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Let's celebrate Moore and Beckham

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Phil McNulty | 22:30 GMT, Wednesday, 11 February 2009

David Beckham has split opinions as often as defences in a recent nomadic existence that has taken him from the Bernabeu to Beverly Hills and back to Europe with AC Milan.

So when he matched Bobby Moore's tally of 108 England caps - the record for an outfield player - by coming on against Spain in Seville, it was the signal for another debate centred around one the country's great sporting polemics.

Is Beckham worthy of matching Moore, still the only England captain to lift the World Cup?

It is a debate that must be set in its proper context. In the modern days of more regular internationals, 108 is only a number and we are comparing two players who operated in vastly different eras in different positions.

And unless and until Beckham wins the World Cup with England, Moore's iconic status and reputation will always be preserved in the more precious metal of the Jules Rimet Trophy.

It has still not stopped England internationals past and present dipping into the debate with predictably wide-ranging verdicts.

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The received wisdom appears to be that Beckham comes in very much a poor second to Moore, that his latter collection of cameo caps renders any argument that he can match the man who won the World Cup irrelevant.

My own view is that direct comparisons, as someone once said in a debate between a horse, goose, and sheep, are odious - but we can state some facts that will help to shape any argument.

Moore played in three World Cups, excelling as a youngster when England reached the quarter-final in 1962 and winning it on home soil four years later.

He demonstrated his strength of character and coolness under pressure to perhaps an even greater degree in Mexico in 1970, where he was outstanding again.

Moore had been wrongly implicated in the theft of a bracelet in Bogota before the tournament - but emerged to deliver what many observers still regard as the finest performance of his career when England lost a group game to eventual winners Brazil in Guadalajara.

He delivered a performance of such poise and precision that the great Pele, arguably at the peak of his powers in that tournament, sought him out at the final whistle to set up a famous photograph of the pair swapping shirts.

Moore, who died of cancer aged just 51 in 1993, will always have a unique - and as yet unmatchable - place in England's football pantheon because he has done what no-one else has yet done and led his country to World Cup glory.

When England's football history is written, Bobby Moore will be remembered as the player who captained them to the World Cup - his tally of 108 caps will be rightly moved to the margins.

Beckham has never truly delivered at a major tournament, either because of a red card, injury and loss of form - and his critics will point to the cult of celebrity that has sometimes threatened to undermine his excellence as a footballer.

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I have been critical of Beckham's form for England in the past, and irritated by how coaches, especially Sven-Goran Eriksson, have been in thrall to him without justification.

It blinded Eriksson's judgement in Japan in 2002, when he picked a clearly unfit Beckham and the price was paid in the losing quarter-final against Brazil in the searing heat and humidity of Shizuoka. Beckham jumped out of a tackle just before the interval, a moment that led to Rivaldo's crucial equaliser.

Beckham was off the pace at Euro 2004 in Portugal, when even his trademark dead-ball skills let him down when he missed a penalty in a group game against France and in a shoot-out against the hosts in the last eight.

He was mediocre in Germany two years later, but was still one of England's better performers. Beckham ended that World Cup in tears injured on the touchline - and with his international career seemingly over.

I was convinced he would never be seen playing for England again as I watched him resign the captaincy in tears at a press conference in Baden-Baden 24 hours later - but it is this iron will and refusal to accept what we believed was the inevitable that deserves complete respect.

He was dignified when dropped as a grand gesture by Steve McClaren, and set about regaining his place in the squad.

It was a mission he accomplished, confounding many of us with the way he was happy to return to the ranks without any rancour after losing his precious captain's armband.

He remains in the squad, moving to AC Milan to ensure he did so, and having observed how Fabio Capello operates, his presence is not down to the Italian acting out of sentiment - this is an alien concept to him.

Capello must feel he can make a contribution, although this is as much down to his potential successors failing to make their case as Beckham's own performances.

I only met Bobby Moore once, at Highbury shortly before his death. He was a modest, unfailingly polite individual prepared to talk football with anyone. It was scandal of sorts how he was not allowed to make a greater contribution to our game after he finished playing.

I would never pretend to know Beckham as a person, but I have watched him in action at close quarters around the world and any criticism made of him as a player must be set alongside his exemplary behaviour for England off the field.

In Japan he received pop star adulation and was blinded by flashlights everywhere he went. He was the perfect ambassador as captain, as he was in Portugal and Germany, never refusing any reasonable request from fascinated fans who followed his every move.

We may have questioned some of his moves on the field, but Beckham was a force for good for England's reputation off the pitch.

Indeed, when he won his 100th cap in England's friendly defeat in France in March, a hostile Stade de France rose as one to applaud him when he was substituted after 63 minutes.

Does this make him the equal of Bobby Moore? Let the debate rage.

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