Archive | David Beckham

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Agincourt and England 2010

Posted on 18 July 2010 by JamesHamilton

Paul Carpenter (Carpsio) takes the “passion and commitment” line of England criticism in an interesting direction with an informed comparison of Agincourt to that 4-1 defeat to Germany:

In all these cases (Agincourt, Waterloo, Dunkirk, The Battle of Britain, Rorke’s Drift), we are assured that it was English ‘spirit’ that was critical to our victory against the odds (or more commonly British, but that’s splitting hairs). All battles are framed thus in the national mind: outnumbered and outgunned by foreign forces and perfidy, our innate spunk and refusal to concede defeat see us through.

It’s a good place to start. Most of the popular reaction to England’s 2006 and 2010 World Cups has been to deride the team for spineslessness and lack of courage. The spunk and refusal to concede defeat that are, we must assume, typical of the fans, were not, we are told, seen in the behaviour of the “overpaid privileged primadonnnas” – and you can put your own choice of words between those inverted commas.

We see this unspoken story in our sports. Recall us to Beckham’s game against Greece in 2002 or “Botham’s Ashes” in 1981. In the iconography of the game, Terry Butcher’s heroics against Sweden in 1989 gave us the defining image of English sport: a man covered in blood yet unyielding in his defiance, a performance which single handedly gave us the result we needed (i.e. a draw with the footballing giants of Sweden when viewed more prosaically).

Yes, and some of us will be able to remember the 1980 Winter Olympics and a programme on the BBC called “Come on Cousins” in which this principle was extended to figure skating…

Typically, we have learned entirely the wrong set of lessons from these games. These events were exceptions – not rules.  The Beckham who charged around the pitch, tackling anything that moved might have stirred the blood – but ultimately delivered nothing. It was Beckham the dead-ball specialist who ultimately won the game by doing something he’d practised until it was a personal art form. There is no greater lesson to be taken from Beckham’s game against Greece other than clichés about “heroism”.

It’s worth noting at this point that Beckham himself used to be seen as the epitome of the weak-willed unEnglish pampered ego who, along with Sven, was keeping all of those English lions from making the nation proud. This, despite having kept going through being burnt in effigy, having abusive chants about his wife recited by English crowds, being dropped by McClaren and Capello..

The popular reaction to the World Cup in general, and the Germany match in particular, has been to accuse the team of spineless cowardice and letting the country down, of not trying, of not showing passion. Carpenter disagrees, provides a succinct alternative analysis, and caps it off quite brilliantly:

So we end up at Bloemfontaine, where Gerrard’s desire to win the game himself by himself through English virtues like willpower and passion and grit meant that he consistently drifted from his position on the left in the game plan that Capello had set for him. Terry likewise pushed ever higher up the pitch, trying to will the team to victory while Johnson uselessly attempted to conjure blood and thunder via clumsy challenges (no doubt “letting the Germans know he was there”).

Sadly, the Germans even knew that this would happen. Coach Joachim Löw:

“We knew that Gerrard and Lampard always support the forwards and that the midfield would be open, there would be spaces. Our objective was to use Miroslav Klose to draw out John Terry, to force him to come out of the defence. We knew that the fullbacks would be very much to the side and this would create the spaces between the English defenders that would help us penetrate their defence”

Far from being our killer app, those English virtues of ‘commitment’ and ‘desire’ are our achilles heel.

Read the rest.

I watched the entire Germany game again this afternoon, and once again failed to recognize any of the popular criticisms that have been levelled at the team. I agree with George Szirtes’ analysis – this was a game in which Upson, Terry and Barry played unusually poorly. That’s true. I also find myself amongst that tiny number of people who see the disallowing of Lampard’s goal as a turning point: England troubled Germany deeply at times, and although Germany were the better side, it wasn’t 4-1 better, or even 4-2.

What did for England was the speed of attack Germany’s youngsters could provide. Muller and Ozil were just faster than the men assigned to stop them, and Klose not far behind on the day. That use of speed is worth reflecting on: both McClaren and Capello felt that speed out wide was the future for England – as it has proved to be for Germany.

Some fans felt so too, in 2006, although that had more to do with a reflexive desire to punish Beckham for not being a shouting neckless skinhead than anything else. It’s precisely the failure of England’s fast young wide players that has marked both the Englands of McClaren and Capello.

Injury has had much to do with it. Aaron Lennon spent most of 2010 “coming back from..” one worrying setback after another. Walcott, the younger of the two, didn’t play a full match until December, but was nonetheless a surprising omission from the World Cup 23.

Both Lennon and Walcott are very young men with developing still to do. Lennon’s 23, and Walcott 21. I want to be fair to them. For comparison, Germany’s Mueller is 20, and Ozil 21. Neither of these men is as yet a club player of the stature of Lennon or Walcott, and it might yet prove that their 2010 will be a version of Michael Owen’s 1998: a footballing demonstration of a kind that we would never really see in the same way again. It wasn’t that Owen who scored the bulk of his 40 international goals.

At least the Lennon and Walcott stories aren’t about lack of first team opportunities. Both have had exactly the careers you’d have wanted for them – barring the injuries, of course.

