By Simon Hart in Japan
"He's so good-looking I don't know whether to kick him or kiss him." Those were the reported words of one Argentina player at the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France, words which, apocryphal or not, convey neatly the celebrity-footballer status of the Manchester United FC midfield player.
This is a man whose departure for these finals was preceded by a €550,000 party for famous faces at his home - and whose arrival here was greeted by scores of screaming Japanese teenagers. Young men from the Far East to his native east London mimic his mohican haircut. A hit British film about women's football, 'Bend It Like Beckham', trades on his name. Only today FIFA responded to criticism of their World Cup ball, the adidas Fevernova™, by relaying Beckham's recorded commendation to journalists.
How times change. Four years ago Beckham was the easy scapegoat for England's World Cup exit against the Argentines. His sending-off early in the second half, after flicking a retaliatory foot at Diego Simeone, helped turned a thrilling last-16 match the South Americans' way. On his return to England, an effigy of the player was hung outside a pub near his childhood home.
Aside from the Argentina game, the French World Cup held mixed experiences for the then 22-year-old. Left out of the opening match against Tunisia by coach Glenn Hoddle - who had questioned his focus - he appeared as a substitute in the next match against Romania, before scoring his first international goal with a sublime free-kick against Colombia.
It was another of his free-kicks, of course, which earned England their place in the finals, the last-minute equaliser in a 2-2 draw with Greece - his third goal in seven qualifying matches. By then Beckham had become England's captain, and also their talisman. His importance to Sven-Göran Eriksson's side is such that the broken bone in his foot he sustained in April was front-page news.
'One of the best'
The injury came just as Beckham was rediscovering his best form after spending the winter months on the bench at Old Trafford - his manager Sir Alex Ferguson considered him drained by his efforts in England's qualifying campaign. Eriksson said at the time: "He's extremely important as a captain, and one of the best players in the world today. If it's only a small chance that he can play, you should take it."
Such is the way England play under Eriksson, releasing the ball quickly to fast front men, the precision of Beckham's right boot is integral. Steven Gerrard offered a decent impersonation in the friendly defeat of Paraguay before the finals but his injury has only enhanced Beckham's importance. This is why he took the field against Sweden only "90 per cent fit" (and to the delight of the Japanese spectators whose flashing cameras illuminated the stands as he took his first corner, which led to Sol Campbell's goal). Blessed with tremendous stamina, the England captain lasted 63 minutes but hopes to make more of an impact tomorrow.
Beckham is desperate to help make up for the disappointment of England's performance against the Swedes - "We need to remind people that we can play football. Somehow we didn't do it on Sunday" - but his fitness worries recall the problems of Bryan Robson, another former United and England midfield player, whose involvement in the 1986 and 1990 tournaments was curtailed by injuries. "I expected to last 90 minutes in the last match and obviously didn't, but I am expecting to on Friday," he said. "I could probably get by on 95 per cent and I feel 95 per cent now."
Temperature will be high
His participation against Argentina will only add spice to a meeting whose history - from the hand of Maradona to the heel of Beckham - demands another highly charged encounter. Sapporo may be home to an annual snow festival, and on the cooler northern island of Hokkaido, but the temperature will be high on the pitch. He has not forgotten the manner in which the Argentinians celebrated victory four years ago. "They were standing up and taking their shirts off and we were out of the competition and waiting there with our families. To see that going on was upsetting," he recalled.
And while Beckham said there were "no hard feelings" with Simeone, he did give the English press the words they wanted in the build-up to the match when he hinted at Argentina's underhand tactics. "There are certain teams and certain players who are a lot more cunning than a lot of English players. I'm not saying they're cheats but there's a way of doing it." Simeone's theatrical fall after his brush with Beckham in Saint-Etienne was an obvious example of this cunning. He can expect more kicks than kisses again in Sapporo.
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