3360: England; Beckham Stands Down
by : Stephen Orford
Another English hard-luck story at a major tournament has prompted some major changes within the national team set-up ahead of qualifying for Euro 2008.
Not only will coach Sven Goran Eriksson be replaced by long-standing number two and former Middlesbrough boss Steve McLaren, but the latter also needs to appoint a new captain following the decision of David Beckham to announce his intention to quit the post.
In a move possibly unprecedented among England captains an emotional Beckham read out a lengthy resignation statement in front of a packed press corps and a large television audience. In some ways it was typical Beckham, hogging the limelight even upon his exit, in much the same way as he has courted publicity ever since he became the Golden Boy of English football at the turn of the century. Yet to pillory the now former England skipper for his celebrity seeking is to dismiss his achievements in transforming himself from public enemy number one to cultural icon.
After early promise at Manchester United and with England, Beckham was vilified by the English fans for earning a red card in England’s 1998 World Cup second round defeat to Argentina in St.Etienne. At Premiership grounds up and down the country during the 1998/99 season Beckham effigies were burned, banners called for blood and howls of derision greeted his every kick. His response was to play a major part in helping Manchester United achieve a historic treble of Premiership title, FA Cup and Champions League honours in the same season. At that point, a good portion of Englishmen were won over, but it was not until the interim appointment of Peter Taylor as England manager following Kevin Keegan’s resignation that Beckham was given the platform to truly become a national hero.
When Taylor appointed Beckham as captain of a youthful and experimental side for a friendly with Italy in Turin in November 2000 there were many who doubted the wisdom of that decision. Hitherto regarded as an irresponsible, fiery character full of his own self-importance, many felt that Beckham was not leadership material at any level, much less at the heights of the international game. How wrong they were, as the then 25 year-old settled perfectly into the role ahead of what would be a five and a half year tenure as England skipper.
Sven Goran Eriksson became the permanent successor to Keegan early in 2001, and he did not hesitate to announce his intention to keep Beckham in his leading role. Thereafter the pair enjoyed a relationship of which the press were often sceptical and suspicious, with many accusing the Swede of being in awe of the Beckham brand and persona. The London-born protg was easily the most recognisable face in the entire England set-up, and had by then established a level of celebrity which transcended the sport of football.
While many have clamoured for Beckham to be axed from the England starting line-up as his star fades, Eriksson has shown a determined faith in the Real Madrid superstar. Only injury forced Eriksson to withdraw Beckham from the action as England bowed out of World Cup 2006 to Portugal in Gelsenkirchen, as the former Sampdoria and Roma boss maintained his unstinting belief in the most famous footballer on Planet Earth. That loyalty has not gone completely without reward, with Beckham’s last-minute free-kick against Greece at Old Trafford in October 2001 which ensured England’s qualification for the World Cup the following year one of the abiding memories of the Eriksson era. So too the penalty which beat Argentina in the group stage of that tournament, so laying to rest the ghosts which had continued to haunt Beckham following his sending off against the same opposition four years earlier.
Off the field Beckham has been a superb ambassador for the English game, and his re-invention after France ’98 has been nothing short of spectacular. The petulant boy who trudged off against Argentina became the statesman-like individual who met with Nelson Mandela and worked tirelessly for various charities. Yes, there seems to have been a song and a dance about everything done by the former Manchester United midfielder, but this is a man who has put his heart and soul into the role and who has been honoured to be in a position of sufficient influence to make an impact on the nation’s collective consciousness. Who can forget his moving appearance at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games held in Manchester in 2002, when alongside terminally ill six-year old Kirsty Howard the pair handed the Commonwealth Baton to Her Majesty The Queen?
Having captained England for 58 of his 94 caps to date, Beckham truly deserves his place among the pantheon of all-time England great England skippers. He could not emulate Bobby Moore in lifting silverware for his country, nor could he contribute the sheer volume of goals of a Gary Lineker or an Alan Shearer. However, it is what Beckham has come to represent off the field, and his role in elevating the popularity of football into the stratosphere following the nadir of the 1980’s which should be his rightful legacy.
By Stephen Orford
3 July 2006