David Beckham's role with England appears to be shifting towards mentor rather than chief tormentor after manager Fabio Capello heralded the arrival of new national hero Theo Walcott and suggested he is the future.
Arsenal winger Walcott, chosen ahead of Beckham on the right of midfield, scored a hat-trick in England's remarkable 4-1 FIFA World Cup™ qualifying victory over Croatia last month that has transformed public opinion of Capello's side. Now as England prepare for games at home to Kazakhstan on Saturday and away to Belarus next Wednesday, it is becoming increasingly clear the 19-year-old is likely to be first choice for the forseeable future with Beckham restricted to a substitute's role.
The LA Galaxy star has a habit of proving people wrong but any talk of Walcott returning to U-21 action in future was quickly rebutted by Capello, who will name his next senior squad later Sunday.
"I think when you find young players like this, good players, interesting players at the top level he has to play with the seniors. Age is not important, what's important is the quality, the confidence," said the Italian. "It's a stupid example but ."
The pressure on Walcott to perform at Wembley next weekend will be immense but Capello clearly sees the Arsenal player as a long-term solution for England even if he is unable to reproduce his hat-trick heroics. He said: "I hope he produces a good performance. I said after Croatia that everyone would speak about his performance and the people would be waiting for the same performance but sometimes it's not possible.
"I think we have to wait and treat Walcott like the normal players. Sometimes there will be a fantastic performance other times it will be normal and others not good so I substitute him - but that is normal like for the other players. I think confidence is important for young players. But usually it's not the young players that help the other players. We need the old players, the captain, the leaders, to help the young."
That could well become Beckham's main role with England in future, just as it was in Zagreb when Walcott praised the LA Galaxy man for the way he unselfishly helped him prepare for the biggest game of his life despite being left on the sidelines himself. Since then Beckham has said he would be happy to step aside to allow Walcott to flourish but also insisted he wants to continue as an England player, even from the bench.
His experience will certainly be useful for England as they face two games that could push them to within touching distance of qualifying for the FIFA World Cup Finals in South Africa in 2010. Capello's side already have six points from two matches and could extend their lead over closest rivals Croatia and Ukraine if results go the right way, putting memories of failure to qualify for EURO 2008 well and truly in the past.
"It was very important to win against Croatia, for the players, for the fans, to forget the games before," said Capello. "And I think for the players the confidence is very important. For the next game we play at home - I have said we have not played with confidence at Wembley so I hope after the Croatia game the fans and the players will be together against Kazakhstan."
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