Argentina

England’s 2002 World Cup – 15 years on

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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.

England’s road to the 1966 World Cup final

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Fifty years ago England were playing in the World Cup group stage, beginning their run towards glory. Everyone knows what happened in the World Cup final against West Germany, but – bar the odd moment – far less attention is given to their five matches en route to it. We look back at them today…

“We will win the World Cup in 1966,” famously declared England manager Alf Ramsey. Not everyone believed him, despite England seldom losing after he took over in 1963. But a good run of friendly results prior to the finals and rigorous training meant England were arguably better prepared than ever for a major tournament, while also having the advantage of being hosts. After a long wait, England could now look forward to group stage matches at Wembley against Uruguay, Mexico and France.

Alf Ramsey was adamant England could win the World Cup in 1966.

Uruguay were the first opponents England would face and they were the side in the group with the strongest pedigree, having won the World Cup in 1930 and 1950 and knocked England out in 1954. But they were not seen as a potential tournament winner now, with it looking like they would compete with France for a place in the quarter-finals. Assuming England did their job properly and won the group that is…

By today’s standards, newspaper coverage on the morning of the game seems low-key for the start of the World Cup. The Daily Mirror did though include a four-page supplement, with sports writer Frank McGhee echoing Ramsey as he declared England would win the World Cup in 1966 – interestingly predicting they would beat West Germany in the final. But not all the experts were so confident Ramsey’s men would emerge triumphant. In The Times, ‘Football Association Correspondent’ (Geoffrey Green) wrote: “England will never hold a better chance. Yet England, I suspect, will go no farther than the semi-finals. If achieved, that at least would be their best performance ever in the cup.” Green fancied Italy to win the tournament.

A frustrating start

England’s line-up against Uruguay on July 11 has a familiar look, but a couple of significant absentees from the side that would win the World Cup 19 days later. It read: Gordon Banks, George Cohen, Ray Wilson, Nobby Stiles, Jack Charlton, Bobby Moore, Alan Ball, Bobby Charlton, Jimmy Greaves, Roger Hunt and John Connelly. The presence of Connelly meant England had a natural winger in the side – the ‘Wingless Wonders’ reputation was still to come. It’s perhaps interesting to note the two players who would go on to score for England in the final were watching on – Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters, both having only won their first cap in recent months. Prior to the match, The Queen declared the tournament open during an opening ceremony that would be deemed basic today. The stadium was not full, with the stayaways hardly left regretting their decision given the dull spectacle the sides served up.

England began the World Cup with a frustrating 0-0 draw with Uruguay.

It proved a frustrating night, England failing to make the breakthrough as Uruguay defended deeply but effectively to draw 0-0. ‘Parked the bus’ would probably be the modern-day description. It was the first time for more than 20 years that England had failed to score at Wembley, meaning it was job done for the Uruguayans who celebrated at the end. In The Daily Telegraph Donald Saunders wrote: “No doubt if I had to watch Uruguay in action every week I should soon be looking for a more interesting job. That does not alter my view that they adopted the correct policy last night and employed it with admirable efficiency.”

Greaves, whose scoreless evening summed up a tournament that would prove personally disappointing, wrote in his autobiography: “England began well but Uruguay’s negative tactics soon choked the life out of the game. Uruguay became a clinging cobweb of shifting pale blue shirts, hell bent on suffocation rather than inspiration. For the supporters it was not riveting stuff. It was more like watching riveting.”

Beating the Mexicans

There was frustration at England failing to win or score in their opening game at the time, so one can imagine the over the top reaction we’d get in the modern world with #RamseyOut trending on Twitter and hours of inquests conducted in the media. A visit for the squad to Pinewood Studios would provide a welcome diversion as attention now turned to England’s second match against Mexico five days later. The Mexicans were considered the weakest side in the group and five years earlier had been thrashed 8-0 by England. But in their opening match they had drawn with France and there was a danger England would again struggle to break their opponents down in this Saturday night Wembley clash. 

Ramsey selected Terry Paine in place of Connelly as the side again operated with a winger, while Peters came in for Ball. Bobby Charlton scored a stunning goal to break the deadlock, with Hunt wrapping up a 2-0 victory. Charlton’s goal had kickstarted England’s campaign. They hadn’t excelled, but they had achieved the win they needed.

