Every football fan remembers the moment when they were seduced by the beautiful game. For me, that moment came at France 98. I’d already experienced England’s painful exit at Euro 96, peeking out from behind the sofa to witness Gareth Southgate’s penalty miss against Germany, but this was the World Cup: the grandest stage of all.
I was too young to fully appreciate the rivalry surrounding England’s second round clash with Argentina in Saint-Étienne but bitter references to Diego Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ goal in 1986 created a powerful sense of occasion. Decked out in white, I sat so close to the television that if somebody had ejected a video from the VCR it would have hit me in the face.
Argentina landed the first blow when Ariel Ortega’s probing chip was flicked on by Gabriel Batistuta, allowing Diego Simeone to lure David Seaman off his line before tumbling over the England keeper’s challenge. Seaman almost atoned for his error, deflecting Batistuta’s penalty onto the inside of the post, but the ball nestled in the back of the net regardless and Argentina were ahead.
There is a unique silence that washes over you after conceding a goal. Our crowded living room let out a silent sigh that seemed to last an eternity.
No sooner had a volley of voices begun lamenting Simeone’s theatrics, though, than an 18-year-old Michael Owen was set free by a Paul Scholes header. He swept into the penalty area before crashing to the turf, seemingly as the result of his own giddy excitement. Nevertheless, a penalty was awarded and food and drink across the country was sent flying in celebration as Alan Shearer swept the ball into the top corner.
Two penalties just four minutes apart had resulted in a contrast of emotion that was difficult to comprehend, but this was nothing compared to what followed.
With 16 minutes on the clock, Owen expertly cushioned an awkward David Beckham pass with the outside of his boot and scampered away. He ran with breathtaking purpose, skipping past two bodies in blue before surging into the area. Scholes threatened to take the ball off his toes at the last moment only for Owen to unleash a fierce strike into the top corner and score one of the greatest goals in World Cup history.
As a boy, watching somebody not much older dazzle millions of people around the world made an enormous impression on me. Any sadness I was still harbouring over Paul Gascoigne’s absence from Glenn Hoddle’s World Cup squad was extinguished. My euphoria was not to last, though, with Argentina’s equaliser arriving from a set-piece that I would go on to admire for its perfect execution only after the tournament.
David Beckham’s infamous red card came early in the second half. It was only when replays revealed a nonchalant flick of the then 23-year-old’s boot that his sheepish expression made perfect sense. The contact made against Simeone was minimal but it gave me my first insight into how players will exploit any scenario in an attempt to gain even the slightest advantage.
Further fury followed when Sol Campbell had a goal disallowed late on for Alan Shearer’s challenge on Argentina goalkeeper Carlos Roa. Ten-man England remained defiant in extra-time and so the game went to penalties.
Hernán Crespo missed first for Argentina but then Paul Ince failed from the spot for England, his kick preceded by a bizarre trotting run-up. As David Batty walked up for his decisive penalty he looked far from confident. ITV co-commentator Kevin Keegan was sure he would score but the Newcastle player’s tame effort was palmed away by Roa.
As Argentina’s players and coaching staff ran across the pitch the room fell silent. The game was over, England were out, but the fallout was only starting.
Owen ended the tournament as England’s new hero but he would arguably never achieve the illustrious career he seemed destined for. Beckham became embroiled in a long period of scrutiny that he would only truly escape when his free-kick against Greece secured participation at the 2002 World Cup, where his winning penalty against Argentina in the group stage exorcised his demons for good.
The Daily Telegraph‘s Henry Winter finished his match report by saying “this was a performance to make a country proud”. What are the chances of reading the same words again when Roy’s boys head home this summer?
Will Taylor (Ligue 2 analyst)
Follow me @FRfootballWill