by Alex Dimond
It’s very rare these days that I read a football article that really provokes my ire.
Sure, I often read articles or stories that I disagree with — but hardly ever to the extent I feel compelled to respond. However, Paul Gardner, writing in this month’s World Soccer magazine, has managed to achieve that particular feat.
In his article (which, if I could find it online, I would link to — but I can’t so I won’t), Gardner expresses his disgust at David Beckham’s cameo appearances for England, describing it as a “degrading hunt” for caps.
Gardner cites the example of Bobby Moore — whose record of 108 international caps Beckham is now only one shy of — as a player whose memory is somehow tarnished every time Beckham appears on the pitch for the final few minutes of an England match.
“I don’t recall Wright, or Moore, or Bobby Charlton going through this awful, degrading business of virtually begging to be picked for England,” Gardner writes.
“Beckham’s quest for England appearances seems to have taken possession of the man to the exclusion of a number of other things which ought to be important to him. His dignity, for a start.”
Now, of course I would not want to deny Gardner his right to an opinion — he is free to think as he pleases. But that doesn’t mean he should labour under the misapprehension that he speaks for the masses.
Gardner is symptomatic of the rather ancient scribes that litter World Soccer’s pages. Judging by his picture (which, if he is following common journalistic practice, was taken at least 15 years ago), Gardner was born in the time of Bobby Moore, and followed the former West Ham and England captain through his many career highlights.
Brought up to appreciate Moore’s no-nonsense approach, Beckham’s media circus is no doubt anathema to Gardner’s sensibilities.
Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean his opinion is right.
By the same token, I would never want to suggest that I speak for the entirety of the new wave of football fans — the thirty-somethings and younger that now dominate the game’s terraces.
But I would like to think at least some share my viewpoint.
To me, Beckham’s hunt for England caps is not degrading — not to the player, nor the caps. As far as I am concerned, England caps have long since been degraded in the modern game — Sven-Goran Eriksson’s 11 substitutes each friendly and the ability for Phil Neville to wear the captain’s armband has long since seen to that.
No, for me, Beckham’s willingness to submit himself to the criticism of wizened old hacks like Gardner, all in an attempt to do a job for his country, does the man great credit.
If Beckham really wanted to keep on racking up the caps, it is unlikely he would have ever stepped down as captain. That simple armband would have guaranteed him caps for many years. Steve McClaren would never have had the cojones to drop his England skipper.
But Beckham didn’t take that route. He gave up the captaincy, realising that the team would be better served by having one of the younger members in the squad leading it.
Whether noted or not at the time, it was a selfless act.
At the same time, he could have easily slipped away into international retirement. After his service for his country — particularly that incredible performance against Greece in 2002 — few would have begrudged him that.
But Beckham didn’t take that route. Instead, he continued to make himself available for England, even after McClaren surreptitiously dumped him in a frankly embarrassing attempt to stamp his authority as Head Coach.
Eventually, after being forced to swallow his pride, Beckham won McClaren over—and then acquitted himself well when finally called upon.
Then, when Fabio Capello sailed in to re-float England’s sinking ship, no one would have been surprised if Beckham had quickly announced his international retirement. After all, Capello was Beckham’s manager at Madrid, and was the man who tried to freeze out the Englishman for being too much of a celebrity.
With business interests in America to protect, a potentially embarrassing exclusion from the England squad would not have been what the doctor ordered. And, with a reputation for making hard-nosed decisions, the LA Galaxy player was always likely to be in the firing line.
But Beckham took that risk, because the opportunity to help his country was more important to him.
In an age where players like Jamie Carragher withdraw themselves from the international arena because—quite rightly — they aren’t first team stalwarts, Beckham’s attitude should be applauded.
His willingness to become a humble pawn in the international game of chess, after so long being the king, should be held as a positive example to younger players — not as a reason for criticism.
Capello is no slave to sentimentality, and neither are England’s fans. As long as the 33-year-old can fulfil a role for the Three Lions — even if that role is just two minutes as a defensive reinforcement at the end of games — and helps the side win games, then everyone will be happy.
Finally, perhaps ironically, it is the comments of pundits like Gardner that have probably driven Beckham on in the pursuit of England caps.
So long criticised for being more interested in celebrity than soccer, with his media interests superseding his footballing ones (arguments that are not without merit), Beckham’s playing legacy has been badly damaged.
In the annals of time, Beckham’s great achievements on the pitch are at serious risk of being overshadowed by the huge amount of criticism he has received throughout his career.
If a record number of England caps, compiled with the help of a few cameo appearances here and there in the twilight of his career, give Beckham a footballing legacy that history — never mind journalists — cannot disparage, then that is fine with me.
And, just in case it placates Paul Gardner, I imagine it would be fine with Bobby Moore too.