This summer marks the 15th anniversary of the 2002 World Cup, a tournament that brought the all-too-familiar feeling of quarter-final disappointment for England. But there had at least been the joy of a memorable group stage win over Argentina to enjoy…
The start of Sven-Goran Eriksson’s reign in 2001 had been close to perfect, England’s fortunes being transformed as the side qualified as group winners for the following year’s World Cup and won 5-1 away to Germany. Now suddenly the young team were being hyped-up as a potential threat at the finals in Japan and South Korea. However, the final qualifying match at home to Greece had provided something of a reality check as Eriksson’s side struggled and famously needed a David Beckham equaliser in the dying seconds to clinch a place in the final. It was the start of a continual pattern of hopes being raised and dimmed in the coming months.
At the start of December the draw was made and it dealt England a tough hand. They were not seeded and were placed in a group with old rivals Argentina, touted as one of the tournament favourites. To compound matters, the group also contained Eriksson’s homeland of Sweden – a side England had long struggled against – and Nigeria, who had won admirers when making the knockout stage at the last two World Cups. There was no minnow and the inevitable ‘Group of Death’ cliches followed. To make matters worse, it seemed likely whoever finished second would end up playing holders France in the second round.
Eriksson, staying diplomatic but dropping hints of disappointment, said: “We are in the most difficult group, there is no doubt about that. We will have to be very well prepared if we want our World Cup to last longer than three games. The draw is the one part of the process we have no control over, but at least we have a chance of staying in the same country for the whole of the tournament, which is good.” England would be in the Japanese half of the draw and would dream of making the final in Yokohama. But simply a prolonged stay in the tournament looked a decent return as things stood.
Injuries mount up
The months before the tournament included friendly draws with Sweden – played prior to the draw pairing them together in Japan – and the Netherlands, in which debutant Darius Vassell scored a cracker on his debut, and a 4-0 thrashing of Paraguay. But problems never seemed far away. Eriksson’s love life was making front page news, while his side would be hit by a succession of worrying injuries. Regular right back Gary Neville was ruled out of the finals with a broken foot, while midfielder Steven Gerrard – who had come to the fore in the qualifying campaign – limped out of Liverpool’s final match of the season and was to stay at home for the summer.
England’s World Cup side in 2002, a line-up affected by injuries.
England were already two key players down, while also having to cope with a dearth of talent on the left flank as Steve McManaman was overlooked. Trevor Sinclair would end up operating there for much of the tournament, but he only made the final squad after Danny Murphy – called up to replace Liverpool team-mate Gerrard – was himself ruled out. Sinclair had flown home from Japan after seemingly missing out on the finals, only to then make the return journey after being given his second chance. It was a trip worth making.
But the biggest injury hype would concern captain Beckham, the man whose goal had clinched England’s place in the finals. He broke a bone in his foot playing for Manchester United in April, as suddenly the nation became familiar with the term ‘metatarsal’. He faced a race against time to make the finals. As with Kevin Keegan in 1982 and Bryan Robson in 1986 there was now great concern about the captain’s fitness – but this time it had become a major talking point beyond football circles. Now you had Uri Geller trying to play his part to get Beckham fit and the subject was cropping up everywhere. Beckham would make it to Japan, but the attention given to his injury was threatening to send out a message that England were a one-man team who would be unable to cope without him.
David Beckham sustains his metatarsal injury and a nation becomes obsessed about it.
That was very debatable but the squad was certainly lacking in tournament experience. The year 2000 had marked the end of an era for England, with the likes of Tony Adams, Paul Ince and Alan Shearer ending their international careers and the departure of manager Kevin Keegan paving the way for Eriksson to be appointed as the side’s first foreign boss. Although some of the old guard remained from previous tournaments – such as Sol Campbell, David Seaman and Teddy Sheringham – this was essentially an inexperienced side that was building towards the future.
After heading to South-East Asia, England drew matches with South Korea and Cameroon as they continued to send out mixed messages over what they were capable of. The general consensus was this tournament may be a stepping stone to the 2006 World Cup when many of the side would be at their peak, but the class of 2002 couldn’t be totally discounted. The 5-1 win over Germany had certainly raised expectations and shown that, if England clicked, they could achieve results. They had clearly made progress since flopping at Euro 2000 under Keegan.
Struggling against the Swedes
England’s first match was against Sweden, as millions back home unusually settled down to watch a football match on a Sunday morning. There was also good support out in Japan, the reputation of England fans showing signs of improvement from the dreaded hooligan image of previous years. They were celebrating as Sol Campbell headed in a corner during the first half, but the second period saw England stagnate and increasingly allow the Swedes back into it. They conceded an equaliser through Niclas Alexandersson after an error by Danny Mills and England could have few complaints about failing to pick up three points as the game ended 1-1, with David Seaman called upon to deny the Swedes a winner.
Sol Campbell celebrates scoring for England against Sweden.
