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Friday, Oct. 15, 2004

PREMIER REPORT

English newspapers make beeline for Beckham's jugular


LONDON -- Only in England could David Beckham be not so much in hot water but a bubbling volcano for admitting he deliberately got himself cautioned during England's 2-0 win against Wales last Saturday.

Christopher Davies

Beckham, who knew he would miss the midweek trip to Azerbaijan because of cracked ribs, decided to "use" a second yellow card of the World Cup qualifying campaign, which meant a suspension, in order to wipe his disciplinary slate clean.

The outcome?

Moral outrage in England where the stiff upper lip still rules in so many ways. Beckham believed he was using the system, the SUL's thought the England captain was abusing it.

The critics have formed a double line to take their shots after one newspaper -- the Daily Telegraph -- had Beckham's admission exclusive.

In the occasionally warped world of English journalism, papers that miss out on a good story feel duty bound to attack the central source under such circumstances. They would all have loved the scoop but when they were scooped they went for Beckham's jugular. Only in England.

Perhaps Beckham's biggest "crime" -- apart from the reckless challenge on Ben Thatcher that brought the yellow card when thankfully neither was hurt -- was admitting it. Next time he'll think twice about such honesty and after two days of being criticized by just about everyone in football from FIFA president Sepp Blatter downward, Beckham apologized.

He said: "In an interview I was asked a question and made a frank and honest admission to counter the negative speculation. I now know that was wrong and apologize to the Football Association, the England manager, my teammates and all England fans for this. I have also apologized personally to my manager Sven-Goran Eriksson.

"I know that as captain you are in a privileged position and must always abide by FIFA's code of fair play, something which I have always done throughout my career. On this occasion I made a mistake."

Beckham, who volunteered the information about the caution to the Daily Telegraph and said he was "being clever" despite accusations that he lacked intelligence, has returned to Spain and will be out for three or four weeks with the fractured rib he picked up against Wales.

As someone who has always prided himself on being an ambassador for football, Beckham has been aghast to find himself portrayed as a cheat and hopes that his apology will draw a line under the incident.

However, what Beckham did is nothing new and there is no law in football to prevent a player from being deliberately cautioned.

It has become a common practice in the Champions League where players have often collected a yellow card in the penultimate first group stage game if their team is already through. This way the players miss what is effectively a meaningless last tie for their side and can begin the next stage with their disciplinary slate wiped clean.

Aware of a practice deemed immoral if not illegal by some, UEFA explored the possibility of charging players who deliberately commit an unnecessary cautionable offense -- usually dissent or kicking the ball away -- in order to miss a game whose outcome is of academic concern to the clubs concerned.

Many of the offenses have been so obvious that the referee, aware of the situation, has almost been reluctant to take the necessary action but officials must act in accordance with the laws of the game, whatever the circumstances. Referees have revealed that players have even thanked them when the yellow card is displayed.

Mission, however dubious, accomplished.

However, UEFA's lawyers told them such a misconduct charge would not stand up legally, not least because the word "intent" was taken out of the laws (apart from deliberate handball) because it was not possible to say what a player's intent was.

While Beckham may be criticized for his actions against Wales, perhaps Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and Pavel Nedved, who all missed playing in the Champions League final because of a caution collected in the semifinal second-leg, now wish they had bent the rules like Beckham by ensuring they went into the crucial match without the possibility of a suspension for the final should they be cautioned.

The English, because we like to be different, used to ban players from representing the national side if they were serving a domestic suspension. Foreign opponents were sad when this ruling was dropped because England was handing a huge and unnecessary advantage to the opposition. It was sporting etiquette gone mad.

Did anyone else have such a policy?

No -- only in England.

These days England does not include players if they are awaiting a trial or serving any sentence such as community service. Like so many other things, it makes England unique.

Roy Keane, recently charged with assaulting a teenager, played for the Republic of Ireland against France and the Faeroe Islands in the past week -- there was no moral outrage in Ireland.

Why should there be?

Keane has not been found guilty of any crime, whatever happened was not football-related yet had Keane been English he could not have played against Wales or Azerbaijan.

What other countries leave as molehills the English start making mountains. Only in England would the passive offside law have become such a major issue.

Or Tim Cahill pulling his shirt over his head for 1.8 seconds after scoring and receiving a second yellow card in his Everton debut.

Why don't the rest of Europe become involved in such issues?

Because they leave it to the English to think of the next non-controversy, sit back and smile at the nation that gave the world the beautiful game.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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