The withdrawal of David Beckham from Milan’s game with Chievo on Sunday was most likely a fatal blow to the Londoner’s chances of playing at this summer’s World Cup. His cry of “it’s broken” as he left the field turned out to be an accurate diagnosis of a ruptured achilles, which will keep him out of action until next season barring a minor miracle.
It is a great shame on a personal level for Beckham, as you got the feeling that becoming the first Englishman to play at four World Cups was the goal that was driving the extension of his playing career. This injury may well mean the end of his days at the top level of football, and could even prompt complete retirement. Such injuries are wished on no-one, given the physical and emotional distress they cause. Beckham, a favourite of successive England managers, was a bankable contender for a spot on the plane, even if his appearances would most likely have been as an impact substitute.
While it is a blow on a personal level, there remains the question as to what extent this hampers both AC Milan and England. With regard to the Scudetto-chasing Rossoneri, it must be said that the current loan spell has not had the same impact that the arrangement did last year. Often used as a substitute, he has come on in games and done little wrong, while hardly threatening to take the world of calcio by storm. On Sunday, he was on the right-hand side of a front three where both he and Ronaldinho seemed to have been accommodated. This produced a lop-sided system that saw Milan very fortunate to beat the ‘Flying Donkeys’ of Chievo. Although his range of passing remains strong, he is not aided by an ageing Rossoneri side that lacks direct runners to make full use of a 50-yard ball. Milan Coach, Leonardo somehow has his side within a point of the summit and although the injury to Beckham is not desirable, nor it is the hammer blow that the rest-of-season absence of Alessandro Nesta may turn out to be.
Back to his international career, and few could argue with the notion that Beckham has been a superb player for England over the years, hitting his peak with a one-man rescue job against Greece to help England qualify for the 2002 World Cup. What is also apparent is that for five years or so, whether his performances have warranted selection for England has been widely open to debate. The game that probably turned heads more than any other was the awful 1-0 loss to Northern Ireland in qualification for the 2006 World Cup. For this game, Beckham was used as a sort of ‘quarterback’ whose job was to spray the ball to the wide players. The system did not work and England deservedly lost. The view that he was an automatic selection because he was admired by Coach Sven-Goran Eriksson increased in popularity from that day on, as did the less benign suggestion that it had more to do with the FA appeasing sponsors. Indeed, Steve McLaren’s decision not to select him for his early games as Coach was applauded by many as a brave and correct decision. That McLaren, now Coach of Twente Enschede, later went back to Beckham when England were in such dire straits was seen more as an act of desperation than anything. But is this fair? Without him, free-kicks and corners were frequently wasted. England’s failure to qualify for Euro 2008 was sealed on a night where their lack of know-how and technical ability was horribly exposed. Beckham is one of the few English players who ticks both these boxes.
While Fabio Capello is clearly a fan of the man who played for him at Real Madrid, it is also worth noting the sort of England team he is attempting to build. The selections of Theo Walcott, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Aaron Lennon and James Milner to start on the right in recent times indicates the Italian’s preference for a quick, direct option to attack and frighten the opposition. Although Beckham is a man with many attributes, a turn of pace was never amongst his strongest. With England hardly blessed with this asset in other areas of the pitch, one wonders if Capello maybe feels a difficult decision has been made for him. A space in the squad has now opened up for a player who can fit into the pattern with which England start games, something which it was universally accepted Beckham would not do. Can a side with aspirations of winning the World Cup afford to have a relatively static crossing and set-piece machine on their-right hand side? Were the rules similar to those in the NFL, wheeling Beckham on for a free-kick or corner and then taking him off again would suit England perfectly. As it is, Capello would appear to have other options that add greater value to the party that he takes to South Africa. Perhaps this injury has given an opportunity to somebody younger and more deserving of a World Cup spot than a player who has already tasted three and whose best days are long behind him.
Of course, Beckham would have added to the pool of experience in the squad this summer. However, with Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard and an ever-maturing Wayne Rooney in the squad, maybe this is not as big an asset as it would have been a few years ago. England may well miss someone who can deliver a dead ball with quality on a regular basis, but that is the one plus that he still brings which no English player can match. This has to be offset, however, against the positive assets offered by the alternatives. Beckham’s 115 England caps are rightly a source of great pride to him. His drive and sense of patriotic duty remains as solid as ever, and he can look back on an England career in which he achieved much on a personal level, even if the team habitually fell short. It is indeed sad that this could be the way the story ends, but for England, it may have made a decision Capello was considering making himself.