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Football: The crowning glory for Beckham, a real football man and a giant of our game; FRANCE v ENGLAND: BECKS IS BACK International friendly, tomorrow, Paris, 8pm QUEST TO JOIN '100 CLUB' NEARLY COMPLETE.

Byline: OLIVER HOLT CHIEF SPORTS WRITER

THERE were a few pleasantries. Colder here than in California. That kind of thing.

Topiary outside in the ornamental garden. Another room in another conference centre. The chink of glasses being put down at the bar as David Beckham walked in. The rattle of ice. The scooping up of tape recorders.

Another press conference in another faceless place. Get caps for these and he'd have a thousand.

But there was something different about a familiar scene yesterday. Something momentous invading a redbrick hotel on the outskirts of Watford.

Less a celebration than an anticipation, perhaps, but still an acknowledgment that we are on the verge of witnessing a milestone that will draw a squiggly line under an era of agonised and unrequited yearning in English football.

It seems almost certain now that Beckham's epic quest will finally come to an end in the Stade de France tomorrow night.

A great journey from the playing fields of Leytonstone to a place where only the giants of English football tread will be complete.

It has taken Beckham all over the world. From Istanbul to Belfast, Big Swan to Turin, St Etienne to New Jersey, Tallinn to Gelsenkirchen, Chisinau to Paris. From the old Wembley to the new Wembley. Via Manchester, Madrid and the Hollywood Hills. From obscurity to celebrity and beyond. From Mohican to skinhead to Brylcreem Boy to crew cut.

His quest for this brought us the first cult of the metatarsal, one England manager asking for his autograph for his daughter, another turning him into a scapegoat. But yesterday, finally, Beckham turned up at The Grove hotel in Hertfordshire to show that the journey was nearly over.

Love him or loathe him - and there really is no in between - it seems Beckham has finally done it. When he wins his 100th cap in Paris, he will join a club that includes only Billy Wright, Sir Bobby Charlton, Bobby Moore and Peter Shilton.

They are the only other England footballers to have reached that milestone, a milestone that means more to Beckham than all his wealth and his celebrity.

Because becoming someone who has played 100 times for your country legitimises your career and puts it out of the reach of those who seek to denigrate it. Or it should.

How could Glenn Hoddle, Kevin Keegan, Peter Taylor, Sven Goran Eriksson, Steve McClaren and now Fabio Capello all be wrong about him?

How could his harshest critics be right when six England managers have stuck with him for more than a decade?

In a press conference where he exuded a relaxed bonhomie and cautious optimism about his chances of playing tomorrow and spoke about trying to grab any souvenir he could from the dressing room after the game, Beckham offered a few clues to his longevity.

He pointed out that losing his pace wasn't a problem because he had never had any. A couple of yards of space, he said, was all he had ever needed to whip his crosses in.

His passion was another thing. He kept mentioning how 'honoured' he had always felt to represent his country. And how he had always thrived on proving people wrong.

He gave the media some of the credit for prolonging his international career because we had doubted him. He even said McClaren's decision to drop him had somehow increased his hunger.

"After I was dropped and then recalled," Beckham said, "I came back realising I had to prove to people again that I deserved to be here.

"Perhaps people felt it had been easy for me because I had had a good relationship with previous managers.

"But I had to prove to people that I deserved to be here. That's always my motivation.

"I started enjoying it more when I came back in. I'd seen how it could be taken away from me, and I didn't want that to happen again. There was a new belief there."

That new belief extends to the hope that he can play on well beyond 100 caps, through to the World Cup in South Africa in 2010 and maybe beyond.

Nobody laughed when he said that yesterday. He has been written off too many times before to do it again.

Some people will say that his achievement is a triumph of style over substance. But is it?

Isn't it actually a triumph of substance over style, a dawning realisation that the essence of Beckham is not his celebrity lifestyle, his tattoos, his haircuts, his video shoots or his promo tours?

The essence of him, in fact, is his love of the game. A love so powerful it has conquered all the distractions that could have blown him off course.

If 100 caps proves anything, it proves that. That first and foremost, David Beckham is a football man. A man who has never stopped chasing his dream and vaulting over the obstacles placed in his way.

A man who has earned his 100 caps for England and his place in the pantheon of the giants of our game.

HIGHS

SEPTEMBER 1 1996

MOLDOVA 0 ENGLAND 3

Beckham's England debut in the run-down Republican Stadium in Kishinev saw the Glenn Hoddle era begin with a comfortable win. Beckham played on the right of as midfield completed by Paul Ince, Paul Gascoigne and Nicky Barmby.

OCTOBER 6 2001

ENGLAND 2 GREECE 2

The nation held its breath in hope as Beckham lined up his free-kick in the last minute at Old Trafford, with Sven Goran Eriksson's team set to blow all the hard work on their magnificent Munich triumph over Germany. Then Captain Fantastic arced his shot over the wall and into the top corner.

JUNE 7 2002

ENGL AND 1 ARGENTINA 0

Payback time for St Etienne as the Sapporo Do me exploded with English joy. After his previous World Cup ended in that red card, Becks was never going to pass up responsibility for revenge when Michael Owen tumbled in the box. The skipper smashed home the spot kick.

LOWS

JUNE 30 1998

ENGLAND 2 ARGENTINA 2

Beckham will always be remembered for the little kick at Diego Simeone and r

Kim Milton Nielsen sending a tearful Becks on his way. Blamed by Glenn Hoddle for the end of England's World Cup dreams, he was briefly a national hate-figure.

OCTOBER 7 2000

ENGLAND 0 GERMANY 1

The last game at Wembley ended in defeat and Kevin Keegan's resignation after Didi Hamann slid round the wall and past David Seaman's groping fingers. The rain which poured summed up the nation's mood of grim despair and Beckham felt the anguish as much as anybody.

NOVEMBER 21 2007

ENGLAND 2 CROATIA 3

Beckham was forced to share the national misery as Steve McClaren's reign came tumbling down. Sub Becks sparked a transformation as Peter Crouch converted his cross to draw England level and within sight of the Euro 2008 finals only for Mladen Petric to strike a killer blow.

CAPTION(S):

IN FROM THE COLD: Beckham faced a chilly training session with England at London Colney yesterday Picture: BRADLEY ORMESHER
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Mar 25, 2008
Words:1186
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