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England vs Argentina 1998: “The Citizen Kane of football matches”

I take a look back at one of the most dramatic matches ever involving England at a World Cup



Twenty years ago today, England took on Argentina in St-Etienne in one of the most enthralling, gripping, gut-wrenching international football matches involving the Three Lions in many a year.

The game had everything: a stunning solo goal, a brilliantly-worked free-kick, a dramatic sending off and even a heartbreaking late disallowed goal.

Then, there were penalties.

England’s World Cup had started in stuttering fashion. An Alan Shearer header and a beautiful Paul Scholes curler from range gave them a 2-0 win over Tunisia in the searing heat of Marseille.

Then a night game against Romania in Toulouse saw England bounce back from a goal down after Hoddle threw on teenage star Michael Owen. But, just as it seemed like England were beginning to find their form, a defensive calamity gave Dan Petrescu a winning goal as England lost 2-1 in the last minute.

It meant they needed victory against Colombia to progress to the knockout stages and, after leaving both Owen and David Beckham out of the starting lineup for both opening games, Hoddle finally put his faith in the duo, and it paid off.

Darren Anderton thrashed home a brilliant opener, then Beckham netted a stunning free-kick to formally announce himself in the tournament and give the Three Lions real momentum going into the Round of 16.

By the time they faced Argentina in the second round there was the overwhelming thought that Hoddle had finally worked out England’s best side. Beckham was in from the start and, after loud calls from the press and fans alike, Hoddle started Owen over Teddy Sheringham to partner Alan Shearer up top.

Argentina, meanwhile, had a team packed with international stars and, in the form of Gabriel Batistuta, had one of the best strikers on the planet.

The stage was set for an epic clash that will live long in the memory.

The game caught fire almost instantly, when David Seaman brought down Diego Simeone in the box and referee Kim Milton Nielsen pointed to the spot.

Gabriel Batistuta fired home to put Argentina ahead, but England came roaring back with two goals in the space of six minutes, with teenage star Owen right at the heart of them.

After Owen burst through and went down in the box, referee Nielsen, having given a soft spot-kick to Argentina earlier, then awarded England an even softer one.

Alan Shearer stepped up and slammed the penalty into the top corner to draw England level. Then only moments later Beckham found Owen, who blazed a trail through the heart of the Argentinian defence before firing past goalkeeper Carlos Roa into the top corner for a classic World Cup goal.

England were on top and playing superbly, but a free-kick on the stroke of halftime gave the South Americans a chance to equalise, and a moment of free-kick brilliance saw them do just that.

After a dummy from Batistuta Juan Sebastian Veron passed the ball into the England penalty area, just as Javier Zanetti emerged from behind the England wall. The Inter Milan wingback collected the ball, turned smartly and fired unerringly into the top corner.

It was a quite brilliant free-kick, and it kicked the stuffing out of England as they went in level at half-time.

And things went from bad to worse for England in the second half when, after Diego Simeone had first flattened David Beckham, then ruffled the seething England midfielder’s hair immediately afterwards, the hot-headed star kicked out at his Argentinian opponent.

It was exactly the reaction Simeone was hoping for, and he fell theatrically backwards, making sure the officials saw the aftermath of Beckham’s moment of madness. And referee Nielsen did the only thing he could in that situation, booking Simeone, then sending Beckham from the field.

Argentina then pushed forward, looking to use their one-man advantage to break England down. But after some tactical adjustment from the touchline from Hoddle, and backed by a non-stop soundtrack of songs, chants and noise from a raucous English fanbase, England effectively shut up shop and kept the South Americans at bay.

Then, as England won a corner at the opposite end of the pitch, Sol Campbell rose at the back post to head into the net and spark chaotic scenes from the England fans and players, who all believed they’d found a late winner.

But referee Nielsen chalked off the goal for a foul on keeper Roa by Shearer as the game went into extra time.

Then, after a tense additional half-hour of action that brought no further goals, the match went to penalties.

It was yet another dramatic England penalty shoot-out in a major tournament.

And, once again, the Three Lions crashed out on spot-kicks, as Roa guessed right and saved David Batty’s crucial penalty to send Argentina through and send England home.

It was a heartbreaking end to a rollercoaster of a football match. Ultimately it was Argentina who left St-Etienne celebrating, but that game showed the spirit, passion and commitment that English fans so yearn to see from their national team.

Since that game, England have struggled in tournament football and struggled to find that same connection with its fans that it had that day in St-Etienne.

This summer, under Gareth Southgate, England’s young, vibrant side appears to be making great progress. But with their first knockout game in a major tournament together coming against Colombia on Tuesday, the big test for the 2018 version of the Three Lions is only just starting.

Will the England side of 2018 be involved in a similar World Cup classic? We can only hope so.

Nobody from England and Argentina who played in, or watched, that England vs Argentina game in St-Etienne will ever forget it.

That’s beecause that game in St-Etienne was little short of a footballing masterpiece. As journalist Patrick Barclay said in the documentary I’ve embedded throughout this blog, it was “the Citizen Kane of football matches”.

Freelance sports writer and MMA reporter with 19 years’ experience in the UK's national media covering major sporting events including UFC world title fights, Olympic Games, FIFA World Cup, UEFA European Championships, Grand National and the FA Cup Final.


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