No.14: Michael Owen Bursts Onto The World Stage (France, 1998)
When it comes to World Cup memories, positive ones have been pretty scarce for England in recent years.
Prosperous and promising qualifying campaigns have only paved the way for major tournament disappointment since Bobby Robson’s Three Lions side reached the semi-final of the 1990 World Cup. Penalties, injuries, refereeing injustices and plain bad luck have all seemingly conspired to derail England’s charge in tournaments since.
But there’s one thrilling moment that stands out from the last 24 years.
It came in 1998 when Glen Hoddle was in charge of the national team. He’d made the bold decision to drop Paul Gascoigne—England’s talisman both in 1990 and Euro 1996— from the squad, instead choosing to put his faith in group that contained plenty of young talent. The crown jewel of which, was Liverpool’s Michael Owen.
Just 18 years old, Owen had established himself in the Premier League with the Reds, showcasing a blistering turn of pace and a forensic calmness in front of goal that belied his years. He was a scintillating player to watch and whilst he’d ran defenders ragged in England’s top flight, question marks lingered as to whether or not he could replicate that form on the biggest stage against the world’s greatest.
England had endured a mixed bag of a tournament up to that point. They’d ran out comfortable winners in two of their group games against Tunisia and Colombia, but a defeat to a Romania meant that they had to be content with second place in the group. Their reward was a clash with Argentina in the last-16.
The game started at a hugely frenetic pace. Gabriel Batistuta and Alan Shearer both scored penalties in the opening ten minutes, setting a precedent for what would be an enthralling affair.
But the game’s moment of really quality came in the 16th minute later, when Paul Scholes directed a looping header into the path of a certain 18-year-old in the centre circle.
What happened next?
The touch, the pace, the power, the agility and the finish make Owen’s strike one of the best in the history of this tournament. And to do that aged just 18 is in itself, a pretty remarkable feat. His celebration after the ball crashed into the top corner seemed to be one of sheer disbelief.
Unfortunately for England—who went 2-1 up with that goal—Owen’s goal would not prove to be the winner. Javier Zanetti equalised seconds before half-time and whilst they defended admirably to take the game to penalties after David Beckham was sent off early in the second half, it didn’t prove to be enough.