No gold medal for Goldenballs Beckham

Dropping Beckham from the Olympic squad may have effectively ended his international career, but it was the kindest thing to do.

David Beckham’s dream is over. There will be no gold medal for the golden-haired Goldenballs of English football, the towering presence who has stood astride Wembley these past 15 years, and who was hoping for one last hurrah.

There will be no close-ups of Posh in the crowd as he takes a deep breath and lines up the vital last-minute free-kick to go sailing into the top corner. There will be no frenzied applause as he jogs up and down the touchline at what at first appears to be warming-up speed but is actually as fast as he can go nowadays. And there will be no glory for Beckham as his international career comes to a close without him even kicking a ball.

Alas, it wasn’t to be. Stuart Pearce, the former electrician and part-time national hero who is now coach of the Great Britain Olympic football team, has opted for pragmatism rather than pride, and left Becks out of the final squad.

In some ways it’s sad that someone who was so instrumental in bringing the Games to his East London backyard should be passed over in favour of players who have achieved much less, yet who can run faster. But in a purely competitive sense, Pearce has made the right choice for everyone – probably including Beckham himself.

A brilliant career with England, Manchester United, Real Madrid (and yes, the LA Galaxy) is coming to an end. He may still be young at 37 (I say this as a 37-year-old), but his best days are well behind him, when he was scoring at will and delivering incredible dead balls from all over the pitch.

Despite the moments of joy he brought at international level – the smashed redemption penalty against Argentina, the coruscating free-kicks against Colombia, Greece and Ecuador, the vital part he played in that 5-1 false dawn against Germany in Munich – he couldn’t lead England to glory, no matter how hard everyone tried.

He was so talented, England tried everything with him, even playing him as a ‘quarterback’ on one particularly ill-conceived night of shame when Sven-Goran Eriksson’s England were well beaten by Northern Ireland. But that reflected a part of the problem with his brilliance: Beckham was made for a game with rolling substitutions. His all-round game, emphasised perhaps by his jumping out of a crucial tackle that led to Brazil’s goal in the World Cup quarter-final Shizuoka in 2002, never matched his technical class, and that only became more obvious as time went on.

Beckham is part of the misfiring ‘golden generation’ who have promised so much but delivered so little. The less sparkling part of his legacy lives on – where once he was the undroppable player, put in the team regardless of form or tactics, now it’s Wayne Rooney who occupies the position of England’s sine qua non, even if he’s not quite up to scratch – as was the case in Euro 2012 and that tame capitulation to Italy the other night. But so do the best qualities that Beckham brought – a devotion to the England shirt, a desire to put skill first and graft second, and a fierce competitive edge.

In some ways, it’s a kindness that Pearce has given Beckham by denying him his last lap of honour. Imagine him hopelessly outpaced as he attempts to keep up with the under-23s haring up and down the wing, waiting for one dead-ball situation to rescue the team. Imagine his team-mates hearing a bigger roar for someone on the bench than they hear for themselves.

That’s no way for the man to bow out. He deserves better – a knighthood will probably do, in time. For now, he’ll just have to watch from the sidelines like the rest of us, if he can get tickets (and I suspect he might). In the end, the decision to drop him was made for purely footballing reasons – something Beckham will probably respect in time, no matter how much it hurts right now.

 

David Beckham holds the Olympic Flame as it arrives at RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall. Photograph: Getty Images
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Show Hide image

Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.