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
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.