Bobby Charlton sets England on their way with his long-range goal against Mexico.

It was only the fourth time England had won a World Cup finals match, despite having played at each tournament since 1950. In The Times Green wrote about England: “If their technique and imagination is limited, their morale and fitness are certainly at a peak.” Green would state that after one week “no one team towers head and shoulders above the field” in the competition, a situation perhaps similar to what we saw 50 years later at Euro 2016. If ever England were to go on and win a major tournament, then the 1966 World Cup on home soil appeared the ideal chance. 

The result left England on course to qualify for the next round, although they could still be eliminated if beaten by France. Uruguay had beaten France 2-1 at White City and then drew with Mexico, meaning a draw or win against the French would see England top the group and stay at Wembley.

Hunt’s birthday treat

With Paine having sustained concussion against Mexico, Ian Callaghan came into the side against France as yet another change was made on the wing. Hunt celebrated his birthday by scoring from close range after Jack Charlton hit the woodwork shortly before half-time, wrapping it up 14 minutes from the end following an assist by Liverpool team-mate Callaghan (who was rewarded by not being capped again until 1977). Ramsey’s first match as England manager in 1963 had ended in a 5-2 defeat by France, so this was welcome revenge and a sign of the progress made in the past three years. The French were departing as the bottom side in the group.

Roger Hunt opens the scoring for England against France.

But England’s 2-0 win was overshadowed by an incident in the build-up to the second goaL Jacques Simon was on the receiving end of a harsh tackle from Stiles, which led to the Frenchman having to leave the field. The foul went unpunished at the time, but Stiles would be cautioned retrospectively and warned about his future conduct. Despite pressure from sections of the Football Association, Ramsey stood by Stiles. “Alf told them he’d resign if he couldn’t pick who he wanted,” Stiles said in 2002. “He was prepared to resign in the middle of a World Cup over me. I’d never found out that ’til he’d died, Alf. What a man.” Simon was not the only player to sustain an injury during the match, as Greaves found blood pouring from his sock and he would need stitches on his shin. He would miss the next match and, as it turned out, the rest of the tournament.

Hurst’s instant impact

England were into the last eight and two of the pre-tournament favourites were not, with Italy and holders Brazil on their way home. England’s quarter-final would be against Argentina at Wembley, with the South Americans having finished behind West Germany in Group Two. Hurst came in for Greaves, while Ball – who had feared he would play no further part in the tournament – returned in place of Callaghan. England were without a recognised winger and they would not be using one again in the finals. Unlike their South American neighbours Brazil and Uruguay, Argentina had yet to lift the World Cup. They would believe they had a chance of finally winning it provided they could eliminate the hosts.

Chaos as Antonio Rattin is ordered off during England’s win over Argentina.

As with when the sides met in the knockout stages of the World Cup in 1986 and 1998, there would be plenty of controversy and lasting memories from a contest that really ignited a rivalry between England and Argentina. It was certainly not a contest for the faint-hearted. Speaking in 2006, Jimmy Armfield – who watched the match as a non-playing squad member, said: “They’re like the little boy in the story book, Argentina. When they’re good, they are very, very good. When they’re bad, they’re horrible.” Cohen would later admit: “If they hadn’t resorted to all the physical stuff they might well have beaten us.” There was a feeling Argentina took an unnecessary over-physical approach when they potentially had the ability to compete football-wise with the hosts.

Argentina’s hard tackling tactics won them few admirers in England, with the match forever remembered for the controversial sending off of their captain and key player Antonio Rattin during the first half – and his refusal to go as chaos ensued for a few minutes. The situation was not helped by language barriers between him and West German referee Rudolph Kreitlein – Rattin claiming he had been repeatedly requesting an interpreter. “The sending-off should never have happened and it wouldn’t have done if I could speak a word of German,” he said. “All I wanted to do was talk to the referee, but the next thing I knew he was pointing off the pitch.”

In the closing stages Hurst justified his selection with a deft header from an excellent Peters cross – straight from the West Ham United training ground – to give England victory, although Argentina would claim the goal was offside as they cursed decisions made by the officials. England had triumphed on a brutal afternoon in the Wembley sunshine – one in which they were not innocent in proceedings, committing more fouls than their much-criticised opponents. But Ramsey was clearly unhappy with the conduct of the South Americans, infamously preventing George Cohen from swapping shirts with an opponent while already midway through the act.