But if England’s fast players really are key – and the success of Mueller and Ozil suggest as much – then what Lennon and Walcott serve to underline is that there really was something about the real Golden Generation – the United kids plus Owen, Fowler, Campbell and the Cole brothers – that set them apart from the usual products of the English system. The excitement about that group was not completely delusional, and neither was the desire to find them proper European management.

Lennon’s injury struggles this year make it unfair, as I’ve said, to set him up against his predecessor on England’s right.  Lennon at his best is fast – really fast – a Finney on skates. A player who can get you on your feet in a second. So is Walcott.

But just look at David Beckham, aged 23..

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Owen, Beckham: it feels like growing old

Posted on 15 March 2010 by JamesHamilton

Beckham out. Thus passes a generation of English players who came to prominence at the very end of my twenties. This is how the story ends, then: that group have indeed passed on without winning an international trophy. What Gary Neville feared, and perhaps expected, has come true.

Truth to tell, England’s teams since 1998 have always fallen well short. First France, then Spain, have produced better squads and performances. Holland have also just lost a generation – one which began with the astonishing Ajax European Cup winners of 1995 – but one that always seemed more likely than England’s to succeed.

Moreover, the best players of the 1998-2010 era have always been prone to injuries. Owen and Beckham were doubtful for both 2002 and 2006 World Cups, and weren’t fully fit at either. But for 1998 and the era of AOL, Freeserve and BoL, we’d never have seen either man playing at full tilt at the top level.

So much for a golden generation: England’s 1998 team, were, after all, the best of modern times. What would you give to have even an ageing Shearer now?

But these are the thoughts of someone for whom Owen, Beckham and co. were the last players to arrive when they themselves could still conceivably play.

For anyone now in their late 20s, the attachment to Owen and Beckham might not be there. Instead, each injury to the Old Guard brings Milner, Huddlestone, Lennon and now Adam Johnson closer to their destiny.

And there’s little doubt that Capello, for all his regret at losing players through injury, is capable of picking and organizing replacements. Only Wayne Rooney, of the 23-man squad, lacks an equivalent, although there are other capable goalscorers. Unlike in 2002, the injuries to Beckham and Owen make little difference to England’s chances. Beckham’s dead ball skills would have made him a useful substitute, but it is more than time that someone made the right wing their own and remade it in their own style.

It might not be over for either Beckham or Owen. Owen will play for another couple of years, and although at present it would take some real slapstick on the injuries front to knock over everyone who stands between him and the squad, it can’t be ruled out altogether. And Beckham was supposed to be gone after 2006. The man’s ability to dig himself out of the grave faster than his critics’ spades can bury him is a source of lasting entertainment and amusement.

But across the rest of the established squad, there are injuries, losses of form, ennui, niggles, an accumulating depression. Under any other manager, this would be worrying. It would prompt reflections that perhaps the time to rebuild the team is now: to use the World Cup to rebuild around the Huddlestones and Johnstones. But Capello doesn’t work like that or think like that.

So while Capello gets on with the job of seamlessly closing the gaps opened by injuries and turning James Milner into a kind of calm Paul Gascoigne, let’ s reflect on how Owen and Beckham will be remembered.

Not, I dare say, like Shearer and Adams are remembered. At his peak, Shearer gave England the sort of security you feel when you’ve been trapped by freak weather in a millionaire’s pantry: that feeling of infinite backup. Both he and Tony Adams had a football fan’s sense of priorities (which Shearer comically rehearsed all over again in this Smalltalk interview). I approve of footballers having hinterland – Owen’s racing, Beckham’s… skiing. But I know that most fans would rather their heroes be as obsessed as they are.

There’s some chance that Beckham will morph into something Charltonesque: he’s already to some extent a go-to-guy when it comes to competing for Olympics and World Cups. He’s good at being an ambassador, and if English football needs anything, it needs a sunny exterior to show the world. Beckham will not be wasted as Bobby Moore was wasted.

Owen’s own future is already well mapped out. A bit more football, then training racehorses. He’ll pop up on television now and again as a contemporary, relevant figure in a different sport, one which some suspect he prefers. His relatively closed personality will leave him with an enigmatic air around him: a man who appeared very suddenly, scored 40 goals for his country, and then went away again little older than George Best.

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World Cup 2006: England’s Forgotten Captain

Posted on 02 June 2006 by JamesHamilton

Simon Barnes is one of the very best writers in sport today – one of the best writers in journalism altogether, and his Times article today about David Beckham is well worth reading in full.

On his walk around the England captain, Barnes touches on a few themes of my own:

The myth has taken hold: Beckham is past it, he’s only in the team because of his occult hold on Sven-Göran Eriksson. Any real man would have dropped him years ago. A shadow of his former self — and he was overrated then.

Three of the past four big tournaments have been Beckham events. As we build up to the World Cup finals, Beckham has become the forgotten man of English football. In all the fuss about Rooney, Gerrard and so forth, Tuesday’s fizzing, curling crosses — echt Beckham — were scarcely noticed.

