Bending to stretching it... like Beckham

Football

Bending to stretching it... like Beckham

And although he is now 35 years old, and just starting a comeback from a torn Achilles’ tendon, Beckham sees himself as soccer’s Peter Pan – forever young.

He is more than a player to England. His iconic status crosses over from sports to pop culture. His presence earns the England Football Association millions in sponsorships, and he is considered worth his weight in gold in the bidding toward the 2018 World Cup.

The country or countries that win the right to host the tournament — for which England, Russia, the United States and the joint candidates Belgium/Netherlands and Portugal/Spain are contenders — will be announced in December. It is definitely not a good time for England to declare that Beckham is finished.

But that was what the coach of England, Fabio Capello, effectively did on national television moments before last Wednesday’s game against Hungary at Wembley Stadium in London. Asked if he saw a future for Beckham in the side, Capello replied: “No. I say thank you very much for helping me at the World Cup, but probably he is a little bit too old.”

Within minutes, Beckham’s agent issued a statement via the BBC. “For your info,” it read, “there has been no discussion of retirement. He will always be available for his country, when fit and if needed he will be there.”

Beckham has continuously said as much. On the day that Capello publicly closed the door to him with no advance warning, Beckham returned ahead of schedule to train with the Los Angeles Galaxy, which will play the Red Bulls on Saturday in Harrison, NJ. He did conditioning work only, but told reporters afterward: “I’ve been waiting for this for almost five months. The doctor said October 1, but I hope it can be a few weeks before that. I’ll know personally when I’m right.”

The injury layoff had brought home to him how much he still loves the game. “Some people say at my age that you start not loving football as much as you did when you were 21,” he said. “But I still do.”

Unaware of Capello’s comments in London, Beckham repeated what his agent had stated: He would never retire from playing for his country. There are good young players coming through, but he would always be available.

That commitment is part of why fans identify with him. This week, two players selected for England by Capello – goalkeeper Paul Robinson and defender Wes Brown – said thanks but no thanks. Both 30, they opted to concentrate on their lucrative club careers.

Beckham, once again, is different. His global marketing contracts are as much tied to his national team exposure as the million-dollar salaries that he has been able to command while dividing his time between the Galaxy and AC Milan, one of the top clubs in Europe.

On Wednesday, for the first time in three years, Beckham conceded that trying to represent two teams – three counting England – had caused his most recent injury. “Hitting it so hard, every month, all year round, has been tough on my body,” he said.

“My focus now is repairing my body, playing as soon as possible, then taking the time to get the rest in and be ready for next season.”

Capello’s comment terminating Beckham’s national team career came across as blunt and ungrateful. That was partly because he was taken by surprise by the question moments before the game, and partly because his grasp of English is still incomplete.

There are now calls in England for Beckham to have a permanent role with the national squad, even for Beckham and a former England coach, Sven-Goran Eriksson, to take charge of the Premier League club Aston Villa, whose manager quit this week.

If Beckham wants to follow that path, more power to him. Meanwhile, he faces a long, hard slog to get in the best shape that his aging body will allow, or face a decline as a celebrity player.  In the real world of competitive sports, there is no room for Peter Pan.

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