Alf Ramsey prevents shirts being swapped after England beat Argentina.

If that was controversial, then Ramsey’s next public act would produce outrage in Argentina. In a TV interview he said: “We have still to produce our best and this best is not possible until we meet the right type of opposition. That is a team that comes out to play football and not act as animals.” Ramsey had not directly referred to Argentina as “animals” but he may as well have done for the angry response he got in South America and how the quote is remembered half a century later. There would be unsavoury incidents behind the scenes too; the England players reporting years later that a chair was thrown into their dressing room, smashing a glass door as tempers boiled over afterwards.

The match was making global headlines. Two days later The Daily Mirror‘s front page headline was ‘Too-tough Argentina facing World Cup ban’, having been fined 1,000 Swiss francs and warned they could face suspension from the 1970 World Cup after the ‘Battle of Wembley’ (a tag that has not stuck). Argentina were now left with three players hit with suspensions following events at Wembley, including Rattin for four matches. On the sports pages Peter Wilson laid into the Argentine approach. “It was not as though the Battle of Wembley was an isolated incident,” he wrote. “Argentina had been the only country before Saturday to have a player – Albrecht – sent off. They were warned then to watch their play in the World Cup – and their officials declined to pass on the warning. This is sporting anarchy, soccer in chaos, welfare for nationalistic aggrandisement run riot. This is shameful.”

At the same time as England beat Argentina, the other three quarter-finals were taking place. The Soviet Union and West Germany both won through, but of direct concern to England was the match at Goodison Park. North Korea sensationally led Portugal 3-0, before Eusebio inspired the Portuguese to a 5-3 victory. For the first time since 1954 a European side would win the competition.

Charlton’s double

According to the fixtures issued before the tournament, England’s semi-final originally should have been played at Goodison Park but it would now be held at Wembley instead (a move some critics feel gave them an unfair advantage). English football prepared for a major night. “The feeling was that if we could stop Eusebio then England would win,” said broadcaster Barry Davies in 2006. The Mozambique-born forward had been a major star at the finals, having scored seven times in four games. It was the first time Portugal had qualified for the World Cup and they were making up for lost time by reaching the last four and looking to win the competition. 

England kept the line-up that beat Argentina and a much friendlier contest took place. Bobby Charlton – who along with brother Jack had been cautioned against Argentina – gave the hosts a half-time lead, before excellent work by Hurst allowed the Manchester United star to score his second on 80 minutes. But two minutes later the England defence was breached for the first time in the competition, Jack Charlton handling in the box in a bid to stop the Portuguese scoring. It proved a futile gesture, Eusebio stepping up to beat Banks from the spot. The English nation endured a nervous closing few minutes, before the final whistle sounded. England were in the World Cup final.

England and Portugal prepare to meet in the semi-final.

Eusebio left the pitch in tears, Portugal enduring the first of several near-misses before finally ending their 50 years of hut at Euro 2016. The Portuguese could take some consolation in the praise coming their way from the English press. Albert Barham wrote in The Guardian: “No finer semi-final match than that in which Portugal were defeated 2-1 could have been anticipated. No finer sporting team have had to bow out to England, at their best, in this competition. How the audience of 90,000 were held in the spell of this fine Portuguese attacking side, and of the great performance England put up against them to win. This was attacking football at its best, magnificent in every department; a triumph too, in these troublesome times, for true sportsmanship.” Two nights later Portugal beat the USSR 2-1 at Wembley in the third-place match, Eusebio scoring a penalty to take his tournament tally to nine goals.

Now all that stood in England’s way were West Germany at Wembley…

Six of the Best – England under Ron Greenwood

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This week sadly marks the 10th anniversary of the death of former England manager Ron Greenwood. Today we recall six of the best games of his reign, choosing one match per year from 1977 to 1982.

November 16, 1977 Italy (h) 2-0, World Cup qualifier

  

Trevor Brooking in action for England against Italy in 1977.

Ron Greenwood was still in caretaker charge of England when they faced Italy in their last World Cup qualifying match in November 1977. Whatever England did, the night was always likely to be tinged with disappointment as Italy still had the luxury of a home game against whipping boys Luxembourg to come to claim the qualification spot. To make things genuinely tough for the Italians, England would need to beat them by several goals to potentially go through on goal difference. 

