Paying the penalty: Part 2 – Spiritual guidance and the ‘Sliding Doors’ penalty
This is the second in our three-part ‘Paying the Penalty’ series. We take a look at moments involving penalties for England and recall the fascinating stories surrounding them. It’s a strange truth that most of the penalties we remember, those seemingly played on endless highlight reels every two years, were missed. But the penalty we look at here was actually converted. This game had unexpectedly defining moments in the careers of those involved.
Spiritual guidance and the ‘Sliding Doors’ penalty
Argentina 2-2 England (a.e.t.) – Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, 30 June 1998
This game became famous for two major incidents: Michael Owen’s stunning solo goal in the first half, and David Beckham’s red card for a petulant kick out at Diego Simeone.
On a warm evening in St-Etienne, this was yet another pulsating World Cup match between England and Argentina, the memories of the so-called injustice of the ‘Hand of God’ still burning strong in English minds.
In the shoot-out that night, 18-year-old Owen successfully converted his spot-kick via the inside of the post. While it first appeared a routine conversion, such is the ignominy players receive following major tournaments, the importance of this penalty, for both Owen and England, cannot be overstated.
In February 1998, Owen became the youngest player to represent England for over 100 years, aged just 18 years and 59 days old. A prolific goalscorer at youth level, Owen quickly emerged as a trusted finisher for both Liverpool and England. Manager Glenn Hoddle was a big admirer, later declaring Owen as being in the top four finishers in England’s footballing history, alongside Jimmy Greaves, Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer, “Some might say he is even top of that list. His finishing was amazing for a young man.”
There was a palpable sense of English optimism going into World Cup 1998, to be held in neighbouring France. The relative success of Euro ’96 offered fresh buoyancy; perhaps football was coming home after all. England were a well-balanced outfit – sufficient squad depth and a deft combination of both grit and grace. And adverse humidity and complications with time difference would not be an issue
Paul Gascoigne was conspicuous by his absence on the plane, although, controversially, there was indeed a seat reserved for Hoddle’s faith healer, Eileen Drewery. It became a theme – these were increasingly alarming signs of Hoddle’s spiritual beliefs infiltrating the atmosphere within the England camp.
The players were as dumbfounded by it as the rest of the country. In his autobiography, Graeme Le Saux recalls the strange medication left on the hotel beds of each squad member; a concoction of mysterious pills and tablets. The players were confused, wary of the legitimacy of taking such bizarre medication but, fearing for their place in the team, they swallowed their pills and kept their mouths shut.
In the group stages, a comfortable 2-0 victory over Tunisia was quickly followed by a narrow 2-1 defeat to Romania. At 1-1 in this match, as commentator for ITV, Kevin Keegan famously said, “There’s only one team who will win this now and that’s England.” Cue a late Romanian winner.
Owen made his first start in the tournament in the decisive group match against Columbia, which they won 2-0 thanks to goals from Darren Anderton and David Beckham. An Argentina team brimming with experience and attacking flair were next up.
Penalties became the underlying theme of the match. Within 9 minutes, both teams had scored from the spot. Gabriel Batistuta opened the scoring, followed by a trademark Shearer conversion after Owen had won the penalty.
Then came the moment which truly announced Owen to the footballing world. He twisted past Ayala and José Chamot, confidently striking ahead of the onrushing Paul Scholes, stroking the ball into the top corner of Carlos Roa’s net. A stunning individual goal.
At least three England players were still celebrating on the touchline when Javier Zanetti foxed the entire England wall to convert a cleverly-worked free-kick. In a recent interview with FourFourTwo, Zanetti claimed the Argentinians had worked meticulously on that set-piece in training and, a surprise even to themselves, the plan worked to perfection.
Two minutes into the second half, Beckham was awarded a red card and his world crumbled around him. Retaliating to Diego Simone’s provocation, it was an act that caused a whirlwind of sickening death threats and effigies for months following the match. England hung on for the second half and throughout extra-time.
Paul Ince and David Batty missed their penalties in the shoot-out, but Owen had confidently sent Roa the wrong way with his penalty, the ball clipping dangerously off the inside of the upper left hand post. Running back to his team-mates on the halfway line, Owen gave his trademark ‘rubbing hands’ celebration, followed by what looked like a ‘time out’ sign. He later confirmed that this was a symbol of the post and bar, an indication of relief that the margin for error was much finer than anticipated. The importance of this penalty should not be overlooked – despite Owen’s sensational first-half goal, such is the hysteria surrounding penalties in a World Cup, his rapid rise to stardom may have stalled before it fully began.
Owen went on to enjoy a fruitful international career in front of goal. Several matches against Argentina proved to be most memorable for varying reasons. In the 2002 World Cup, Owen won a penalty after being fouled by a long-haired Mauricio Pochettino, allowing Beckham to complete his redemption from the ghosts of 1998. In November 2005, Owen scored two late goals against Argentina in a 3-2 victory to England, to this day the best and most dramatic international friendly I’ve ever seen.
Due to Owen’s early rise in the senior set-up, it looked likely he would break Bobby Charlton’s all-time record. In the end, Owen had to settle for 40 international goals after being frozen out by Fabio Capello – a relative disappointment which fades into insignificance when compared with the tale of his fellow goalscorer Gary Lineker: his future BT Sport colleague. The dying embers of Lineker’s England career is a fascinating tale, one which, conveniently, completes our three-part series tomorrow…