That “myth” he’s referring to there is one of those stories that emerges from our media every time England don’t win by three or more goals. It’s been Beckham’s misfortune to have turned in a number of very memorable performances for England – notably the one against Greece in 2002 that ensured England’s qualification for the World Cup. Every time he is merely alright in the shirt, he comes in for a great deal of frankly unjustified criticism. You don’t hear calls for Gerrard to be dropped, for example, but can you remember the last time he really turned it on for the national side?

Like all myths, there is just a hint of something in this one, however.

When Beckham went to Real Madrid, it was clear that he had in mind playing alongside the greatest players of the day and proving himself their equal. The goal was to evolve into an influential playmaker in the centre of the park, a Zidane – and to be mentioned in the same breath as Zizou, as Figo, as Ronaldo, as Raoul.

It didn’t happen. Beckham fell just short. It wasn’t a failure: he of all the galacticos is the one who has been good for the side in their recent troubled times. His astonishing passing, unmatched talent with the dead ball, huge workrate and never-say-die attitude have been an example to others.

My suspicion is that falling just short like that led to Beckham experiencing something of a loss of meaning for a while, a personal crisis of some sort, which I would place in Winter 2003 and Spring 2004. It was a matter of coming to terms with who he was and wasn’t; where his career was going, and where it turned out it was not going to go. I think he’s over it, now. It was worth the attempt. Barnes puts it well:

It was at that moment that Beckham realised, and his most serious admirers accepted, that he would never be great. Not great as in Zidane, anyway. What people failed to understand is that Beckham did not therefore become a poor player. He just showed that he was less good than he — than we — had hoped.

And so, inevitably, he contracted Henman’s Syndrome. This is the punishment we visit on those who have made us hope too much. Henman was at one stage No 4 in the world, but he never won Wimbledon and so he is regarded as a miserable failure. He was very good indeed, but we wanted him to be still better. As a result, he is reviled as a loser.

I don’t believe that Henman has ever come in for anything like what Beckham’s had to put up with. Even with Henman at his excellent peak, Wimbledon was always a matter of hope, not expectation.

I think Beckham is over it all, now, and is playing with a new confidence in the abilities he has got, a new freedom and an evident contentment. Barnes puts it like this:

But Beckham the Not-Quite-Great has been keeping the faith and looked, to be frank, in the form of his life on Tuesday. He looked so full of fitness, confidence and good cheer that next thing he’ll be trying to get his job back as penalty-taker. (Absolutely not, the nation’s nerves won’t stand it.)

There comes a time in the life of many great athletes when they cast off care. They come to terms with their own failures and their own successes and they start to play sport in a mood of demob happiness. Ah, sod it, they say. And sometimes, as a result, they find their very best form at the last possible moment.

Ed Smith, the Middlesex batsman, has written eloquently on the cliché of “it’s all about who wants it most”. Frequently, he says, the prize actually goes to the one who wants it least, the one who has cast off the desperation to succeed and simply plays the ball.

Aside from that last bit, that’s about right. Ed Smith is right about the problems an excessive desire to win can bring to athletes who perform best on instinct. The current climate in the British press is for an end to the contained confidence of the Erickson era, an end to treating our players like adults, and a return to the old days of “passion”. “Passion”, if you’re wondering, is a kind of headless-chicken approach to the game where “if you want it more” you win despite your lack of skill. It’s psychobabble, and it’s wrong.

The freedom Ed Smith refers to is not a result of abandoning the desire to win. It has different components to that. I think there are four.

  1. You do actually have to want to win. Otherwise, rather than find freedom in your game, you simply won’t try. There are brilliant footballers out there for whom the game is just a living – they don’t like football much, and don’t really mind what happens. If you ever wondered why there are some evident geniuses playing in the lower leagues, perhaps for Welsh clubs, that’s why. Just wanting to win is not enough, though. Ask Sunderland, a side who never gave up on a match for all that they put in the worst season ever seen in the Premiership. Plenty of passion – but no belief, and above all, no skill.
  2. You have to believe that winning is a possibility. If you go into a match that you want to win but don’t feel it’s possible, far from freeing you from the burden, you’ll find it weighs you down – look what happens to teams who go two goals behind early in a match to a good side; they slump.
  3. Once you believe that you’re in with a chance, you need to be willing to fail. You accept that there are limits to what you can do – you accept, really accept, that you’ll get it wrong from time to time, and feel OK about that. You know and accept that bad luck, weather and referees intervene. If you make a mistake, you’re still a superb player, and the next time you attempt something, you’ve a real chance of pulling it off. Beckham’s successful free kick against Greece in 2002 was his fifth of the game: he’d missed the other four. Compare Shaun Wright-Phillips’s slumped shoulders after he missed a couple of sitters early in the match against Holland.
  4. You have to be comfortable with yourself as a winner. Tricky for Brits, this one: we do love a gallant loser. And natural winners aren’t always pleasant people to be around – ask any top athletics coach about his “role models”. Beckham, Owen and Gary Neville aside, I don’t see many of these types in the England side, and it’s a worry for the World Cup.

But in any case, those are the conditions necessary for real, free, confident play. Beckham seems to have found his way there now. Let’s hope Gerrard, Owen and co follow him into it this summer.

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