Most had accepted it wouldn’t happen and simply wanted to see the team restore pride with a good performance and win. They duly did so, Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking scoring as England triumphed 2-0 and the crowd went home satisfied with what they had seen. The FA evidently felt the same way as Greenwood was handed the job on a permanent basis the following month ahead of Brian Clough.

May 24, 1978 Hungary (h) 4-1, Friendly

Greenwood made a positive start in the England job and the Home International Championship was won before they concluded the 1977-78 season with a friendly against Hungary, who had qualified for the World Cup. England’s display gave cause for optimism as they beat the Hungarians 4-1 with Peter Barnes, Phil Neal (penalty), Trevor Francis and Tony Currie all finding the net. “England are back” chanted the buoyant Wembley crowd. It may only have been a friendly but there was a new-found belief about England and it boded well for the qualifying programme for the 1980 European Championship.

In The Times, Norman Fox wrote: “England offered their apologies for not qualifying for the World Cup when, at Wembley last night, they gave their best display since being taken over by Ron Greenwood. Against the Hungarians, who 25 years before had been the first foreign team to beat them at this stadium, they showed that in a few months they had learned a lot.”

June 6, 1979 Bulgaria (a) 3-0, European Championship qualifier

In a grim 1970s England had paid for away defeats to Poland, Czechoslovakia and Italy as they crashed out in three successive qualifying groups. Now they headed to Sofia standing every chance of making the 1980 European Championship, knowing that getting a good result in a potentially tough away match against Bulgaria would boost their prospects. They duly did that, winning 3-0 in energy-sapping heat to get the nation believing they were at last going to see England in a major tournament again. Kevin Keegan put England in front, before two goals in a minute from Dave Watson and Peter Barnes sealed the win. 

Greenwood purred: “We are trying to produce what I think is essential in world football – complete technique in every department with the physical effort to go with it.” There was no looking back and qualification was all but wrapped up in October with a 5-1 away win against Northern Ireland. With a qualifying record of seven wins and a draw from eight matches, it proved to be a very successful campaign for England and Greenwood.

May 13, 1980 Argentina (h) 3-1, Friendly

  

Diego Maradona was on the losing side against England in 1980.

In May 1980 England were preparing for the European Championship finals and they welcomed world champions Argentina to Wembley, which was full to its 92,000 night-time capacity. The match afforded the English public a first chance to see 19-year-old Diego Maradona in action and, although only a friendly, it would also act as a useful yardstick as to how good England now actually were. Sporting a new-look kit, England delivered and went 2-0 up thanks to goals from the impressive David Johnson either side of half-time. Daniel Passarella pulled a goal back from the penalty spot before Kevin Keegan sealed a 3-1 win for England, leaving fans genuinely optimistic for the summer in Italy. Hailing Johnson, Daily Express reporter Peter Edwards wrote: “A 92,000 crowd that had come to pay homage to £3m-rated Diego Maradona left saluting the exuberant Liverpool striker.”

Typically the euphoria proved short-lived, England being beaten 4-1 by Wales just four days later and then failing to progress beyond the group stage at the Euros. Now their attention turned to trying to qualify for the 1982 World Cup.

June 6, 1981 Hungary (a) 3-1, World Cup qualifier

England’s qualifying campaign for the 1982 World Cup was fraught and a poor 2-1 defeat in Switzerland in May saw Greenwood, 59, make up his mind to retire. He would delay his announcement until after the following weekend’s tough-looking trip to Hungary, where few were expecting an England win after a dreadful run of form. The recalled Trevor Brooking gave them the lead in Budapest, only for Hungary to level before the break through Imre Garaba after a mistake by Ray Clemence. But in the second half Brooking restored England’s advantage with a beautiful shot that saw the ball memorably became lodged in the stanchion of the goal, describing it as the “finest goal I scored in my entire career” in his autobiography. Kevin Keegan wrapped up a fine 3-1 win from the penalty spot and qualifying for Spain was now a realistic possibility again.

  

Trevor Brooking scores for England against Hungary.

On the flight home, Greenwood informed the players he was quitting but they talked him out of it and he focused again on leading England to the World Cup. Another bad defeat in Norway left alarm bells ringing, but other results went in their favour and a joyful 1-0 win over Hungary in the return game at Wembley saw them through to their first World Cup finals since 1970.

