Goal. At the Geoffroy-Guichard.
Words by Mark Carruthers – @MarkCarruthers_
Maybe it is the slow passing of time and nostalgia is painting different colours in my mind but France ’98 felt like a special time for “modern” football.
The tournament displayed a number of world-class players in their prime, showcasing their talents in front of passionate supporters from countries around the globe.
A look into the old memory bank seems to conjure up vibrant colours flashing across the television screen during a summer of continuous sunshine.
Memories of THE Ronaldo, with his mix of raw power and searing pace, cutting apart defenders that only saw a flash of yellow and he danced past them with the pace of an Olympic sprinter and the strength of a heavyweight boxer.
Memories of Bergkamp’s sublime first-touch, intricate turn and clinical finish leaving wily Argentinian defenders aghast at his display of brilliance.
Memories of the intelligent movement and ruthless finishing of the likes of Davor Suker, Christian Vieri and Marcelo Salas, signalling the arrival of a new breed of modern striker.
Memories of a multi-cultural France squad, representing a new-look France with pride, passion and a spirit of togetherness that would lead them to glory.
There are so many memories to relive.
But what of England?
If Mexico ‘86 brought exasperation and Italia ‘90 brought redemption of sorts, what did France 98 offer for England?
After sheer incompetence of managers, players and one German referee on an annoyingly frustrating night in Rotterdam, England had missed out on the jamboree that was the World Cup at USA in 1994.
France 98 was something of a crossroads for England, a changing of the guard.
The experience were still around as Tony Adams, David Seaman and Paul Ince provided the backbone of Glenn Hoddle’s squad.
But an influx of high-quality youngsters, coupled with Hoddle’s willingness to move away from the rigid 4-4-2, gave England a vibrant new look.
They had the power and pace of Spurs defender Sol Campbell, the class and culture of David Beckham, the underappreciated genius of Paul Scholes and the solid, consistent defending of Gary Neville.
Then there was Michael Owen.
By the time the opening game against Tunisia had kicked off Owen had only five England caps to his name.
The Liverpool striker had made just under 50 appearances for the Reds, scoring 24 goals in the process.
He was still a gamble, but one that Hoddle felt was worth taking.
After stumbling through a group consisting of Romania, Colombia and Tunisia, England were set up for a Second Round tie against old rivals Argentina.
This was to be England’s ‘Sliding Doors’ moment.
A moment that showed what they could be, only for life to take them in a completely different direction.
What if Waddle’s shot hadn’t hit the inside of the post but had gone in at Italia ‘90?
What if Gazza has went just a little bit earlier for that Shearer cross at Euro ’96?
What if, what if, what if, just add it to the list.
They were faced with a mighty Argentinian side, lavished with the talents of some of the world’s top players.
Batistuta, Ortega, Veron, Ayala, Simeone, they were one of the tournament favourites and rightly so.
Then there is the weight of history.
The talk of Alf Ramsey calling the Argentinians “animals” in 1966, the Falklands War was still fresh in the memory and, of course, there was Maradona and the Hand of God.
But this was a vibrant England side, with Owen thrust into centre-stage as a key player.
Saint-Etienne’s Stade Geoffroy-Guichard was to provide the setting for a game that would go down as one of the best, if not the best, of the tournament.
Gone was the usual tentative start, where both teams ease their way into the game.
This was blood and thunder from the off.
The tension and excitement of watching two sides full of talent and promise going head-to-head was all too evident.
With just five minutes on the clock Diego Simeone drew a foul from England keeper David Seaman.
Batistuta stepped up to take the kick and made no mistake.
Four minutes later England had a spot-kick of their own as Argentina defender Roberto Ayala clipped Owen.
The foul, if it can be called that, brought to an end the sort of run upon which Owen was steadily building his reputation.
It wouldn’t be his last run of the night.
Alan Shearer stepped up and lashed the spot-kick beyond Carlos Roa to put England level and ensure that they were in the ascendency.
On the 15 minute mark Owen wrote his name into World Cup folklore with a goal to rank among the very best ever seen at the tournament.
Collecting a pass from Beckham on the halfway line, Owen expertly flicked the ball from behind him and into his path.
His touch took him beyond Jose Chamot and there seemed only one thing in his mind.
He scampered towards the area and Roberto Ayala, a rugged, no-nonsense defender, approached him.
With impudence and confidence flowing through his veins, Owen flicked the ball beyond the centre-back and was clear into the area.
There was still one big decision to make – go for goal or leave the ball to the onrushing and unmarked Paul Scholes?
In reality there was never an option – Owen lashed the ball across goal and into Roa’s net before running open-armed towards the England supporters.
A star was born.
The game went from end-to-end but it was the Argentinians that struck next.
A cleverly worked free-kick on the stroke of half-time ended with Javier Zanetti crashing the ball beyond Seaman.
Straight from the training ground and into the heat of a crunch World Cup game, only this was the first time that Zanetti had supplied the end product.
Just after half-time England’s world came crashing down.
David Beckham finally fell for the provocation of Diego Simeone.
Petulance, naivety, foolishness, whatever you call it, Beckham showed it as a flick of his trusty right foot sent the Argentinian midfielder to the floor.
Referee Kim Milton Nielson wasted little time in brandishing red card and England were up against it from that moment.
But they stood firm as Hoddle’s clever tactical switches frustrated the star-studded Argentina side.
Campbell grew into the game, whilst Adams led with calmness underlined with roar passion.
Gary Neville, still a novice at international level, looked like a veteran of four World Cups, let alone a player experiencing his first.
Seaman boomed out instructions, Shearer and Owen rotated between the left-wing shift and ploughing a lone furrow up front.
Paul Merson was thrown on and his ability to carry the ball with clever and precise dribbling forced England forwards.
It was working.
In fact England could and maybe should have won it with the clock ticking into the last ten minutes.
A corner from the left just evaded Shearer but Campbell powerfully headed home. England erupted; the unlikely was now within their grasp.
They celebrated but something was wrong, the Argentinians had restarted the game.
The goal was disallowed for a Shearer foul on Roa.
Only an Anderton tackle denied the cruellest of winners with half of the England team still celebrating.
England took the game to extra-time, one goal, from anywhere would do it.
It never arrived.
Penalties, at a World Cup, we had been here before with England.
Where Pearce, Waddle and Southgate had walked, Ince and Batty followed.
Despite an early advantage, England wilted under the pressure of a penalty shoot-out.
Roa saved from Batty, who defied the prediction of his former Newcastle United manager Kevin Keegan.
In commentary, Keegan was adamant that Batty would score.
He didn’t and England were done.
Argentina made it just one step further and were beaten by a brilliant but flawed Dutch side.
England sloped off home; Beckham began the early-stages of an unlikely renaissance.
Once again, as England looked set to flourish, the doors slammed shut on World Cup glory.