Leaders we deserve: Stevie Mac brings Beckham back

June 5, 2007

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First, Steve McClaren dumps superstar David Beckham out of the England soccer set-up. Then, following a run of disastrous results McClaren brings back Beckham. Weak or strong leadership?

The story so far. New English coach Steve McClaren steps up from the number two job, and is seen to put down a marker of his intention to make a fresh start. David Beckham had offered his resignation as team captain after an unconvincing display in England’s disappointing World Cup performances . McClaren drops him from the entire squad.

The new-look squad perform poorly. Beckham signs the largest contract of all time for a footballer, and agrees to leave Real Madrid and play in America for the Los Angeles Galaxy club later in the year. In the interim, Beckham suffers injuries and loss of form, and is dropped from the Real Madrid team, with clear indications that his career is finished.

A long time in football politics

As the season progressed, England without Beckham are far from revitalized. There is every chance that the team will not make the finals of the European championships. By coincidence, (?) Real Madrid also continues on a poor run of form.

And so it comes about that David Beckham returns to the Real Madrid team, and performs with distinction. Real makes a late challenge for the championship. Pressure mounts on Steve McClaren to bring Beckham back to the England squad.

An opportunity arises in a friendly match scheduled as the first international for the new Wembley stadium. The occasion is to be graced by an international team from Brazil, still widely regarded as the most gifted of all soccer-playing nations. The friendly is to be followed by a must-win European match the following week against minnows Estonia (No pushover, says wife, kibbutzing on this post, no such thing as an easy match …).

McClaren brings back Beckham. Much heated debate. Is it a desperate attempt by the coach to salvage something from the failing European campaign? Is this the action of a weak leader, or one strong enough to admit he had made a mistake dropping David Beckham in the first place?

What happened next?

I’m not a serious commentator on football. The indisputable facts are that England took the lead after a courageous header from new captain John Terry. The cross was provided by David Beckham – one skill in which he is widely regarded as being exceptionally talented. The other precious talent is that of taking lengthy dead-ball free kicks from what had became known in a favorite phrase of commentators as David Beckham territory.

Wha’ever. DB is widely considered to have had an outstanding game. Terry won the man of the match award. Beckham marginally eclipsed Terry in one of those dubious polls on a BBC website. Oh, yes, and Brazil in second gear nonchalantly scored an equalizer late into the game.

So England set off for the crucial game with Estonia, with Beckham undoubtedly in the line-up.

McClaren, tall poppies and leadership actions

Whatever happens in Estonia, the debate continues.

A popular saying in Australia is that the culture operates on the tall poppy syndrome. The original story is a tyrant myth, suggesting that a powerful leader will rather destroy potential rivals rather than risk them weakening his power. Today, the story is taken to illustrate our old friend the notion of leaders we deserve. It is typically taken to illustrate the fate of celebrities, indicating that adulation and fame arise because of popular acclaim. That acclaim can be withdrawn as rapidly as it arose.

Did McClaren act according to old tally poppy principle in ending Beckham’s international footballing career? Did he then bow to another swing in public opinion in reversing his decision? Or was he strong enough to admit a mistake?

The debate continues. I can see no conclusive evidence for arguing one way or the other. In other words, we have a nice example of the ambiguities surrounding a social science narrative. I’m inclined to the view that at the time of McClaren’s appointment the king-makers at the English Football Association initially wanted a tall poppy (the charismatic Brazilian super-coach Scolari). Failing in this, they settled for the not-at-all tall poppy Steve. He may be an average-height poppy, but this will not protect him from the grim reaper at harvest-time, in the fullness of the footballing year.