- The Washington Times - Monday, June 26, 2006

STUTTGART, Germany — A stroke of genius from David Beckham saved England from embarrassment last night before 52,000 at Gottlieb-Damler-Stadion.

Facing an Ecuador squad that was playing in only its second World Cup, England’s star-studded team seemed to lose its way in the thick humidity. That is, until Beckham’s perfectly placed free kick sealed a 1-0 win to send the 1966 champs into the quarterfinals.

Beckham became the first England player to score three goals in three World Cups, a feat performed by only 19 players.

“I didn’t feel well before the game,” said Beckham, who vomited on the pitch in front of the dugout in the second half. “I felt OK in the first half, but it just came out in the second half.”

England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson said he didn’t know England’s captain was not well.

“He didn’t tell me,” Eriksson said. “But at the second half we all knew he was sick. We all saw it, he didn’t need to tell us.”

England arrived at these finals with one of its best lineups ever, but one that has yet to fulfill its potential. Last night, it continued to struggle.

It was an uneventful first half, except for a good chance by Ecuador.

On the hour mark after the break, England won a free kick on the left flank about 24 yards from the goal. Beckham perfectly curled the ball over Ecuador’s defensive wall, just inside the goal post and beyond the reach of a diving Cristian Mora.

“I haven’t scored a free kick for a while,” said Beckham, who at $33 million was the highest-paid player in the world last year until he was surpassed by Brazilian Ronaldinho. “Wayne Rooney was saying that I had been terrible in training, so he said I’d get one tonight.”

It marked Beckham’s 17th career goal for England and his first since scoring against Azerbaijan in March 2005 in a World Cup qualifier.

“It was going to be one fantastic play to solve this game, and unfortunately it wasn’t by us,” Ecuador coach Luis Suarez said. “We know the precision Beckham has on these shots. We did everything right. The wall did well and the goalie tried the best he could, but it was a very precise shot.”

Beckham has faced enormous hostility at these finals from the British press, which once fawned over him but in the last few days called for his benching. The press accused Eriksson of being too loyal to Beckham, who they say is only good for set-pieces.

“I’m not married to Beckham,” Eriksson replied.

Eriksson’s stubborn loyalty to his captain seems to be paying dividends. Beckham has had an impact on all four games. Against Paraguay, his free kick caused the own goal that won the game. Against Trinidad and Tobago, Peter Crouch headed home a Beckham cross. And even though he labored against Sweden, Beckham lofted a beautiful cross to Rooney, who brought the ball down perfectly and nearly converted what would have been a classic goal.

Still, the critics will not be happy with England’s performance.

“We know we can play better football, but over the four games we have got better,” Eriksson said. “It’s good knowing you can get better and you are in the quarterfinals.”

Ecuador, which had slightly more possession and shots than England, easily could have taken the lead in 17th minute. England defender John Terry, normally a rock in the English defense, headed the ball high back into his own goal area, where Ecuadorian ace striker Carlos Tenorio pounced on it and looked to score. But a saving tackle by defender Ashley Cole redirected Tenorio’s shot, and the ball hit the bar.

Beckham was substituted in the 87th minute, to a standing ovation from Teheran England fans. England next plays Portugal.

Ecuador heads home with pride, having posted wins over Poland and Costa Rica.

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