Sven-Goran Eriksson’s England was a football team with the potential to better the heroes of 1966. Eventually, however, due to intense media speculation and lack of big match temperament, the hopes of a nation were crushed once more. The 2006 tournament – on European soil – was the ultimate test for Swede Eriksson, who had been credited with bringing back English pride since succeeding Kevin Keegan in 2001. The Germany World Cup was the last managerial assignment for Eriksson – the Swede was set to leave his post at the end of the tournament to end a five-year association with the country which made him its first ever foreign Head Coach. All eyes were on the England team that appeared confident after qualifying from a potentially tricky Group Six that had a unique British flavour to it – England drawn alongside Northern Ireland and Wales.
Qualification itself proved somewhat less dramatic than it was for the previous World Cup – It didn’t take a last-gasp Beckham special this time, but did require a win against Poland in England’s last match in order to top the group. This meant England was one of the top eight seeds in the draw, and got a more than satisfactory Group B – comprising of South American representatives Paraguay, tournament debutants Trinidad and Tobago and, for the second successive World Cup, Eriksson’s home nation Sweden.
A series of friendlies prepared England well for the upcoming competitive fixtures – winning four of five, including a 3-2 victory against Argentina and a 6-0 routing of Jamaica, in which Peter Crouch scored a hat-trick. Expectation was high, both from fans, who were still waiting to see England win a major tournament since 1966, and the FA, who expected at least a semi-final during Eriksson’s reign. Many believed England’s hopes rested on whether Wayne Rooney would return to fitness in time after suffering a dreaded broken metatarsal – the nation’s most hated bone.
On a scorching June afternoon at the brand new Waldstadion in Frankfurt, England’s players launched their World Cup 2006 campaign with a hard fought and decidedly lacklustre 1-0 win over an equally muted Paraguay. It was a party atmosphere across the German financial capital throughout the day and the inside of the stadium was no exception – the whole place was covered with St George’s flags and scarves.
Sven-Goran Eriksson applied the predicted 4-4-2 formation and put out his best side with the 6’7” Peter Crouch keeping out the still recovering Wayne Rooney by partnering Michael Owen upfront. England came out of the blocks immediately when, after just three minutes, a David Beckham free-kick was floated in from the left hand side and an under pressure Carlos Gamarra put the ball past his own goalkeeper to give England the lead. The rest of the match did not live up to the frantic start, with England getting cautious after the break and Paraguay providing some anxious moments for the vocal English crowd. England’s lack of killer instinct was a major concern and the South Americans gave the Three Lions a hard time late on, but failed to capitalise – allowing the European side to hang on for a narrow win. It was clear improvement would be needed against more reputable opposition.
Following the drab display against the Paraguayans, England faced World Cup debutants Trinidad and Tobago at Nuremberg on June 15. Leo Beenhaker’s battling side already proved in their opening match that they were no pushovers by holding Sweden to a goalless draw – a massive achievement for such a small island nation. The Three Lions started brightly and played with ease against a side lacking in stars. But, as the match went on and England failed to score, the Caribbean side’s confidence increased and Sven Eriksson’s outfit looked increasingly short on ideas as chances came and went. Peter Crouch was guilty of some poor misses and this played a part in the team losing its confidence. It was the same old England under Sven-Goran Eriksson that showed early promise but wilted as the match progressed. As the scoreline stayed goalless, Trinidad and Tobago became adventurous and only some timely defensive interventions by John Terry prevented a major embarrassment the high-profile side. 10 minutes into the second period, Wayne Rooney was introduced for the first time in the tournament as he replaced a below-par Michael Owen. But it was the introduction of Aaron Lennon and Stewart Downing that galvanized England, and Peter Crouch left his wasteful performance behind by breaking the deadlock – rising high to head home a David Beckham cross in the 83rd minute. With Trinidadian hearts broken, Steven Gerrard put any English anxiety to bed by scoring a screamer at the death, firing past West Ham’s Shaka Hislop. In general, it was a lucky performance by England as anything could have happened had Trinidad and Tobago taken the lead. But, ultimately, quality prevailed, although the Caribbeans did themselves proud by almost claiming a shock result.
With two wins in the bag, England qualified for the next round and the penultimate group clash against Sweden would decide which nation would top Group B. Most importantly for England supporters, was a more convincing performance to prove their country was right to be labelled as contenders for the tournament.
England went into the game against Sweden knowing that a win or a draw against them would mean the Three Lions would top Group B and avoid a second round knock-out encounter with Jurgen Klinsmann’s resurgent hosts Germany. Sven-Goran Eriksson’s men also knew that England had failed to beat the Scandinavians since May 1968. This was a repeat of England’s opening group game in the 2002 World Cup which finished 1-1 in Saitama, Japan. The match again proved to be a game of two halves with England dominating play in the first period but – as so often in the past – let their opponents off the hook in the second. England had a horror start to the match at Cologne’s Rhine-Energie Stadium when, with less than a minute on the clock, influential striker Michael Owen – in the process of delivering a pass – twisted his right knee and had to crawl in agony to the touchline to receive treatment. From that very moment it was all over for Owen as he was stretchered off the ground to be replaced by Crouch, leaving his teammates stunned early on. The match took time to get going, but when it did England came out of the blocks quicker with Joe Cole and Wayne Rooney running the show. England took the lead after 34 minutes with Chelsea’s Cole scoring one of the best individual goals of the tournament – a ferocious dipping volley from his chest-down from well outside the box – with goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson unable to get enough of a hand on it.