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Beckham the player won't be hugely missed

PARIS (AP) — David Beckham won't be the only player forced to watch the World Cup on television, but he is going to be one of the most sorely missed.

In pure soccer terms, however, the truth is that his absence will hardly be felt.

Given how hard Beckham toiled to realize his unlikely ambition, at age 34, of getting to South Africa this June, it is heartbreaking that a ruptured Achilles' tendon has now abruptly and cruelly dashed his hopes. The apparent seriousness of the injury and Beckham's advancing years together make it unlikely that he will play for England again.

Slower than he once was and no longer indispensable, Beckham was never going to be the World Cup's top scorer or its standout star. It was never even guaranteed that he would make England manager Fabio Capello's squad. If he had, Beckham would have spent much, if not most or even all the World Cup warming the bench, a Hollywood-famous understudy for younger and speedier wingers like Theo Walcott or Aaron Lennon.

Beckham knew that, but he didn't care. He just wanted to be there, for his fourth and final World Cup. Not because of money — he already has plenty — or to boost the Beckham brand, which thrives despite the fact that age has blunted some of his footballing skills although, to his credit, not his desire.

No, this time his motivations were far purer, at least that is how it appeared. He hoped to break former goalkeeper Peter Shilton's record of 125 appearances for England. He felt his two decades of experience could help England's cause. On the field, he might even have had a chance to make up for the agonies of his previous three World Cups — his sending off in 1998 against Argentina that turned him into a figure of hate for mindless England fans and injuries that marred his tournaments in 2002 and 2006.

His earnestness and dedication over the past year was endearing and impressive, a shut-up to those skeptics who claim that modern footballers are interested only in money. To persuade the unsentimental Capello that he could still be useful, if not decisive, Beckham became one of the busiest players on the planet — turning out for two teams on opposite sides of the globe, the Los Angeles Galaxy and AC Milan.

Now, in light of his injury, one can't help but wonder whether Beckham's tendon betrayed him because he simply didn't get enough rest over the past 12 months while putting in double shifts to impress Capello.

Saying "it's never bothered me," Beckham had brushed off those who questioned whether he risked playing himself into the ground — concerns that seem prophetic now. The millionaire even reached into his own very deep pockets to compensate the Galaxy while he stayed for longer than originally planned at Milan, where Capello also had played and later coached.

Beckham also juggled his marketing obligations, promoted England's bid to host the 2018 World Cup and, sporting a Mohawk haircut and beautifully tailored suit, stole some of the limelight assisting at the World Cup draw in December. Somewhere, somehow, one assumes, he must also have made time for his wife Victoria "Posh Spice" Beckham and their three sons.

It was, in hindsight, either going to all add up to a World Cup place for Beckham or a breakdown. And in the end, Beckham's spell at Milan both achieved his goal of impressing Capello but also proved to be his undoing. His Achilles tore in the closing minutes of a 1-0 win over Chievo Verona on Sunday that moved Milan to within one point of Serie A leader Inter Milan.

"David is a great professional and has worked very hard to be ready for the World Cup, so missing it will be a big blow," Capello said.

What Capello is far too diplomatic to say is that he would have been absolutely crushed had this been a season-ending injury to Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, John Terry, Rio Ferdinand or other mainstays of the England squad.

Before operating on the world's most famous tendon, Finnish surgeon Sakari Orava spoke Monday of a "glimmer of hope" that Beckham might recover for the World Cup.

Unlikely. If this was Rooney, England would bend over backward to rush the striker back into action — as it did for Beckham when he broke a bone in his left foot two months before the 2002 World Cup.

But that won't happen for a player who will turn 35 in May.

Rooney, especially, has been scoring so many for Manchester United that it is hard to see England going far in South Africa without him.

The same was no longer true of Beckham. He was only going to be a substitute, at best, in South Africa.

It would have been nostalgic, heartwarming and a fitting reward for his efforts to see Beckham play — as it was last week when Milan manager Leonardo fielded him for the last 25 minutes of the Italian side's 4-0 Champions League defeat to Man U. Beckham's crosses in front of goal were still laser-like in their accuracy and he nearly scored with a powerful volley.

The Old Trafford crowd, for old times sake, gave the former United player a rousing welcome. But, unlike Rooney, who scored twice, Beckham was never going to win the game.

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org.