Taxi for Beckham!

Gillette may still love him, but Becks is no longer 'the best a man can get' on the pitch.

Duleep Allirajah

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The news must have come as a bombshell to David Beckham. A survey published last week showed that 9 of out 10 British men prefer a simple ‘shower and shave’ to the excessive use of male grooming products. The report by medical insurers PruHealth suggests that real men are back – a trend that has been dubbed the menaissance – and that Beckham-style metrosexuality is now in decline. To add insult to injury, Becks was also dropped from the England football team in the same week.

Reports of the death of metrosexuality are somewhat premature, I would suggest. Becks might have left the building but there are still plenty of fake tans, waxed chests, and diamond earrings in the England dressing room. However, it would appear that David Beckham’s international career might well be over. Although Steve McLaren has stressed that the door isn’t closed to the former England captain, the decision to omit Beckham not just from the starting eleven but from the squad itself speaks volumes. ‘I told David I was looking to change things, looking to go in a different direction, and he wasn’t included within that,’ explained McLaren. The new coach has made it clear that he wants players with pace and mobility; attributes which Beckham clearly doesn’t possess.

He’s still an A-list celeb but it’s a measure of how far Beckham’s stock has fallen that his omission from Steve McLaren’s first squad has provoked scarcely a murmur of protest. Four years after the Sun urged its readers to pray for Beckham’s broken metatarsal to heal, the Real Madrid player is no longer seen as indispensable to England. He can still whip in crosses and free kicks but that’s about all he offers. In Beckham’s first season at Real Madrid, the Spanish newspaper Marca cruelly dubbed him ‘Forrest Gump’ – the implication being that he was more workrate than skill. ‘At first, Beckham played football and ran. Then, he ran and played football. After that, he just ran’, said Marca. Now he no longer runs that much.

When he limped off the pitch in Gelsenkirchen the nation didn’t feel Beckham’s pain. Far from it. As Becks wept in the dugout, most of us were only too happy to see Aaron Lennon inject some pace and penetration into England’s right flank. Women and gays probably still adore him; so too the Japanese who unveiled a 10-foot chocolate statue of Beckham in 2002. But most football fans over the age of 13 had long since seen through the hype. As George Best once said, ‘He can’t kick with his left foot, he doesn’t score many goals, he can’t head a ball and he can’t tackle’.

Reports suggest that Beckham exercised too much power within the England camp and that Sven considered his captain undroppable. Steve McLaren’s decision to axe Beckham is a symbolic gesture, a clear signal that he wants to do things his way. ‘I’m not Sven’s bitch,’ seems to be the sub-text. But dropping Beckham is the easy part. McLaren now faces the far tougher challenge of forging eleven individuals into a cohesive team. The early indications are promising. McLaren has dispensed with Sven’s ludicrous policy of trying to accommodate both Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard in central midfield. The decision to move Gerrard to the right flank and play Owen Hargreaves in the holding midfield role has restored balance to the team.

Other problems are less easily rectified. For example, there’s England’s chronic inability to keep possession of the ball. McLaren will have his work cut out here. When English footballers receive the ball their instinctive reaction is to get it forward quickly. Slowing down the tempo and playing keep-ball is not in their nature. You’ll often hear English fans jeer their own team for passing the ball sideways instead of attacking. Anyone remember Ray Wilkins? The former England midfielder was pilloried as ‘The Crab’ because he made too many square passes. That sums up the English mentality. Patient possession football is regarded as negative and suspiciously Italian. McLaren will need to go against the grain of English football culture if he wants to create a team that is comfortable in possession of the ball. He will need to curb the natural instinct of his players to launch 40-yard glory balls and instead teach them that there’s no shame in the occasional sideways pass.

Then there’s the problem of penalty shoot-outs. England had supposedly been practising spot kicks before the tournament but the hapless shoot-out against Portugal clearly showed that there was something wrong with our training methods. The inability to win shoot-outs has now become a self-perpetuating psychological hoodoo. But penalty jinxes can be broken. Italy were also serial penalty chokers who had lost three World Cup shoot-outs. But against France in the final – the toughest test of nerve imaginable – the Italian penalties were perfect. I don’t know the secret of Italy’s penalty renaissance but McLaren should pick up the phone to Marcello Lippi and find out.

We shouldn’t get too carried away with England’s 4-0 friendly win over Greece. The shape of the team was better and England clearly didn’t miss David Beckham. But the goals owed more to Greece’s defensive generosity than England’s creativity in attack. Four traffic cones would have done a better job than the Greek defence.

The Euro 2008 qualifying campaign will provide a true measure of whether England have progressed under McLaren or reverted to type. And if he wants to make progress, I reckon it’s about time he took some Italian lessons.

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