James Lawton: The Cap continues to fit for Beckham
You might call it the last mystery of Fabio Capello, the piece of his English jigsaw that doesn't quite fit. It is the fact that he refuses so obdurately to remove the last of the international lustre of Goldenballs.
Discouraging the remnants of Michael Owen's ambition has seemed to be the slightest of chores for Il Capo.
Just one setting of that formidable jaw-line is enough to condemn Owen to the wilderness. Meanwhile, David Beckham's hopes of a record fourth appearance in a World Cup squad, four years after he tearfully resigned the captaincy, are nurtured with the kind of unswerving dedication you might find in a high dependency ward.
On Wednesday the gap between the situations of Owen, who launched himself onto world football's radar with a brilliant performance against Argentina in St Etienne on the same night Beckham was sent off for a piddling foul, could scarcely have been wider.
Beckham was brought on for still another cameo stint long after the outcome of the crushing victory over Croatia that confirmed England's place in the finals had been decided — and he received quite the biggest ovation of the night. Owen spent the day at the races.
What's it all about, Fabio? It's a hazardous question to pose for those of us who are frequently offered psychiatric help out of the obsessive belief that no player in the history of English football has been quite as indulged as Beckham -- and that the divergence between his celebrity and his achievements has long been one of the more bizarre features of English life.
But then sometimes it is hard to stop yourself. Wednesday night was such an occasion when the hero of the nation basked in the adulation of an audience who had just seen a magnificent team performance and fresh evidence, from Aaron Lennon, that Beckham had, at best, been consigned to joint third in the running for a place on the right flank of England's midfield. Give unto Caesar, of course, but for how long, and at what expense to the theory that a place in Capello's England side is something won by the hardest and most relevant effort and not reputation.
The oddity in Beckham's place in the margins of the team is that in less than two years Capello's building has been as effective as it has been relentless.
So it is natural that there is a tendency to believe that whatever reasons he has for a retaining a player who, while retaining a God-given and splendidly practiced touch with the dead ball and one with which he is granted a little time and space, has slowed to near zero pace and will be 35 by the time the finals unfold in South Africa next summer, they have some validity.
Certainly, though, it is interesting to recall Capello's response, soon after he was appointed, to a question about the English furore over the possibility that Beckham's career might not be crowned by a 100th cap. Could he, for example, imagine that if some icon of Italian football, say Paolo Maldini, had been anchored short of the landmark there would be a national outcry? Capello said: “Not in a million years.”
Why not? He didn't elaborate but there was a sense that he was suggesting that a player makes his mark in the history of a team not by the number of his appearances but the consistent quality of his effort.
Now, though, you have to wonder if the Beckham string has finally run out.
Lennon's mesmerising performance against Croatia surely demands that the door is closed on any debate over the two places allocated to the position of wide right. It is, you have to believe, a hand-to-fight waged by the speed and bite of Lennon and Theo Walcott, but then Capello's loyalty to Beckham is so extraordinary, so unyielding, that you wonder if the manager's instinct is to continue to placate the ageing trouper's vast and doggedly enamoured following.