DAVID BECKHAM must go to the World Cup. Sure, he won't go as a player after rupturing his achilles tendon late in Milan's 1-0 win over Chievo last night.
But if Fabio Capello is the man I think he is, the England coach will ask Beckham to travel with the England squad - hopefully he'll make his request by mobile phone just before Becks is whisked off for his operation in Finland today.
Beckham, pictured arriving at the hospital this afternoon, says he "hopes to make a full recovery" but surely his international career is over. But only as a player. What about his knowledge, his experience? Invaluable to this England side seeking to end 44 years of hurt, spearheaded by Wayne Rooney, who scored two more goals in a fabulous season for Manchester United against Fulham yesterday.Beckham is our talisman, our statesman.
According to the doctors (and we've had plenty of them on various television stations today) rehabilitation will take "five to eight months"... but the action kicks off in South Africa in 86 days. It was heart-rending to watch what might be his last moments as a professional footballer. Nobody was near him at the San Siro when he pulled up and collapsed to his knees, apparently yelling "it's broken, it's broken".
It's a sad end to a great career. A record-breaking career. It ended in tears and on crutches, grown men crying and kissing his cheeks as he left the San Siro last night.
He goes with 115 caps, just 10 short of Peter Shilton's mark, the most capped outfield player in history. Nobody else has scored in three successive World Cups. Nobody else has quite dominated the game like he has since that first high profile moment, the 1996 goal from the halfway line against Wimbledon.The thing is of course, his time had come. This injury presents Capello with a way out of a serious conundrum. I said last week Gary Neville and Sol Campbell, both 35, were more necessary than Beckham, 34, in the current set-up.
But to leave Beckham - aiming to become the first Englishman to play in four Worldd Cups - out of his provisional 30-man squad named on May 11 would have put Capello under huge pressure.
And the chances of Beckham making the final 23 on June 1 were minimal. When Sky News sent a camera crew around last night (a little before midnight) they were a bit surprised when I said I didn't expect Beckham's absence to have any impact at all on Capello's World Cup plans.
In the 3-1 win against Egypt in their last pre-squad-announcement friendly a fortnight ago, Capello started with the pace of Theo Walcott and moved to the trickery of Shaun Wright-Phillips down the right. Becks stayed firmly on the bench.
Then there's Aaron Lennon, struggling to recover from groin problems, and the impressive James Milner, not to mention Joe Cole. Beckham was way down the pecking order. Better he finishes now, with the cheers of Old Trafford last week ringing in his ears, than as a sad, unused sub when England go to South Africa.
That is not to suggest Beckham wasn't a great player. One of England's top five of all time. But on the pitch, his time had come. As an ambassador, he still has plenty left to offer. Let's hope Fabio remembers that.