June 16, 1982 France (n) 3-1, World Cup qualifier

Greenwood was to leave the England job after the 1982 World Cup – this time not being persuaded to continue – and he looked to go out with the nation basking in success. England’s first match of the tournament brought them up against a decent France side featuring Michel Platini in Bilbao. Those English fans in the stadium or who had rushed home from work or school to watch it on TV were rewarded as Bryan Robson famously opened the scoring after just 27 seconds. Gerard Soler pulled France level but Robson headed England back into the lead during the second half. Paul Mariner wrapped up the 3-1 victory and England could savour beating their main threat in the group. 

It had been a long wait to see England play at a World Cup and the team had responded with a performance that they would struggle to match in the remainder of the tournament. Greenwood, who gave credit to assistant Don Howe for the set-piece which they scored their opener from, said: “Everyone in the England camp is delighted with the result and I think everyone agrees that we deserved it.”

  

Bryan Robson opens the scoring after 27 seconds against France.

Although England did not concede in any of their other four games at the tournament, their goals dried up and successive 0-0 draws against West Germany and Spain in the second group phase saw them make a rather low-key exit. They came in for criticism for their negative approach in the second phase and it marked a slightly anti-climatic ending to the manager’s reign. Greenwood’s England had been beaten just once across eight matches at two major tournaments, but at neither did they make the final four. 

Greenwood called time on his football career, other than offering his opinions as a radio summariser. He died on February 9, 2006, aged 84. Although he may not have received the widespread tributes when he died that were afforded to his successor, Sir Bobby Robson, there were plenty who spoke affectionately of Greenwood and his footballing contributions. As we have seen, his England reign included some memorable victories and he returned the nation to major tournaments after a dreadful era under his predecessors.
 

 

 

 

Six of the Best – England under Sven-Göran Eriksson

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This month marks 15 years since Sven-Göran Eriksson arrived in England to begin his reign as national team manager and a decade since it was announced he would leave after the 2006 World Cup. With that in mind we cast our minds back to six games when all went well for England under Eriksson.

 

Germany (a), September 1, 2001, World Cup qualifier, 5-1

Following Sven-Göran Eriksson’s arrival at the start of 2001 – after leaving Lazio earlier than anticipated – England had made a blistering start. Initial misgivings by many over England appointing their first foreign manager had largely eased as they pulled themselves back into contention to qualify for the World Cup. But the real test would be how England fared in their World Cup qualifier against Germany in Munich in September. England had every chance of beating their old nemesis, given the Germans had one of their poorest sides in years. However, Germany had triumphed 1-0 the previous October in the final match at the old Wembley and were in the driving seat in the group. They also boasted a formidable qualifying record, particularly on home soil.

  

Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard celebrate one of England’s five goals.

When Carsten Jancker put Germany ahead after just six minutes nobody could have envisaged just what was to follow. Michael Owen drew England level, before Steven Gerrard’s excellent drive put them in front just before the break. Owen scored twice more and Emile Heskey put the seal on the night by making it 5-1 to England. “This is getting better and better and better,” exclaimed BBC commentator John Motson. 

It would forever be remembered as an incredible night for English football and elevated Eriksson to hero-like status at the time. In his autobiography, he recalled: “I turned to the huge scoreboard. It read: Deutschland-England 1-5. Even I had a hard time believing that.” The following month David Beckham’s free-kick equaliser against Greece took England through to the finals as group winners.

Argentina (n), June 7, 2002, World Cup group stage, 1-0

Having beaten one old rival in Germany, Eriksson now had the chance to lead England to victory over another when they met Argentina in the group stage of the 2002 World Cup. An uninspiring 1-1 draw with Eriksson’s native Sweden in England’s opening game did not give much cause for optimism, as they now went into a match in Sapporo that they could not afford to lose. Argentina were considered one of the favourites to win the competition, but England hoped to exact revenge for their controversial defeats in 1986 and 1998.

  

David Beckham gives England the lead against Argentina.

The decisive moment came shortly before the break, Michael Owen being fouled in the area. Four years after being sent-off against the same opponents, David Beckham stepped up to put England ahead from the spot. “I have rarely heard a noise louder than the cheer after Beckham scored the penalty,” Eriksson would later recall. England nearly doubled their advantage after the break, an excellent team move ending with Teddy Sheringham’s volley being kept out. England duly held firm to achieve a momentous victory that was wildly celebrated by fans in the stadium and back home.

