World Cup 2006: England’s Forgotten Captain

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.

3 Replies to “World Cup 2006: England’s Forgotten Captain”

  1. Very good. Barnes is probably the best of the sports writers because his interests are wider than football or sport or his press career. He writes intelligent, perceptive articles and actually makes an attempt to understand things rather than start a brawl. He writes decent prose too.

    He is right on Beckham and the comparison with Henman is pretty sharp (with your provisos). Beckham has been much more consistent for England than have Gerrard or Lampard or Owen, or indeed anyone. He isn’t always terrific but he’s rarely outright bad. Beckham is nothing like Zidane, of course, so the comparison there is wide of the mark. Beckham should be compared with Johnny Haynes, Colin Bell, John White, Gunther Netzer, and from current players, Nedved, Figo, Aimar, all quick thinkers and great passers of the ball. In that respect he is absolutely a great player. I know Manchester United have missed him greatly. It was he who set up the goals for Ruud van Nistelrooy. No one is doing that now.

    The trouble with the sport press, and many football fans in England too, is that they too often approximate to Connolly’s description of their countrymen as ‘sheep with a nasty side’.

  2. “It’s been Beckham’s misfortune to have turned in a number of very memorable performances for England…” The only one I remember is that foul in 1998 — the one when adidas ran ads in the press the following day along the lines of “What Beckham does with his feet …” and by the time he fouled that Italian, it was too late to pull them. Fuck, that was funny. But I’m a Scot. Mind you, Alex Ferguson nearly choked on his gum; that would have been marvellous, also. Ferguson horizontal, red-faced, and gasping for breath. Easy to assume he was just tired, and lying down.

    I was going to critique the psycho side, but after all the ads and stuff, watching Sven’s boys fold like origami — priceless.

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