THERE IS no doubt about it. David Beckham is the best-paid shirt salesman on the planet.
When it comes to extracting hard-earned pounds, euros or dollars out of pockets, no-one gets people to spend it quite like Beckham.
Not Pele. Not Maradona. Not George Best. Not Kaka. Not Ronaldinho. No-one in the history of football has shifted replica shirts off the shelves, merchandise off the internet and memorabilia out of club shops as swiftly or as profitably as the lad from Leytonstone.
Let’s not kid ourselves. That is the main reason Beckham looks like spending part of the winter in Milan. And with the world in the grip of a recession, one from which surely even football cannot be immune, who can blame AC Milan for grasping a revenue-generating gimmick?
As Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani admitted: “Football today is not just about tactics and technical abilities. It’s about full stadiums and sponsors.”
But do not blame Beckham for that. Instead, applaud him for attempting to extend his England career by honing his match fitness in Italy while the Major League Soccer season in America is in hibernation. He’s desperate to equal Bobby Moore’s record of 108 caps for an outfield player when England take on Germany in Berlin next month. He wants to make that record his own against Spain in February.
And after that he wants to go on, even if it means playing a bit-part role for his country, right up until the World Cup in South Africa in 2010.
If anything, Beckham is more obsessive about playing for his country now at the age of 33 than he was when he was captain and being indulged by managers such as Sven-Goran Eriksson and Steve McClaren. It is a personal view, but that obsession could have as much to do with guilt as securing his footballing legend.
Beckham has played at three World Cups. In 1998 his sending-off for a reckless flick of the boot against Argentina in Saint-Etienne cost England a place in the semi-finals.
In 2002 he arrived in Japan still recovering from a broken metatarsal which saw him jump out of a tackle in the quarter-final which led directly to Brazil breaking away and Rivaldo scoring a crucial equaliser which again saw England on the way home.
In Germany two years ago he went off injured as England lost to Portugal, again in the quarter-final. And just for good measure, remember the shoot-out penalty he blasted high into the stands which effectively ended England’s European championship campaign in 2004?
You cannot get away from it. For all his caps, the pivotal points of Beckham’s England career have been milestones of personal failure.
And what does he see now? A straight-talking Italian coach in Fabio Capello who is bringing organisation, belief and a touch of ruthlessness to the England set-up which just might herald their best chance of success for almost 40 years.
No wonder Beckham is prepared to move continents and be separated from his family to be part of that.
The doubters will say if his England career meant so much to him why did he put it in jeopardy by going to America in the first place.
And they have a point, except that we should remember Beckham took that decision when McClaren, arguably the most inept England manager in history, had all but given his international hopes the footballing equivalent of the Mafia kiss.
One thing is indisputable. Beckham loves playing for England and, in accepting with such grace the cameo substitute roles offered under Capello, has shown himself to be a man of more substance and less ego than many had believed.
There is another thing. Beckham, for all that his legs no longer carry him to the places they once did, is still the best crosser of a football. He still presents a match-winning alternative when other means have tried and failed. He’s not the future, but he just might on occasion be the man for the present.
Capello recognises that it is why filling the San Siro and selling football shirts could prove one day to be good for England. Football, as someone once said, really is a funny old game.
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