Denmark (n), June 15, 2002, World Cup second round, 3-0

A forgettable 0-0 draw with Nigeria was enough to see England through to the last 16, where Denmark stood in their way. The Danes had won their group after defeating World Cup holders France and it appeared a close encounter was in store in Niigata. England would certainly have to play better against the Danes than they had against fellow Scandinavians Sweden in the group stage.

 

Rio Ferdinand celebrates as England take the lead against Denmark.

But by half-time it was realistically all over as England led 3-0. Danish goalkeeper Thomas Sørensen fumbled Rio Ferdinand’s effort into his own net in the opening minutes before Michael Owen and Emile Heskey left England well in command. They comfortably saw the game out, England fans for once spared the usual finger-biting tension when watching them in major tournaments. Although England’s performance was not without its faults, a 3-0 win against a fellow European side in the last 16 of the World Cup was no mean feat.

With favourites including Argentina and France having already departed, it suddenly appeared a genuine possibility that Eriksson’s side could go all the way – provided they overcame the sizeable obstacle of Brazil in the quarter-finals. The Guardian reporter David Lacey observed that the prospect of England winning the competition “no longer seems as fantastic as Danny Mills beating Harry Potter at quidditch”. Alas they would exit the tournament with a 2-1 defeat, failing to threaten Brazil’s 10 men in the closing stages as the first noticeable doubts were cast by some about Eriksson.

Turkey (h), April 2, 2003, European Championship qualifier, 2-0

England faced a battle with World Cup semi-finalists Turkey to qualify for Euro 2004. Realistically one would win their qualifying group, the other would have to settle for the play-offs. Their head-to-head record was likely to be decisive. England had already been held to a disappointing home draw by Macedonia when they welcomed the Turks to Sunderland’s Stadium of Light. 

 

David Beckham celebrates clinching England’s victory over Turkey.

Wayne Rooney, 17, started an England match for the first time and he showed he was not overawed by the occasion as he produced a confident display that gave hope to the nation. England had to wait until 15 minutes from time to forge ahead through Darius Vassell, with David Beckham wrapping up the 2-0 win with a penalty shortly before the final whistle.

The one disappointment was the conduct of some England followers, which led to negative headlines and the FA turning down tickets for the return game the following October in a bid to avoid further trouble. That night saw England produce a disciplined display in a hostile atmosphere to claim the 0-0 draw they needed to qualify as group winners. It was another high point of the Eriksson years.

Croatia (n), June 21, 2004, European Championship group stage, 4-2

As we recently recalled, England went into Euro 2004 with a good chance of finally achieving success. They had a good crop of players establishing themselves and no side at the finals looked unbeatable. Although they had lost in the dying seconds to France in their opening game, a 3-0 win over Switzerland left them needing just a draw against Croatia to reach the quarter-finals.

 

Wayne Rooney scored twice for England against Croatia.

Backed by a tremendous support in Lisbon, England enjoyed a high-scoring win to leave the nation believing the long wait for glory could finally be about to end. Four years earlier England had gone out in similar circumstances against Romania when only needing a draw but this time around they would advance with a victory. Despite falling behind to an early goal by Niko Kovač, England led by half-time as Paul Scholes and Wayne Rooney found the net. The teenage star was now coming to international prominence and another well-taken goal after the break effectively sealed England’s progress. Although Igor Tudor reduced the deficit to 3-2, Frank Lampard wrapped up an entertaining 4-2 win for Sven’s men.

The quarter-finals saw England lose on penalties to hosts Portugal, as serious question marks began to be raised against Eriksson and his tactics. A few weeks later the ‘Fariagate’ scandal threatened to cost Eriksson his job, but he remained in the role for qualifying for the 2006 World Cup.

Argentina (n), November 12, 2005, Friendly, 3-2

England friendlies under Eriksson could often be a frustrating experience, multiple substitutions making it hard to read much into the results. But this match against Argentina in neutral Geneva was a notable exception, a rare instance where a friendly was genuinely compelling and fiercely contested. England had qualified with a game to spare for the World Cup but recent results included a 4-1 friendly loss to Denmark and a shock 1-0 defeat against Northern Ireland during World Cup qualifying – the first time England had lost a qualifier under Eriksson. A good result was needed against Argentina to boost morale. 

