Beckham show proves big in Japan

 

If the sight of around 50 white-capped nurses pursuing David Beckham onto the pitch at the Beijing Workers' Stadium on Saturday night was not sufficiently bizarre, his reception in Tokyo yesterday proved positively surreal, writes Louise Taylor from Tokyo.

Whereas those nurses, evidently refreshed after duties on the springtime SARS wards at Beijing Hospital, greeted Beckham with flowers and kisses ahead of Real Madrid's 4-0 friendly victory against the Chinese Dragons, 45,000 adoring Japanese fans had paid a minimum of €21 simply to watch their idol being put through a gentle training session last night.

Some of those who had failed to snaffle the original €21 seats invested up to €164 on the black market - and all to witness what amounted to a glorified warm-down, preceded by a kick-about with 600 local children.

Afterwards, at an adjacent hotel to promote tomorrow's match with FC Tokyo, Beckham was asked if the frenzy was out of proportion.

"We've really had nothing to do with it," he replied, somewhat disingenuously. "But I've been happy to see all the fans."

Sitting alongside him - and perhaps significantly having commandeered the seat bang in the middle of the dais, leaving Beckham seated on the side - Luis Figo possibly harboured alternative thoughts.

"This is very different from the sort of pre-season we have had in the last few years," said the Real winger, who has spent recent summers limbering up in Austria. "In the last few years we've had a lot of good physical training, but this time it's different; we're not used to all these ceremonies."

Beckham has no such qualms. "Making my debut in an historical place like Beijing was an amazing feeling, it was a great honour. We were pleased with the performance and I really enjoyed myself."

And so he should, having been saluted by chants of "David, David" at the Workers' Stadium. It was ironic that an arena constructed to celebrate communism was so unreservedly paying homage to a man who symbolises the sort of ostentatious individualism that the Cultural Revolution had intended to eradicate.

Indeed Chairman Mao would probably have turned in his grave had he heard the 80,000-strong crowd, 60,000 more than the average for most football fixtures in this stadium and many wearing T-shirts emblazoned with either Beckham or 23, boo the Chinese Dragons, a side comprising players from four of the country's leading domestic sides.

So how did Real's number 23 do? He was neat and tidy during his 77 minutes of action but, bar one stunning long ball to Ronaldo and a couple of near misses from free-kicks, there was little else.

For a footballer causing such a commotion it was extraordinary that, from his station wide on the right, Beckham never once managed to beat the Dragons' left back, the doughty Wu Cheng Ying.

Unfortunately his first touch, which coincided with an excited "Bravo, bravo, Beckham" from the PA announcer, was swiftly followed by Wu Cheng's first block. It seemed to set a disappointing precedent and, even worse, his shadow's subsequent success in persistently steering him in field highlighted just how one-footed the England captain is.

Of course that one is pretty useful, but in Beijing it merely dispatched a single cross - comfortably headed clear by a Dragon.

Real are a significantly less cross-centric side than Manchester United, but Figo nevertheless conjured a few decent centres from his new left-wing beat. Afterwards Figo said he was not upset at having ceded his preferred flank to the new boy, but he spoke with a scowl.

The expression on Roberto Carlos's face when Beckham delivered those dead balls - one acrobatically saved by the goalkeeper and the other bent fractionally wide - was one of intense interest and it will be intriguing to watch how the issue of who takes what when and where unravels.

In open play Beckham did unleash that apparently laser-guided, 50-yard pass which presented a tubby-looking Ronaldo with a definite scoring chance that his reactions proved unequal to. Generally, though, number 23 did the simple things well enough to leave the Spanish press reasonably content but without seeing quite as much possession as they might have hoped.

Tellingly, Beckham was fed few outlet balls. Perhaps if he had proved he had Wu Cheng's measure his team-mates might have reacted a differently. Or perhaps he is in the wrong position in his new team? Maybe Beckham would, after all, be better used directing his passes to Raul and Ronaldo from the central midfield station he craves.

Encouragingly, though, he played appreciably better in the second half, which possibly had something to do with his decision to tie his hair in a ponytail, which is possibly the Beckham version of rolling your sleeves up.

In the pre-Posh era Beckham's presence would not have necessitated a touring football team visiting the Forbidden City at midnight on Friday. This nocturnal trip by Real was made at the insistence of the mayor of Beijing after it had been cancelled amid security fears that morning. Sadly, it ended in argy-bargy when a VIP female sponsor was pushed over by an over-zealous official.

Caused by Real's objections to the mayor inviting sponsors and Chinese journalists through the specially unlocked city gates, it was the sort of minor diplomatic incident which punctuated the Chinese leg of this tour, straining relations between Real and their hosts.

The portents seem more promising here in Tokyo but, when asked if he had briefed his new team-mates on Japanese culture, Beckham admitted: "Not many of them speak English, so it's been quite difficult for me to pass them the ball, let alone discuss Japan."

Just for a moment he looked like a man badly missing Gary Neville.