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Six of the Best – England’s World Cup quarter-finals

Ahead of England’s World Cup quarter-final against Sweden we recall the six most recent occasions the Three Lions appeared in the round. Each of them would be memorable, providing a mixture of drama, controversy and high emotion…

1966 v Argentina (1-0)

Prior to 1966 England had made two appearances in the World Cup quarter-finals, losing to Uruguay in 1954 and Brazil in 1962. Now they were facing the other member of South America’s footballing big three as Argentina visited Wembley in the July sunshine. This was going to be a tough test for Alf Ramsey’s men and it would properly ignite a rivalry that has endured since.

It was an afternoon certainly not short of drama and controversy, most memorably when Argentina’s captain Antonio Rattin was ordered off – and he wouldn’t go quietly – during the first half. England were facing a physical and mental battle that contained some similarities to the ill-tempered match against Colombia this week, and in the interests of fairness we should also point out Ramsey’s side committed a high number of fouls too.

Despite having a numerical advantage England had to be patient to get the win they craved. Just 13 minutes remained when Martin Peters whipped over a superb cross from the left and Geoff Hurst deftly headed in. It was a move straight from the West Ham United training ground and proved sufficient to send England through. But that wasn’t the end of the drama.

Ramsey had been incensed by the conduct of Argentina and he would twice convey this after the contest finished. He ran on the field to prevent George Cohen swapping shirts with an opponent and then gave an infamous TV interview in which he would say: “We have still to produce our best and this best is not possible until we meet the right type of opposition. And that is a team that comes out to play football and not act as animals, as we have seen in this World Cup competition.”

He may not have directly called Argentina “animals” but many would interpret his words as such, with the comment making plenty of headlines and not being forgotten in South America. It had been an afternoon to endure rather than enjoy – with England players revealing many years later how they came to blows with their opponents after leaving the field – but Ramsey’s men were through and now just two rounds from glory.

1970 v West Germany (2-3, AET)

Ramsey managed England in 113 matches and in only two of them would they fail to win after holding a two-goal lead. It’s a statistic that only serves to emphasise just how inexplicable it was that England should fall apart in the heat of Leon, having looked in control at 2-0 up thanks to goals from Alan Mullery and Martin Peters.

And then it all changed between the 1966 finalists. Goalkeeper Peter Bonetti, who had so far been untroubled while deputising for the ill Gordon Banks, was beaten by a Franz Beckenbauer shot that he would ordinarily have saved. It was the turning point and moments later Bobby Charlton was replaced by Colin Bell in one of the most discussed England substitutions of all time. Those who criticise Ramsey over it tend to overlook that Charlton had gone off at a similar stage in the two previous games and it is questionable if, at 32, he was quite as influential as previously.

But the change would become synonymous with England’s collapse, Charlton watching his international career draw to a sad close as West Germany equalised through Uwe Seeler and then in extra-time won it through the prolific Gerd Muller. Perhaps the substitution that had really made the difference was the Germans bringing on winger Jurgen Grabrowski, who had a major involvement in the comeback.

The inquests began and ultimately everyone had their own reasoning for why England fell apart. Ramsey certainly rued the absence of Banks, being heard afterwards to say: “Of all the players to lose it had to be him.” The experience and reliability of the goalkeeping great had been missed and conspiracy theories would crop up – but never be proven – that he had been deliberately targeted.

England had gone from seriously hoping to retain the World Cup to being dethroned in one afternoon. They returned home in a state of bewilderment, with Ramsey’s already fragile relationship with the media tarnished further when he was ambushed by reporters as he arrived back in England. The defeat would set the trend for a nightmare decade for the team.

1986 v Argentina (1-2)

There were no World Cup quarter-finals from 1974 to 1982, as alternative formats involving a second group stage were applied. But as the World Cup returned to Mexico in 1986 so too did the quarter-finals. And what a tie awaited England in the Azteca Stadium. Twenty years after the controversial meeting with Argentina at Wembley the sides would slug it out again at the same stage, with England having to face the great Diego Maradona. The fact that the match was taking place just four years after the Falklands War added further tension, with Bobby Robson threatening to walk out of a press conference if the subject kept cropping up.

The first 45 minutes were tame, the second unforgettable due to four key moments that still crop up regularly in conversation now. Maradona infamously scored with his hand and then producing a moment of individual magic to double the lead with his “you have to say that’s magnificent” goal; England, having previously offered little in attack, introduced John Barnes and he twice superbly crossed for Gary Lineker to score one and then somehow be denied another.

England were out and their performance would not escape criticism at the time, having only had a go late in proceedings. But the real talking point would concern the opening goal, as television evidence clearly showed Maradona punching the ball into the net. The ‘Hand of God’ term would soon become universally applied and England were left to come to terms with their dream being over in this manner, as Argentina went on to win the competition.