Only five of the 13 players used by England during the match had played at a World Cup before, with that level of inexperience seen as contributing to the young side fading as the game wore on. David Lacey wrote in The Guardian: “Unless England rapidly acquire some further education over the next five days they may be back home watching the World Cup on television from the second round onwards. For the moment, at this level, Sven-Goran Eriksson’s team look like fourth-formers who have wandered into a sixth-form college.” Argentina beat Nigeria on the same day and England would be deep in trouble if they lost to the South Americans five days later.
Revenge is sweet
In the build-up to the indoor showdown in Sapporo it was hard to escape the past, as the controversial World Cup meetings of 1966, 1986 and 1998 all loomed over the fixture. Certainly the latter had not been forgotten by England, not least the celebrations from the Argentine players on the bus afterwards when parked next to that of Glenn Hoddle’s side. In the intervening four years the film Mike Bassett: England Manager had depicted England beating Argentina 1-0 in the group stage to stay in the World Cup thanks to a controversial goal. Real life was about to imitate fiction…
Regardless of whether the average Englishman was most bothered about revenge over Argentina or simply staying in the World Cup, they would have been delighted following a memorable victory, This time it was England’s turn to get a decision in their favour, referee Pierluigi Collina pointing to the spot after Michael Owen went down in a move that opponent Mauricio Pochettino (yes, that one) still insists was a dive rather than a foul. Four years after being portrayed as the villain following his sending-off against the same opponents, Beckham was the hero as he put England ahead from the spot on the stroke of half-time.
David Beckham puts England in front against Argentina.
Unlike against Sweden, England continued to play with vibrancy and belief after the break and almost scored a superb goal as an impressive move ended with Sheringham going close with a volley. But there was a nagging feeling that if the second goal didn’t come England may be punished as Argentina upped the tempo, with Campbell and Ferdinand thankfully having impressive games to keep them out and Seaman on hand to make important stops. It was tense and only when Collina blew his final whistle could the celebrations begin, as England pulled off one of their most joyful victories in years.
There was certainly a triumphant tone in our newspapers the following day, Beckham’s face on the front of most of them. Rob Shepherd began his report in the Daily Express by writing: “Gotcha! Let’s not beat about the bush, it doesn’t get any sweeter than beating Argentina. That England did so with style and dignity made it all the better. The nation should quite rightly be proud of a victory which turned the England dressing room from the funeral party it had been last Sunday, into a house party.” In an amusing irony following the events of four years earlier, Sinclair would inadvertently step aboard the Argentina team coach afterwards. This time the Argentine mood was rather more sombre, as one of the favourites stood on the brink of potential group stage elimination.
After the gloom of the inquest into the Sweden game, suddenly it was back to England being hyped up as being able to beat anyone in the world and a feeling that maybe, just maybe, this young side could go all the way…
Expectations fall – then rise again
After the euphoria of beating Argentina, the next game against Nigeria proved an anti-climax and brought expectations back down to a more realistic level. The Nigerians were already out and were struggling to match their group displays in the last two World Cups, but they were determined to depart with a good result. The millions watching back home over breakfast saw a forgettable goalless contest in the heat of Osaka, in which Sheringham squandered a golden opportunity to win it. But a point was always going to be enough to advance if not win the group, with Sweden having that honour on goals scored after getting the point they needed to eliminate Argentina by drawing 1-1.
The basic target for England of getting out of the group had been achieved and pre-tournament fears of a second round showdown with France had been averted. The world champions joined Argentina in being home before the postcards, with Denmark topping the group after beating them 2-0 and lying in wait for England. The Danes were not to be underestimated, but England had a good chance to advance. The main downsides of being second were a gap of just three days between matches and favourites Brazil being the likely opponents in the quarter-finals. Had England topped the group then they would have played surprise package Senegal, followed by Japan or Turkey in the last eight.
Most England knockout wins over the years have been tense, so it was a welcome relief that the clash with the Danes would be surprisingly done and dusted by half-time as Eriksson’s side led 3-0 in Niigata. The Danes had looked strong in beating France four days earlier, but they seemed nervous here and made a costly error just five minutes in as Ferdinand’s header was fumbled into his own net by Danish goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen. Nicky Butt capped an impressive tournament by setting up Owen to double the lead, before Emile Heskey slotted home shortly before the break. As with when England beat Poland 3-0 at the 1986 World Cup, the job was done in the first half and the remainder of the match saw them prevent any hopes of a Danish comeback.
Celebration time for England as Denmark are beaten 3-0.
Once more expectations were lifted and it seemed quite feasible that England could go all the way – particular as the second round fallers included Italy, meaning three major nations had gone home – although there were also those who felt the scoreline flattered England a little. “I don’t think we got enough credit for how well we played in that game,” reflected Eriksson in his autobiography. But the main thing was the side were through to the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time since 1990. Lacey wrote that “the idea of Sven-Goran Eriksson’s team reaching the final or even winning it no longer seems as fantastic as Danny Mills beating Harry Potter at quidditch”. There was certainly a belief that if England could beat Brazil, then they could win it. It was a big IF though.
