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World Cup 1998 will forever be remembered as yet another competition that promised so much, but ultimately ended in heartbreak for England. It proved to be an action packed tournament of controversy, penalty drama and once more, despair.
Having secured top spot in qualification with a hard-fought goalless draw with Italy in Rome, an expectant nation watched on in hopeful anticipation, eager to eradicate 32 years of hurt. The Three Lions were subsequently pitted against Tunisia, Romania and Colombia in Group G and began their adventure at the Stadio Velodrome against a Tunisian side unbeaten in qualifying. Tens of thousands of loyal English fans arrived in Marseille – many without a ticket – and unfortunately for England and the majority of its dedicated supporters, a minority of those travelling were involved in violence between Tunisian supporters and the French riot police, leading to several arrests and understandably, negative publicity.
Eager to let his side’s football do the talking, England Coach Glenn Hoddle opted to start with the partnership of Teddy Sheringham and captain Alan Shearer upfront – two players so instrumental in helping England to reach the semi-finals of Euro 96 two years before. In front of a crowd of 54,000, it was Shearer who broke the deadlock two minutes before the break, crashing a header off the inside of the post from a Graeme Le Saux free-kick to give England an ideal start. England dominated and wasted several opportunities to further extend their lead, before Paul Scholes collected a Paul Ince pass and crashed a stunning effort past Tunisia keeper Chokri Ouaer to give the Three Lions a comfortable win.
Next up for England, in Toulouse, was a stern test against a Romanian side containing two English based players – Chelsea’s Dan Petrescu and Coventry City’s Viorel Moldovan. Ironically it proved to be these two players that would combine to give the Romanians a shock 2-1 win and leave England’s hopes of progression in the balance. Romania dominated much of a first half that saw Ince limp off, but were unable to convert their possession into any clear-cut chances. However, shortly after the interval, Moldovan did open the scoring, converting a Gheorghe Hagi pass from close range. Sensing an upset, Hoddle replaced the ineffective Sheringham with Liverpool’s 18-year-old striker Michael Owen, the youngest member of England’s 23-man squad. The decision paid off just 10 minutes later as Owen equalised, converting a Paul Scholes cross from close range with just seven minutes remaining. England looked to have done enough to earn a point, but in the last minute Petrescu held off his Chelsea teammate Le Saux to confidently slot through David Seaman’s legs and send Romania to the top of the table. Substitute Owen almost came to England’s rescue once more in injury time, but could only watch as his strike agonisingly came back off the post.
Five days after the disappointment against Romania, the Three Lions faced a must-win game against Colombia. Hoddle handed starts to both Owen and David Beckham after their impressive performances and it was Owen who played a part in England’s opening goal after 20 minutes. The youngster gave the Colombian defence a torrid afternoon and forced them into conceding possession, which allowed Darren Anderton to smash a first-time angled drive beyond the reach of Colombia goalkeeper Farid Mondragon. Scholes and Owen then missed golden chances to extend England’s lead, but David Beckham gave them the goal their dominant play deserved with a moment of individual brilliance on the half hour mark. Paul Ince was fouled a full 30 yards out and Beckham curled a stunning trademark free kick over the wall to double England’s advantage. Only an inspired performance from Colombia’s goalkeeper prevented a more comprehensive score line. This crucial, yet comfortable, victory was enough to see England progress to the last 16 as group runners up and set up a now infamous encounter against their World Cup foes Argentina in Saint- Etienne. The Argentines had established themselves as favourites for the trophy after collecting maximum points without conceding a goal in the group stages.
The game was billed as a repeat of the 1986 World Cup quarter-final, in which Diego Maradona scored two goals (both memorable for very different reasons) to take Argentina through to the semi finals. He opened the scoring through the infamous ‘Hand of God’ incident, before beating almost the entire England squad with a sublime run and finish minutes later to send Argentina through – eventually going on to win the tournament. It was a goal of the highest quality, considered by many to be the best of all time.
The game did not fail to live up to the pre-match hype and proved to be one of the most exciting in the entire tournament. The first incident came as early as the fourth minute, when veteran Argentina striker Gabriel Batistuta was brought down by the onrushing Seaman. Batistuta duly dusted himself down to expertly dispatch the penalty past Seaman and give Argentina an early lead. However, England were level just four minutes later through the second penalty of the game. The Argentine defence struggled to contain the lively Owen, who was brought down inside the box by Roberto Ayala and it was left to Shearer to score from the spot and draw England level. Then came the unforgettable moment. Owen, who had impressed against Colombia, collected the ball on the half way line. What followed was a moment of brilliance. The young prodigy ran at the Argentine defence, beating three players before lifting the ball over Argentine keeper Carlos Roa to send the England fans into euphoria and announce his arrival to the footballing world.
Owen continued to torment the Argentine defence at every available opportunity, but it was Argentina who levelled deep into first half stoppage time through Javier Zanetti, following a superbly worked free-kick. It was a bitter blow and hard luck for the Three Lions, who created plenty of chances in a confident first half display.
However, the defining moment of the game came just a minute after the interval, when Argentine midfielder Diego Simeone clumsily fouled David Beckham – England’s hero against Colombia. Beckham, whilst lying on the floor, petulantly kicked out at Simeone and Danish referee Kim Nielsen – who had already awarded a penalty for each side – did not hesitate to show Beckham a straight red card.
Beckham’s stupidity gave England a mountain to climb and with their numerical advantage, Argentina dominated much of the second half. However, England’s 10 men defended heroically and should have taken the lead eight minutes from time. Sol Campbell climbed highest at the back post to head Darren Anderton’s corner past Roa, but as the England players reeled away in celebration, ref Nielsen made himself even more unpopular with the England fans by disallowing the goal for Shearer’s soft challenge on Roa. It was extremely harsh on England, but despite several players’ protests, Nielsen stood by his decision. That meant that England were forced to play 30 minutes of extra time with a man down.