MILAN // When David Beckham departed Old Trafford last Wednesday night, a green and gold scarf the newest and much photographed addition to his wardrobe, he paused to reflect on his chances of going to a fourth World Cup with England this summer. "I am not guaranteed a place," he said in answer to suggestions that Fabio Capello, the England coach, had decided for certain that a fit Beckham would be in his squad, whatever his form for AC Milan.
By yesterday morning, not even the most optimistic surgeons were able to challenge the idea that the Achilles tendon injury suffered by Beckham on Sunday will prevent him playing football again before the middle of June. The likelihood, with this sort of rupture, is that September is a more realistic date for a return to competitive action. Beckham will be four months into his 36th year then. He will, almost certainly, no longer be an international footballer and his club career is likely to be confined to America's Major League Soccer, because his loan agreement with Milan will have expired.
So a lot was at stake when, in the 88th minute of Milan's victory against Chievo, he broke his stride to hobble off the pitch, evidently in physical agony, and obviously emotionally distressed. Beckham shed some tears, other Milan players said, as the implications of the injury became clear, just as he had cried when he limped off the field injured nearly four years ago during England's last match at a World Cup finals, a quarter-final against Portugal in Germany.
That Beckham, who resigned as England captain shortly after and was dropped from the England team later that summer, was, until Sunday night, in contention for a fourth World Cup of his career represents a testament to his stamina, skill, and determination. Beckham has won many arguments with his body over the years, most famously accelerating his recovery from a broken metatarsal bone to be ready for the 2002 World Cup. He had been pushing back the ravages of time aggressively with June 2010 in his sights, too.
Beckham had appeared significantly slower in his movements since he rejoined Milan in January and against Chievo he was in the starting XI for only the second time in the last six matches. In fact, he was having one of his better nights, close to scoring at one point, supplier of a vintage cross to Marco Borriello on an evening that was to end with Milan closing the gap at the top of Serie A to just one point.
That achievement was inevitably overshadowed by the injury to the planet's most recognised footballer. "I cannot completely celebrate this result,'' said Leonardo, the Milan head coach, "and we all feel for David, because he such a good man and such an outstanding player." Adriano Galliani, Milan's vice-president, had already talked of Beckham returning to the club for third loan spell next year, but now acknowledges that unless something of that sort can be arranged, Beckham has played his last match in a Milan jersey.
The Milan stint was always going to be a footnote to his career, although, as Beckham appreciated, it was an illustrious one. Manchester United, Real Madrid and AC Milan is a handsome trio of employers to have on your resume, and Beckham would certainly want those clubs printed on his CV in a bolder type than LA Galaxy, where he has had a mixed time since moving to the USA in 2007. But Beckham had also made it plain that his loan spells with Milan were a means to an end, a way of confirming to Capello that he was physically up to the task of a World Cup, and that he could show enough form in a competitive league to be considered one of the ablest 23 Englishmen to represent the country in South Africa.
Capello appeared to have taken enough good signs from Beckham's Milan cameos to think he merited a place in the squad. The Italian manager does put a high value on Beckham's experience, his ability to keep possession, his excellence with a dead ball. But that was not a value universally shared. Hence the conversations Beckham had with reporters after his emotional return to Old Trafford last week, when he came on as a substitute for Milan, and picked up from a fan the "protest" scarf after what had been a humiliating 4-0 defeat for Milan in the Champions League.
He acknowledged he did not have a guaranteed ticket to South Africa merely because he was seeing action for Milan most weeks. He added that he felt he had shown good form. Recently, those pockets of good form have been harder to spot. So while there is genuine and widespread sympathy for Beckham, injured so close to the end of his remarkable road - no Englishman has ever played in four World Cups - and so close to the end of Sunday's game, there is not, among fans of England or Milan, a sense that those teams' prospects have been irretrievably damaged by Beckham's absence.
He will watch eagerly Milan's pursuit of the scudetto, and even more England's campaign in South Africa. But beyond that, he faces a future shorn of the big targets that have motivated Beckham the sportsman for so long. And that will seem a very empty feeling. firstname.lastname@example.org