There is almost no team in world football that can call on such an array of talent, old and new, as AC Milan. Among their stars are two World Player of the Year winners, and a staggering eight World Cup winners. Yet, when the Rossoneri take the field for their mid-winter training match against Hamburg SV, these players will not be the centre of attention. The spotlight will be on a right-footed mid-fielder who’s been plying his trade in the lowly backwaters of Major League Soccer in the USA; a washed up 33-year-old whose best days are behind him. A player who, at present, isn’t considered good enough or fit enough to play for his country. Step forward David Beckham.
It is a rather delicious prospect. How will the many egos among AC Milan’s squad react when the main target of the autograph hunters is a player brought in on loan? How will they feel sitting next to Goldenballs as journalists fire off question after question at him, while they are studiously ignored? If Milan’s established stars are wondering what to expect, they need only ask their colleagues at Real Madrid. Not so long ago, The Beckham Show arrived there, sweeping all aside.
The answer will presumably be, ‘watch out’. Beckham joined the Spanish side for a princely sum in 2003 – arriving with a fanfare fit for a king. But it was not an entirely happy time for the former Manchester United midfielder. He had turned down a generous offer from Barcelona, Real’s bitter rivals, only to see the Catalan club spend their cash on Ronaldinho and, with the Brazilian’s wizardry, go on to win the Spanish League and the Champions League. In contrast, Madrid and Beckham struggled. While he performed well and was popular with Real’s supporters, the Spanish club’s decision to buy a one-footed, pedestrian-paced winger was greeted with cynicism. It was assumed he had greater value to the club for his celebrity status – and the number of shirts the club could sell – than for his abilities as a footballer. Fabio Capello, who was appointed Real Madrid coach in 2006, dropped the England star. Not long after that it was reported Real wouldn’t be renewing Beckham’s contract, and then that LA Galaxy had secured his services. It seemed his career at the Spanish giant was to end in ignominy, a point underlined when, in response to the news his English star would be departing, Capello announced that Beckham had played his last game for Real Madrid.
And so that, many thought, was that. Beckham was no more than a symbol for all that was wrong with the modern age: an individual whose fame and success was the result of his looks – and whom he married – not his talent. But, while Beckham has come to represent the age of celebrity, he has never been its embodiment. Despite the looks, the wife, the film star friends and the endless endorsements, he has always been the young lad first filmed juggling a ball at a Bobby Charlton football school: an individual dedicated to his sport, prepared to work harder than anyone else to be a success.
Within weeks of claiming that he would never play for Real again, Capello brought Beckham back into his Real Madrid side. In his last few games, Beckham’s famed passing ability was key to a remarkable Spanish League victory over rivals Barcelona. It was even reported that the club attempted to buy him out of his LA Galaxy contract.
It was not the first time Beckham had confounded his critics. A sending off for a petulant retaliation was blamed for England’s 1998 World Cup departure and led to a hate campaign against the player. Yet in 2001 the footballer guided his country through a tortuous 2-2 draw against Greece to secure qualification for the next championship. And now Beckham is on the comeback trail again. He’s hoping his time at AC Milan can convince Capello – in a neat twist of fate now England’s coach – that he is still a good enough player to guide his country back to the World Cup once more. Will his illustrious team mates at AC Milan write him off? Perhaps, but they will do so at their peril.
AC Milan: the stars
These are the players to watch out for (in truth, there are more – apologies in particular to Clarence Seedorf and Gianluca Zambrotta)
40, shirt no. 3
The stats say it all: no one has played for AC Milan more times, no one has as many caps for Italy. AC will retire the number three shirt when he hangs it up for the last time. He is simply one of the greatest footballing legends ever, anywhere.
35, shirt no. 1
He will never escape his ridiculous lunge to the ground after being brushed by a pitch invader, but he remains Brazil’s finest goalkeeper and a World Cup winner to boot.
29, shirt no. 21
Few players can seem as assured as Pirlo. An effortless, refined presence in Milan’s midfield, he was also an integral part of Italy’s World Cup-winning side of 2006.
19, shirt no. 7
The baby of the side, and perhaps their best hope for the future, Pato made an immediate impression for the Rossoneri, scoring on debut in a 5-2 victory against Napoli.
26, shirt no. 22
Former Ballon D’Or and Fifa World Player of the Year winner, Kaka is widely considered one of the very strongest in the business. He possesses just about every quality a footballer could wish for: wonderful control, pin-point passing, an eye for goal and a deceptive turn of pace. He also happens to be a squeaky clean devout Christian.
23, shirt no. 80
He might not have David Beckham’s good looks, but Ronaldinho hardly needs them. His beguiling skills made him Fifa World Player of the Year while at Barcelona, where he also won the Champions League. After something of a stale end to his Barca career he’s back on form.
Dubai Football Challenge: AC Milan v Hamburg SV, The Sevens, Jan 6. Tickets Dhs100, www.timeouttickets.com