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Saturday, Nov. 12, 2005

PREMIER REPORT

Beckham's glamour image at heart of debate on his talent


LONDON -- David Beckham captains England for the 50th time against Argentina in a friendly in Geneva on Saturday with, in many respects, the jury still out on the Real Madrid midfielder.

Christopher Davies

While Beckham will not be remembered as an all-time great he has surely earned the right to be considered an all-time very good player.

Beckham, of course, is more than a footballer and it can be difficult to separate the player from the product.

Never has a footballer and Hollywood been so entwined yet, despite a jet-set lifestyle, whatever the criticisms of Beckham, no one could ever accuse him of putting his day job behind the sponsorships and appearances.

For all his off-field excesses, including some high profile kiss-and-tell stories which earned girls who were allegedly kissed and who definitely told a comfortable sum, David and Victoria Beckham are still an item, much to the dismay, one suspects, of some sections of the media.

His CV is certainly impressive, having won just about everything with Manchester United, including the Champions League in 1999, but his critics point out that he has won nothing with Real over the past two seasons.

A more valid criticism is that while he is in his third season with Real, Beckham has yet to master Spanish, an ignominious feat in its own right considering foreign players in the Premiership know enough English to be interviewed at the end of their first season.

At his best Beckham remains a right-side midfield player of the highest class and if his lack of speed does not allow him to go past opponents with the greatest of ease, few players have the pinpoint accuracy to center the ball as accurately the England captain does.

Beckham and Argentina of course go hand in hand.

At France '98 he was shown the red card for kicking out at Diego Simeone which was deemed violent conduct by referee Kim Milton Nielsen. Four years later in Sapporo, Beckham was successful from the penalty spot as England beat Argentina 1-0.

It is Argentina which has defined Beckham's career more than any other country.

"People still go on about my foul on Simeone," said Beckham as he prepared for the prestige friendly in Geneva. "I would rather talk about the penalty four years later.

"Each time we play Argentina rather is a media frenzy around the game and what happened to me. Argentina are destined to play a big part in my career, but this game is a special moment as it will be my 50th as captain."

Some observers wanted Beckham stripped of the captaincy in the wake of his red card against Austria in September, a ridiculous knee-jerk reaction even if the midfielder does possess the presence or personality of Roy Keane.

Manager Sven-Goran Eriksson knows there is far less to be gained than achieved by a change of captaincy with the World Cup finals only seven months away.

The controversy would bring unwanted headlines and the sort of attention the Swede can do without.

The perception that Beckham receives special treatment -- he is never substituted for playing poorly is the argument -- is shot down by Eriksson who points out that the player replacing him would not necessarily do better.

Beckham's form in the first three months of the season has been generally good and as this is probably realistically the captain's last appearance in a World Cup finals, he will want to leave a positive memory.

Brazil remains head above the rest, almost having talent to spare, but England is definitely in the category of sides which can expect with the rub of the green.

THIS COLUMN'S award for bravery in 2006 goes to Jeff Shreeves, the Sky Sports reporter who, it is believed, became the first person to tell Sir Alex Ferguson to behave and live to tell the tale.

After last Sunday's 1-0 win over Chelsea, Ferguson swore live on air -- albeit a medium rather than high-octane word -- and Shreeves, at the instruction of the producer speaking into his earpiece, told the United manager not to swear as the interview is live and children are listening.

It would have been nice had Ferguson even subsequently issued an apology, but Fergie doesn't really do apologies.

Perhaps, remarkably, given the emotions that can run high after a match there have been few such instances of industrial language live on air, though Freddie Ljungberg was a little too honest when, after Arsenal's F.A. Cup final win over United last May, said he felt "****** great" when asked by a pitch-side reporter.

Those who play football tell those who have not that they cannot understand what it is like to have a decision go against you and that it is a natural reaction to swear at a linesman. What *******.

There is a difference between frustration and dissent.

It is one thing for a player to curse or even swear to himself or no one in particular if a marginal offside decision has gone against him. It is a different matter entirely to run to a referee or linesman and show obvious dissent to a decision that was probably correct.

In England, rugby players and cricketers are praised for the respect they show to officials, yet in football there is almost a school of thought that believes match officials are fair game to be the recipient of a few choice Anglo Saxon words.

It is one thing to swear to a referee, another to swear at him -- by that I mean "oh ref . . . for *** sake" is very different to "you ****" or "that was a ******* awful decision."

Of course, given the way most managers speak about referees after matches, especially in defeat when the man is black is deemed responsible for the loss of three points, how can they expect players to show respect on the pitch?

The knock-on effect of the excesses shown by Premiership players is that their actions are mimicked by kids who copy their idols.

The answer is for managers to show restraint, punish their players for dissent or swearing at the referee and the media to back match officials for taking the appropriate action against offenders.

A more realistic hope is for income tax to be abolished.

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


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