“Maradona handled the ball into the goal didn’t he? DIDN’T HE?” an incredulous Robson asked rhetorically during his post-match press conference. If only VAR had been around then…

1990 v Cameroon (3-2, AET)

Howard Wilkinson, helping out Robson by performing some scouting work, was unimpressed with Cameroon when he saw them lose 4-0 in a dead rubber against the Soviet Union at Italia ’90. Ahead of England facing Cameroon in the quarter-finals, Wilkinson would tell Robson that his side could well be about to enjoy a “bye” into the semis and the information was – perhaps unwisely – relaid to the players. It would prove anything but a “bye”, as England endured a real struggle and could consider themselves fortunate to emerge triumphant in Naples.

England were made to sweat throughout but they did at least hold a half-time lead though David Platt. But the introduction of the evergreen Roger Milla at the break helped galvanise Cameroon and they would soon hold a 2-1 lead, thanks to Emmanuel Kunde (penalty) and Eugene Ekeke. England were staring elimination in the face.

And then came the moment. England had not been awarded a penalty in any match since February 1986, a statistic made more surprising given they had recorded some big wins during the period. Now, with the minutes ticking away, Lineker was adjudged to have been fouled in the box. “Never a more vital penalty for England,” whispered BBC commentator Barry Davies as Lineker prepared to take the spot-kick. He held his nerve to score and then history would repeat itself in extra-time, Lineker going down in the box after running on to Paul Gascoigne’s excellent though ball. The forward again converted from the spot and the nation breathed a collective sigh of relief as referee Edgardo Codesal signalled full-time in his customary theatrical manner.

Everyone knew just what a struggle it had been. “We’ve all aged 10 years,” joked BBC presenter Bob Wilson as England felt relief as much as joy. Robson embraced Gascoigne at the whistle and was beaming as he gave a TV interview: “I’ve had 17 heart attacks… I feel 92…” Millions of others felt the same way. It was a long way from being a vintage English display, but for only the second time the side had reached the World Cup semi-finals.

2002 v Brazil (1-2)

“Beat Brazil and we can be world champions,” seemed to a widespread attitude across England ahead of this showdown. A number of big names had gone home and therefore England would have every reason to believe that if they could knock out the favourites they could go all the way. Many millions were watching over breakfast back home, dreaming of what might be.

The day before there had been rain in Shizuoka and those elements would have suited England fine. But come the match there was scorching sun and it was the start of a day when things did not go as hoped for England.

Yet they would forge ahead when Michael Owen seized upon a defensive lapse to score after 23 minutes. England simply needed to stay composed and they would have one foot in the semi-final.

And then came the turning point with the break beckoning. David Beckham and Paul Scholes would both take their share of the blame as Brazil broke, with Rivaldo placing the ball out of David Seaman’s reach. Seaman’s day would get worse when Ronaldinho’s innocuous-looking effort sailed over him, leaving the veteran goalkeeper devastated. Whether it was meant as a cross or a shot, the outcome was England now needed to do something they had yet to do all tournament – score in the second half.

And they wouldn’t. Although Ronaldinho would soon be dismissed, England failed to make use of their extra man and it all made for a rather anti-climatic exit with most fans accepting defeat before the final whistle. Although the tournament had brought enjoyable wins over Argentina and Denmark, it had also produced the first notable doubts about Sven-Goran Eriksson’s managerial capabilities. “We were expecting Winston Churchill and instead we got Iain Duncan-Smith,” was the memorable quote attributed to England’s current incumbent, an unused squad member that day.

2006 v Portugal (0-0*, AET)

In 2006 there was an obsession with the fact that England might finally end their 40 years of hurt, with the ‘Golden Generation’ seemingly at their peak and hopeful of delivering in Germany. But although their first four games in the tournament had produced three wins and a draw, the performances had earned few plaudits. Now though they faced a bigger test against Euro 2004 runners-up Portugal in Gelsenkirchen.

There were a few subplots to the fixture. It was a rematch of the Euro 2004 quarter-final, which Portugal had won on penalties; for the third successive major quarter-final Eriksson would be up against Luiz Felipe Scolari, who had just rejected the chance to replace him as England manager; and the match brought together Manchester United’s young stars Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney.

And the latter’s battle would be central to proceedings. Just after the hour mark Rooney was red carded for stamping on Ricardo Carvalho. It was a big loss for England and Ronaldo certainly put club friendships on hold as he appeared to encourage the referee to take action – a view enhanced when he was caught on camera winking towards the Portuguese bench.

England were down to 10 men but gave one of their most composed displays of the tournament while a man light to take the game to penalties. But they would once more fall short, with Owen Hargreaves the only player to score for Eriksson’s side and Ronaldo delivering the coup de grace as he stroked home the winning spot-kick.

It was the end of an era for England, as Eriksson departed and Beckham – who had gone off injured – relinquished the captaincy. The defeat to Portugal meant Eriksson had never led England past a quarter-final, a record he acknowledged was worse than hoped for given the talent at his disposal in 2006.

And there was a nagging feeling for many that a golden opportunity had passed, that there may be a long wait until England were again in serious contention for World Cup glory.

Until now that is. Come on England…

englandmemories View All

Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.

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