be gainsaid, was the true wingers ability to take on the opposing full back, go past him with a serve and a flick on the outside, then carry on to the goal line to pull back the most dangerous pass in the book into the goalmouth. You might say that he could do well from a distance. Crosses, free kicks, corners.
But there were sporadic blemishes. Such as when England went out in the 2002 World Cup in Japan to Brazil. Beckham, in the Shizuoka quarter final, jumped out of the way of the advancing Ronaldinho, who went on to orchestrate what proved to be the winning goal. Perhaps Beckham who had coolly scored the penalty which previously beat Argentina could be forgiven, since it was arguable that he should not have been playing at all, having suffered a broken metatarsal, courtesy or discourtesy of Deportivo La Coruna’s Aldo Duscher, in a European Cup game at Old Trafford.
By then, however, his glittering public image had been established. When he retired it seemed he would be earning more money than ever, a multimillionaire.