With due deference to Beverly Knight, they say ‘coulda, woulda, shoulda’ are the last words of a fool, but you think of a better phrase to sum up England in France 98. Once again the Three Lions toyed with the nation’s emotions, gloriously failing and coming home early. It could have all been so different. Under the management of Glenn Hoddle, England had built on the promise of Euro 96. The qualification campaign saw the nucleus of Terry Venables’ 1996 squad topped up with youngsters like David Beckham and Sol Campbell.
With a fluid 3-5-2 formation in place, England were solid, hard to beat and easy on the eye, courtesy of a neat passing game. The crowning glory of qualifying came in Rome with one of the finest away performance given by an England side. The 0-0 draw gave them the point they needed and after failing to qualify in 94, England were ready to join the party.
On the eve of the competition, Hoddle bowed to the national clamber and selected Liverpool’s wonder-kid forward, Michael Owen, but decided against Southampton’s genius Matthew Le Tisser. As it was, Le Tissier’s omission was eclipsed by a much bigger story. The shock absentee when Hoddle unveiled his 22-man squad was Three Lions’ talisman Paul Gascoigne. Boozy nights out and kebab dinners had caused much handwringing and Hoddle was lauded by Fleet Street for his decisiveness. With Gazza at home, England were drawn in an awkward group alongside Romania, Tunisia and Columbia. The North Africans in Marseille were up first, but the match was marred by rioting English hooligans the night before the tie.
On the field, Hoddle sprung another surprise by dropping ever-present Beckham, claiming that the United No.7 was distracted ahead of the big kick-off. Darren Anderton started instead as England took the lead thanks to skipper Alan Shearer’s header three minutes before half-time. Paul Scholes sealed the win with a sumptuous curling effort in the 90th minute to set England on their way. Despite the positive beginning, much of the post-match talk still raged over Hoddle’s dropping of Beckham. He did make a change for the upcoming match against Romania but it was Gary Neville who came in for Gareth Southgate in an otherwise unchanged line up.
The Three Lions were strangely hesitant against the brilliant Gheorghe Hagi’s Romanians. Their cause wasn’t helped when Paul Ince limped out of the action allowing Beckham a belated introduction to the tournament. But just two minutes after half-time England fell behind to a Viorel Moldovan strike. On came Owen in place of Teddy Sheringham and the youngster’s blistering pace immediately galvanised England. With just seven minutes left he pounced on a loose ball to level for England. A late winner seemed possible but those hopes were dashed in injury-time as Dan Petrescu punished Chelsea team-mate Graeme Le Saux’s error. England would now have to beat Colombia in a winner-takes-all clash.
Fleet Street was fuming and demanded a starting place for young guns Beckham and Owen. Hoddle bowed to the pressure and Owen replaced Sheringham, while Beckham made a first start in place of David Batty as England looked for inspiration over perspiration. From the off they were far too strong for the Colombians and effectively sealed qualification just 30 minutes in. Anderton fired England into the lead on 20 minutes with an angled drive. The lead was doubled thanks to Beckham’s exquisite 25-yard free-kick. With Romania drawing with Tunisia, it meant they topped the group while England claimed second to set up a date with Argentina.
It is fair to say the two nations have what could be diplomatically termed as ‘history’. It was British ex-pats who introduced the South Americans to the game but it was Sir Alf Ramsey of all people who lit the blue touch paper of this rivalry. In the aftermath of England’s 1-0 quarter-final victory in 1966, in which Argentine captain Antonio Rattin was sent off, Ramsey labelled the Argentines animals – a description that caused understandable offence. Relations crashed further when the two countries went to war over Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Isles in 1982, and hit below-bottom with their 2-1 victory over England in the quarter-finals of the Mexico 86 tournament, courtesy of Diego Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’.
Daniel Passarella’s side had blitzed through the group stages with confident wins over Jamaica, Japan and Croatia, and in Gabriel Batistuta and Ariel Ortega they had two of the stars of the tournament. The match started frantically with Seaman bringing down Batistuta just five minutes in. The Fiorentina striker dispatched the penalty, but the English hit back as Owen’s pace blew Ayala away and forced a spot-kick of their own. Shearer smashed in from 12 yards but still there was no time to catch one’s breath. On 16 minutes Owen collected a Beckham pass on his instep, just inside Argentina’s half. Within a split second he had burnt past Ayala, out-muscled Jose-Luis Chamot and fired diagonally into Carlos Roa’s goal. A truly incredible goal, and one that will be remembered for years to come.
Further chances came England’s way but they fell for a free-kick routine that allowed Javier Zanetti level on the break. Everything changed however as Beckham was clattered from behind by Simeone and responded with a petulant kick-out at the Argentine. The young Beckham was accordingly dismissed. At one stage it seemed Lady Luck was with England as Sol Campbell rose to head home a corner, but just as quickly she was gone as Shearer was penalised for a foul on the Argentine goalkeeper, Roa. With the score level after the Golden goal extra-time, penalties would decide the fate of the two teams. Tied at 1-1 in the shoot-out, Hernan Crespo missed, and Ince failed to capitalise. Veron, Gallardo and Ayla netted meaning Batty had to score. Back home, viewers heard legendary broadcaster Brian Moore push Kevin Keegan for a prediction. Keegan backed Batty – he failed.