Beckham wants to make it into Fabio Capello's World Cup squad next summer
By Jonathan Stevenson
In the early hours of Monday morning, with most Englishmen asleep, David Beckham set about making his case to go to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
His LA Galaxy team may have ended up losing the Major League Soccer Cup final - the showpiece of the US season - on penalties, but for Beckham there was more at stake than silverware.
No longer a first choice for his national team and no longer playing most of his football in one of the world's most competitive leagues, Beckham's chances to impress have been infrequent in recent times.
But having helped Galaxy to the final, Beckham finally had an opportunity to showcase his abilities in a meaningful match.
So, the $64,000 question: Is Beckham good enough to get into Fabio Capello's 23-man squad next summer?
On this evidence, the 115-times capped former England skipper is as safe a bet as he was when he left Real Madrid at the end of the 2006-07 season.
Granted, the calibre of opposition at Qwest Field in Seattle was not quite in the same ball park as it will be when the world's best gather in the southernmost tip of Africa in June and July. Real Salt Lake overcame Beckham's side 5-4 on penalties after a 1-1 draw.
But Beckham has been to three World Cups before, is more familiar than most would-be Capello picks rubbing shoulders with world-class footballers and, crucially, from January will once more be playing for Italian giants AC Milan.
As well as allowing him to compete in Serie A and - qualification permitting - the latter stages of Champions League, it means Beckham will be easily accessible to Capello and his staff who will no doubt be keen to keep tabs on his progress.
Beckham, desperate to erase the memory of what he sees as the failure of the 1998, 2002 and 2006 World Cups, has much in his favour as he seeks one last shot at tournament redemption in the eyes of the country he loves.
His fitness has surely never been an issue, despite the fact that when the World Cup begins on 11 July in Johannesburg, he will be a month past his 35th birthday.
In Seattle, not for the first time in his illustrious career, Beckham was playing through the pain barrier after having injections to ease the suffering from a badly bruised ankle bone.
Beckham produced a typically committed display in the MLS Cup final
He had gone into the game in typically determined fashion, admitting: "If you want to be involved, you have to make sacrifices. I'll be fine."
The injections worked as he set about his task with an industry and endeavour familiar to football fans all around the world over the past decade and a half.
Starting off in his customary right-midfield position, Beckham quickly began to drift infield in a bid to exert a greater influence on the game and the quality of his passing and vision, as you would expect, were a step ahead of anyone else on the field.
Perhaps most notably as he began to dictate play for the Galaxy, the ambitious 60-yard Hollywood passes for which he has been chided in the latter part of his England career were absent, replaced instead by a shorter and more accurate delivery.
Just before half-time, Beckham stamped his class all over the contest as he helped Galaxy take the lead against Real Salt Lake.
Bursting forward from midfield as Galaxy counter-attacked three-on-two, he intuitively teed up Landon Donovan down the right and watched his good work come to fruition as his team-mate's cross enabled Mike Magee to open the scoring at the far post.
If Beckham's ankle was hurting he refused to show it and he continued to probe for an opening even when Galaxy were pegged back by Robbie Findley's leveller which took the final into extra-time.
By then, the former Manchester United star was visibly wincing with pain as he limped on the guilty right foot, but he steadfastly refused to be taken off - a pointed sacrifice to those who have suggested his heart is not in US 'soccer'.
When he stepped up to take the first penalty in the shootout that followed the 1-1 draw he was hobbling badly, but as he so often does Beckham led by example and slotted his spot-kick into the corner of Nick Rimando's net.
I'm dedicated to going to South Africa and wouldn't leave my family for six months if I wasn't
His team may have lost 5-4 on the dreaded penalties, but Beckham proved his big-match temperament and desire to win everything he is involved in have not deserted him.
AC Milan medical director Jean-Pierre Meersseman, who prolonged the careers of Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Costacurta into their 40s, believes Beckham has many years left of playing at the top level.
"With David's physique, in my opinion I can see him playing until he is 40," said Meersseman. "I see him like Maldini and Costacurta, so he can go on. He could go over 40 if he wants to do that."
Beckham may not wish to play for another six years, but he will do whatever it takes to get on the plane that will leave Heathrow for South Africa in May.
Barring injuries he is unlikely to find himself in Capello's starting XI, but the fact remains he has that rare quality of being able to change a game at the very highest level in an instant - something the Italian coach is unlikely to discover in any of his rivals in the next few months.
Aaron Lennon's stunning display for Spurs in their astonishing 9-1 win over Wigan on Sunday proves England are not lacking options down their right flank.
But with Shaun Wright-Phillips out of sorts, Theo Walcott perennially injured and James Milner relatively untried, Beckham remains a very plausible option.
Having gone to the last two World Cups struggling with injury, Beckham will know that this time he must be 100% fit to have any chance of making Capello's cut.
If the brilliant Belgian doctor Meersseman can keep him out of trouble in his five-month spell in Milan, Beckham should be among England's party of 23 that attempts to win a trophy for the first time since 1966.
He is too good to leave behind - and he has unfinished business with a tournament that has provided too many career lowlights.
"I'm dedicated to going to South Africa and wouldn't leave my family for six months if I wasn't," said Beckham. "I'm honoured that Milan have given me the chance to go back, but the hope of playing for England is the only reason I'm doing it."
If he only plays a minute in a campaign that ends with England winning the World Cup, there is no doubt Beckham will believe that to be another sacrifice worth making.
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