Don't mess with our Becks!

That was the message sent by outraged football journalists to Fabio Capello after his clumsy dismissal of David Beckham as "too old" to play for England. Becks is nationally treasured, a schoolboy hero to fully grown men, a lionheart (according to the Telegraph). You do not, if you know anything about Englishmen and their idols, casually disparage a lionheart.

Think of the term literally: the heart of a lion - it suggests primal roaring and king-of-the-jungle courage. Then think of Becks.

I don't know about you, but I think of a nice man with a high voice who used to wear sarongs and is married to a bony woman who has forgotten how to smile in public. He was a wonderful footballer, when he wasn't kicking players and being sent off in World Cups. But lionheart? I don't know, it doesn't seem right.

The term came from Richard I - the original lionheart, or Coeur de Lion, as he was known. In 1189, Richard became king of England - he commanded an army as a teenager, squashed rebellions and led crusades. The nickname was bestowed on the battlefield, where he became a celebrated fighter, a leader of men. There's a statue of him outside the Houses of Parliament. As though bronzed in action, Richard is mid-fight - sword aloft and his muscled horse pawing the ground. He's been dead for almost a millennium, but he still radiates testosterone.

Becks, on the other hand, radiates a strange kind of gentleness, and a phenomenal attention to sartorial detail. We want our footballers to be heroes, but their brand of heroism (hissy fits, love of labels and tattoos) feels a bit different from medieval military monarchs. In Becks's case, not necessarily in a bad way: he seems keener on good works and fronting World Cup bids than grand acts of aggression.

Nevertheless, lionheart he is and will now always be, however much we mocked him and his fancy ways in his heyday. History's been rewritten, haircuts forgotten, and Becks is lodged in the national consciousness as a warrior. A warrior with a lovely waistcoat.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan