So, David Beckham has resigned as England captain. This has surprised me somewhat. Football captains don’t usually resign. They retire from playing, or they retire from international football, or they get dropped, but they don’t usually quit. This is more the reserve of cricket, where the captain is in charge of a team picked by a board of selectors – more of a “managerial” position. His critics will say that Beckham again is showing signs of having ideas above his station – that he thinks that he’s Sven’s number two. But then, Beckham’s critics have always had rather a lot to say for themselves.
There was no way that David Beckham was going to have a successful World Cup. His deriders have long since decided that he has outlived his usefulness, and that wouldn’t have changed no matter how many inch-perfect crosses he had slung in against Paraguay et al. He could have scored a hat-trick of free-kicks against Ecuador, and each one would have been the goalkeeper’s fault. And he could have put twenty inch perfect fifty yard passes straight onto Wayne Rooney’s right foot, but he’d still have been criticised as being a stooge in Sven’s long ball game. He really couldn’t win. Beckham, however, has fulfilled an almost unique role on the pitch for England for the last few years or so. He’s a kicker – practically the same as those guys that come on solely to kick in American Football or Field Hockey.
The vilification of Beckham started after that night in St Etienne eight years ago. Of course, it is now more or less generally accepted that this was a harsh sending off – that Diego Simeone’s reaction to it was pure play-acting, but that wasn’t really the issue. The newspapers and elements of the public turned on him with venom. They appeared to be thoroughly sick of “Goldenballs”, and he’s been a persona non grata ever since. The trouble is… the press can’t do without him. Stories about him sell papers. There was nothing Beckham could do about it. He’s always appeared to be a fairly quiet type, and most of the things about him that made him something of a figure of ridicule (the story about the ladies’ underwear, the ludicrous wedding, the aforementioned nickname) came from his increasingly attention-seeking wife. Ten years ago, she was the star, and he was an up-and-coming footballer. Now, her career is more or less completely dead in the water, and he is one of the two or three most famous footballers on the planet. I don’t have much of an opinion about Victoria, but I would certainly question whether he has been good for his career as a footballer.
I certainly don’t believe that Sven Goran Eriksson is in thrall to his celebrity. Eriksson clearly holds Beckham in very high regard as a player, and as a captain. The role of the captain is misunderstood amongst non-players. He doesn’t merely shake the hands of the opposing captain and swap pennants. He’s the players’ representative on the pitch, and is often the only player that referees will talk to without throwing yellow cards like confetti. The other England players, quite clearly from interviews that they have given, hold him in similarly high esteem. Quite asides from this… if he was being picked, and picked as captain, why would he not do it? If journalists are seriously saying that he should have turned it all down two or three years ago, then they’re simply deluded to the mind-set of the professional player.
Ironically, the end of this tenure as captain has seen something of an indian summer. His dead ball delivery over the last six or seven matches has been exceptional. Against Ecuador, he summoned up his inner strength and gave his critics one more reminder of what made him freat in the first place – though that wasn’t enough for some, who preferred instead to blame the Ecuadorian goalkeeper.
By resigning his position as captain, Beckham has laid down an interesting gauntlet to Steve McClaren. No longer the captain, will the new coach take a gamble and drop him for the fast-improving Aaron Lennon? With Owen Hargreaves having emerged from the tournament as a much more complete player than many (myself included) believed, there’s no place in the centre of midfield for him. With John Terry likely to be the new captain, Beckham’s career may just have ground to a halt.