Never have so few words meant so much. OK, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but when was the last time that the suggestion of a player in his 36th year being “a little bit old” caused such a frenzy?
For those of you who might have been on another planet for the 24 hours (or those who can’t stand ITV’s awful England coverage) and missed the infamous Capello interview, I’ll recap for you: in an pre-match interview for ITV, recorded on Monday, Fabio Capello announced in no uncertain terms that David Beckham will not play another competitive match for his country.
OK, sit back. Relax. Calm down. Breathe.
If we think with our heads, and not our hearts, we will probably all come to a similar conclusion – if a 35-year-old Beckham can barely make the squad, he’s not going to be much use in Poland and Ukraine when he’s 37 (if we even get there).
However, for all the sense it makes, I can’t help but feel a keen sense of déjà vu. We only have to cast our minds back to August 2006 to remember the first time Beckham was told his England career was over.
The same logic that has led me to believe that Capello’s decision is the correct one also saw me back Steve McClaren four years ago. ‘He’s past it,’ I thought. ‘Yeah, he might be able to do a job for a few months, maybe a year, but he’s not going to be good enough for our Euro 2008 squad – he’ll be 33! So get rid now and build for the future.’
Dropped by England, and Capello’s Real Madrid, I was sure he would be left to end his playing days rotting in the doldrums of MLS. Yet it took Beckham little more than a month to force Capello to backtrack and, with England’s Euro qualification hanging in the balance, he was soon recalled by McClaren. The doubters were proved wrong.
There are of course huge differences between the situation Capello finds himself in and that of McClaren when he came to announcing his first squad. Looking back, it is plainly clear that the McClaren decision was almost solely made to be a mere symbol of a new beginning for the national team.
With a lack of confidence in his ability due to perceived ties to the Sven regime and anxiety over ‘player power’ hanging over him, McClaren surely felt that dropping Beckham would kill a whole flock of birds with one stone. Yet for Capello, even after England’s string of awful performances in South Africa, he is more trusted and in a more comfortable position than McClaren ever was.
Yes, perhaps the desire does exist to draw a symbolic line under all that has happened, but Capello is hardly the type to do a Maradona and throw the baby out with the bathwater. If he were, we would have seen fewer than the seven of our World Cup duds in the England XI last night and the Terry-Lampard-Gerrard-Rooney spine would not have remained.
For Capello to discard Beckham, he will only have been motivated by on-the-pitch affairs. Perhaps some of us allow our thoughts on Beckham’s recent England displays to be permeated by beautiful memories of goals against Greece and Argentina. But for those of us with at least one eye on cold, hard statistics, we can see that Beckham’s recent England appearances have resembled nothing more than an act of cap-collecting.
In the two years between Euro 2008 and his achilles injury of 2010, he managed an average of less than 17 minutes per game for England. Couple that kind of game time (which barely warrants the purchase of his plane ticket from LA) with the old guard’s abysmal World Cup performances and we start to see what Capello was getting at when he said that he “think(s) we need new players for the future”.
So, has Capello made the same mistake twice? Some will point to the claim by AC Milan’s fitness guru Jean Pierre Meersseman that Beckham’s physique is like that of Paolo Maldini, but four years on there’s a far greater chance that Fabio’s right than when Steve made the call.
And if Walcott, Johnson, Young et al are the “gems” they showed glimpses of being last night, we will never have to consider how long Beckham could have lasted.