So, after all the debating about whether or not he deserves to be in the squad, about whether he should be out at South Africa as a footballer or ambassador, about whether or not he deserves to be on the bench or off the team-sheet altogether, the familiar curse of injury has brought the curtain down on David Beckham’s World Cup dream. almost certainly his bid to become England’s most-capped player ever, and possibly his whole career. But while this is most certainly a major personal tragedy to befall a player whose career has been as colourful, dramatic and scrutinised as any in the modern game – if perhaps less talented than some of his colleagues, few can match his work-rate or number of trophies accrued – is it really such a disaster for his country’s chances of winning the tournament?

Had someone asked this question in any of the previous three World Cup tournaments, the answer would surely have been that depriving England of its most reliable creative force, and those famous set-pieces, would have seriously – if not fatally – harmed their chances of success. Though France ’98 turned sour for both player and country, an injury beforehand would have been viewed as a sizeable disadvantage; by 2002, after his broken metatarsal suffered against Deportivo La Coruña, the fact that he went to Japan and South Korea half-fit is commonly cited as a major factor in the underwhelming quarter-final exit; and though Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard now shared the burden of expectations, Beckham’s reliable deliveries conjuring goals and wins from stalemates and bad performances showed how much the side relied on him.

However, after his resignation as captain and subsequent omission from Steve McLaren’s early squads, his waning influence was made obvious, and although he then earned a reprieve and a recall under both McLaren and then Fabio Capello, Beckham’s cameo appearances, from special chartered flights from his home near the Hollywood celebrity enclave, were evidence of a more ceremonial role in the squad.

The main reason most of Beckham’s fans used in arguing for his inclusion was his experience, the value he could add to the squad in terms of morale, and that, even with someone chosen ahead of him – even his most ardent fans would struggle to convincingly state the case for him in the starting XI – he could perhaps have enough energy in his legs to swing in a last-minute cross or shot and win the game, even the World Cup, for England.

That this was hopeful was shown by his middling record in both his brief England appearances and the inconsistent displays in two loan spells for AC Milan. What Beckham could do as a non-playing member of the squad is a moot point, but even with his golden personal touch, there is only so much a cheerleader can do to win a game, and given the dearth of top quality and proven players up front and out wide for England, it would be a waste of a vital squad place to give it to essentially an inactive participant.

The main reason for his inclusion in the international set-up was not through positive actions on his part, but more the negative impressions by a series of successors; first Shaun Wright-Phillips, then David Bentley, then Aaron Lennon, then Ashley Young failed to perform well and/or consistently in the role, which left the door open for a return.

Theo Walcott is the only player to have done well on a (semi) regular basis, but has been plagued by injuries, and though Joe Cole has done well for England in the past, his poor form recently has not helped his case, as does the fact that with Gerrard on the other wing the midfield would have the same lack of pace that hampered it in Germany last time around. James Milner – used mostly on the left for England, but well-rehearsed on the right for Aston Villa – could do a good job there, and Stewart Downing or even Adam Johnson, though being natural left-wingers, could either operate there or swap sides with Gerrard, but again the inexperience and likely inconsistency is what caused many to call for Beckham’s inclusion. Nevertheless, rawness and possible erratic form is a reason for taking an extra flyer instead of one less, and a likely wing line of Gerrard, Walcott, Milner and one or two others from Lennon (fitness permitting), Cole, Downing, Young and Johnson would be a more than adequate Plan B if Plan A involved taking a veteran beginning to border on geriatric status.

In all likelihood, Beckham will be in South Africa as a representative of England’s 2018 World Cup hosting bid, and should be on hand to pop in to see the squad and offer the words of advice so valued by his fans (even with his busy schedule of handshaking and air-kissing that such political schmoozing will entail). And England still look to be, along with Spain and Brazil, favourites for the tournament, ready to undo 44 years of hurt. Whether the odds of 6-1 are tempting enough to stake a substantial bet on is, like much else in football, not least David Beckham’s wonderful career, very much up for debate.


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