It may be simplifying things a little to assume the trophy would be England’s if they could overcome Brazil, but the lack of a dominant side in the finals meant they would hold every chance. Yet the task immediately in front of them was major. Brazil were the favourites, World Cup winners in 1994 and runners-up in 1998 and boasting the ‘three Rs’ in attack of Rivaldo, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho. However, they had struggled during qualification – finishing 13 points adrift of Argentina – and not looked invincible in their four tournament matches so far despite winning them all. Their reputation compared to past great Brazil sides had not been helped by Rivaldo’s antics when he feigned injury against Turkey during the group stage.
A sad end for Seaman
The day before England met Brazil in Fukuroi City it rained and that would suit the English fine, but 24 hours later the sun was back out as Eriksson’s side faced a gruelling afternoon. But midway through the first half the nation rejoiced as Owen capitalised on defensive hesitancy to score as the forward – who had been an injury doubt for this game – evoked memories of his rise to fame at the World Cup four years earlier. Now the acid test for England was being able to see the game out, but on the stroke of half-time they were undone. Rivaldo ended a Brazilian move that had begun when Beckham appeared to pull out of a challenge in the opposition half and was followed by Paul Scholes also missing a vital chance to intercept. It was a measure of Brazil’s attacking abilities that they could sweep forward and score so quickly, as Ronaldinho ran through the England defence to feed Rivaldo. But criticisms would also be levelled at the English defending.
Conceding so late in the half was a crushing blow for England and Eriksson now faced the job of lifting the side. The current incumbent of the role was unimpressed by what he heard, substitute Gareth Southgate infamously coming out with the “we were expecting Winston Churchill and instead we got Iain Duncan-Smith” line. The game would generate the first significant criticism of Eriksson in his England reign, just a fortnight after being hailed for masterminding the win over Argentina. He would come under fire for his choice of substitutes, including keeping creative youngster Joe Cole on the bench.
David Seaman is beaten by Ronaldinho and England are on their way home.
With the second half still in its infancy, England were dealt a fatal blow. Whether it was meant a cross or shot, Ronaldinho’s free-kick ended up deceiving Seaman from way out and for the first time in the tournament England were behind. Despite the goalscorer controversially receiving a red card a few minutes later for a challenge on Mills, England never looked like getting back in the game and failed to make anything of their extra man. All hope had realistically gone before the end, as yet another major tournament finished with England losing a game they had led in. Seaman was devastated by his error and at 38 it was always realistically going to be his last major outing for his country. He wouldn’t retire from international football, but took further criticism for a goal conceded against Macedonia in October and was never capped again.
The loss to Brazil represented a disappointing conclusion to a tournament that had produced some highs for England. It was a tournament where, depending on whether you were a glass half full or empty person your lasting memory was likely to be either Beckham’s joy against Argentina or Seaman’s pain against Brazil. The big thing now was that England pushed on and won either Euro 2004 or the 2006 World Cup. England had lost to Brazil in the 1962 World Cup quarter-finals and won it four years later. They had to hope history repeated itself 40 years in.
But as we all know it didn’t. Had England fulfilled the potential that appeared to be building and soon afterwards won a major tournament then the 2002 World Cup would probably be fondly recalled as representing a big step forward. But unfortunately it followed exactly the same narrative as the next two tournaments, Eriksson being beaten by Luiz Felipe Scolari in the quarter-finals each time. Given the draw they had been handed England could feel some sense of achievement in reaching the last eight in 2002 and the Argentina game had brought widespread delight, but regret also lingered. Had England beaten Brazil then the path would have been the clearest it had arguably ever been. It would have been Turkey in the semi-final, then a Germany side they had thrashed 5-1 less than a year before in the final. Although aided by a kind draw that saw them avoid any leading football nations until the final, Germany had once more gone further than England at a major tournament.
It wasn’t just that England had lost to Brazil that represented disappointment, there was also the concerning sight of Eriksson’s side never looking like getting back into the game when up against 10 men. The tournament had seen England score six goals, but none came in the second half. It wasn’t an issue in the games against Argentina and Denmark where England impressed, but against both Sweden and Brazil there has been a sense that they were off the pace and the Nigeria game was something of a non-event.
Reflecting years later in his autobiography, Eriksson wrote: “The truth was that it was not Seaman’s fault that we were knocked out of the World Cup. Brazil were better than us. It was that simple. But we had played a very good tournament and we had a young team. We were not ready yet. It was the next World Cup that we were going to win.” And Eriksson knew full well it didn’t turn out that way. The Brazil game sent out a warning sign that England still had work to do to be on a par with the world’s best. But there had been good moments in Japan too, one of which would forever be fondly recalled.
Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.