It was the last day of June, 1998, and the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard at Saint-Étienne, France was packed to the brim. The World Cup of 1998 was nearing its climax as the last match of the round of 16 was being played. On one side was England, and on the other side was Argentina. While the “Three Lions” had taken the field in all-whites, the “La Albiceleste” were in dark blue, their second colours.
The group stage was behind them now and even a single mistake could send either team packing ot of the Cup. But apart from the setting, it was the match-up between the two bitter cross-Atlantic rivals that made the fans and media go gaga over this match. England and Argentina had met thrice in the World Cup till date and with a 2-1 record, the scales were clearly in favour of England.
And barring their match in the 1962 Chile World Cup where the Argentines were clearly outclassed by the English, their other two matches, viz. the 1966 World Cup match in England and the famous 1986 World Cup match in Mexico, were anything but a smooth ride. While the 1966 quarter-final win for England was termed by the Argentine media as el robo del siglo i.e. “The Theft of the Century”, the 1986 quarter-final win for Argentina was marred by all the brouhaha over Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal. The Falklands War of 1982 hadn’t helped either, and these two teams were playing now for national pride as much as for footballing glory.
Both England and Argentina seemed to be evenly matched in the run-up to the game and they even went with a similar 3-5-2 formation. While the English attack was being led by the Newcastle great Alan Shearer and the 18-year old prodigy Michael Owen, the Argentine pair of Gabriel Batistuta and Claudio López offered stiff competition with Hernán Crespo waiting in the dug-out to pounce any moment as a substitute.
The England mid-field was led by the in-form trio of David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Paul Ince while Argentina had the dangerous Ariel Ortega and the wily Juan Sebastián Verón leading the mid-field attack. The only significant difference between the teams seemed to be their defence. Argentina had been shuffling their defenders in all the group matches so far, with only Roberto Ayala making it to the playing 11 consistently; on the contrary, England had displayed full faith in their defence triad of Sol Campbell, Gary Neville and Tony Adams.
So on the night of June 30th , the two teams took the field and from the moment the opening whistle was blown, it was clear that it was going to be a gruelling match as none of the teams seemed to be in any mood to make life easier for the other. The match had all but started when David Seaman, the famous (or infamous, as you may please) pony-tailed English goalkeeper brought Batistuta down and the referee awarded a penalty to Argentina. Having already scored four goals in the tournament so far, Batistuta coolly converted the 6th minute penalty as well. The score line now read 1-0 in favour of Argentina.
But the jubilation of the Argentine camp was all but short-lived as Ayala brought down Owen inside the box at the 10 minute mark and the referee awarded a controversial penalty to England which Shearer successfully converted to make the score 1-1. The much hyped match seemed to be living up to its promise after all. Nothing much happened for the next couple of minutes until Owen collected a long pass from Beckham deep inside the Argentine half and darted off with the ball. He outran the Argentine defender Chamot with a speed that would put Christiano Ronaldo to shame and evaded Ayala at top speed to shoot past the hapless Carlos Roa who could only watch bewildered as the English huddled around Owen to celebrate. The English went up 2-1 and Owen’s goal entered the history books as one of the most spectacular goals ever scored in World Cup history. Memory of Maradona’s equally stupendous second goal in their 1986 quarter-final encounter must have flashed in the minds of the players.
After much attacking football from both sides, finally at the stroke of half-time, Argentina won a free-kick just outside England’s penalty area and the free-kick wizard Verón proceeded to take the shot. The English apparently expected him to shoot for goal but in a sheer display of genius, he passed the ball to Zanetti who was hiding behind the English defensive wall and seemed to emerge from nowhere and turned around to shoot past a diving Seaman. The score board now read: England-2, Argentina-2.