BEIJING: Former captain David Beckham has tipped England to play Lionel Messi's Argentina in the World Cup final, reflecting rising optimism about the Three Lions' chances after a positive start in Russia.
Beckham was speaking at a promotional event in China after England beat Tunisia 2-1 in their opening game, boosting their chances of reaching the knockout rounds.
England have long stuttered on the big stage and they last reached the World Cup quarter-finals in 2006, when Beckham was captain. Their only World Cup final was way back in 1966, when they beat Germany at Wembley.
"I believe Argentina will play against England in the final," Beckham predicted at an event to promote China's largest collegiate football league.
"I think obviously my choice would be England to win the competition, but that's me being biased and passionate about my country," he added.
But the former Manchester United and Real Madrid midfielder, a veteran of three World Cups, warned that the road ahead looked hard for Gareth Southgate's team.
"I'm very happy that we won the first game in the group," he said. "England is a very young team, they don't have a lot of experience yet and the journey of the World Cup will become harder and harder because there are many good teams in the tournament."
Beckham's assessment may also have been influenced by the struggles of some of the top teams in the early games, including Mexico's defeat of defending champions Germany.
Argentina, who could meet England in the semi-finals or final, drew 1-1 with Iceland in their first game as Messi, their talisman, missed a penalty.
Improving Chinese football at the club and national level has been a priority for President Xi Jinping, who aims to make his country a global power in the sport.
But it is a Herculean task for China, who have only ever qualified for one World Cup, in 2002 -- when they exited without scoring a goal.
Beckham said the world's most populous country, currently 75th in the FIFA rankings, is heading in the right direction -- but that there was still a long way to go.
"This is where it starts, with universities, with young children -- to educate the children to become professional and then become leaders in the game," said Beckham, who played an exhibition game with Chinese youngsters.
"In the future this country has a real opportunity to become one of the powerhouses in the sport, but this takes a lot of investment and hard work," he said.