  
Michael Owen scored twice in a dramatic climax against Argentina.

Hernan Crespo gave Argentina the lead before Wayne Rooney pulled England level. Walter Samuel restored Argentina’s lead and that looked set to be the winner. But for once in an England friendly Eriksson kept his substitutions to a minimum, while Argentina replaced four key players in the closing stages. One of the few changes Eriksson made was to bring on Peter Crouch with 10 minutes to go and his introduction seemed to galvanise England. With three minutes left Michael Owen headed England level and in the dying moments he repeated the trick to give England a much-celebrated 3-2 victory.

Suddenly there was widespread optimism again and Eriksson would lead England into the 2006 World Cup with the nation believing their 40 years of hurt could be about to end. By the time they came along it was long known that Eriksson was on his way after they finished, the final straw coming when he was caught out by the ‘Fake Sheikh’. There was much hype surrounding England going into the competition but they seldom rose above the ordinary en route to the quarter-finals. Once there, Luiz Felipe Scolari got the better of Eriksson for a third successive major tournament as England lost to Portugal on penalties.

Erikssons’s England reign tends to divide opinion. There are some who believe his record of steering England to three successive quarter-finals was impressive, particularly given their subsequent failings. However, there are others who feel he squandered a glorious opportunity to achieve success with the Golden Generation at his disposal and that he did not merit his reportedly very high wages – as he failed to even lead the side into a semi-final. Whatever one’s view, it was certainly a memorable era and as we have seen there were some captivating wins to enjoy.

Six of the Best – England in November

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November has long been a busy month for England and one that they have traditionally done well in. We recall six of the best matches from an English perspective from the month during the past 50 years…

November 16, 1966 Wales (h) 5-1 European Championship qualifier

 

England’s first home match after the 1966 World Cup glory was an anti-climatic 0-0 friendly draw with Czechoslovakia, but two weeks later they regained their goalscoring form when it mattered more. Their new aim was to become 1968 European Championship winners, with successive Home International series doubling up as the qualifying group. Against Wales, England fielded their revered World Cup winning XI for the sixth successive – and final – time. Geoff Hurst rounded off his most memorable year by scoring twice, with the Charlton brothers each on the scoresheet along with an own goal by Terry Hennessey as England won 5-1. 

It wasn’t a bad way to end England’s most glorious year, in which they had remained unbeaten. In the Daily Mirror, Tom Lyons wrote: “The World Cup poise and brilliance wasn’t quite there, but England are still a very fine side. They were in command for practically the whole game and probably would have won by an even bigger margin but for some wild finishing, especially in the first half.”

November 18, 1981 Hungary (h) 1-0 World Cup qualifier

  

Paul Mariner puts England ahead against Hungary and the nation breathes a huge sigh of relief.

England’s qualifying campaign for the 1982 World Cup had been turbulent and they had looked all but out after losing to Norway two months earlier. But then came the stroke of good fortune they had been praying for, as Romania twice slipped up against Switzerland – who in turn lost to Hungary to end their own qualification hopes. Suddenly, England now only needed a draw at home to Hungary to make it – a situation identical to against Croatia almost exactly 26 years later in Euro 2008 qualifying, both matches against teams who were already through. 

But where Croatia played with tenacity and broke English hearts, the Hungarians gave a leisurely performance that helped ease any anxiety at Wembley. In front of a capacity night-time crowd of 92,000 and with millions more watching the BBC’s live coverage, Paul Mariner’s early goal put England on their way. They were rarely threatened and should have increased their 1-0 lead but that mattered little. England were through to the World Cup finals for the first time since 1970 and the feeling of relief around Wembley was tangible. Rarely has an England home win in a qualifier been so widely celebrated. In the Daily Express, Alan Thompson wrote: “Wembley was last night an amphitheatre of happiness, a packed arena waving flags and sore hoarse throats. And that was half-an-hour after the players had disappeared to the dressing room.”

November 14, 1984 Turkey (a) 8-0 World Cup qualifier

   

Bryan Robson bags a hat-trick as England beat Turkey 8-0 in 1984.

Three years on from the Hungary game, England were back on the World Cup qualifying trail as they met Turkey for the first time. Although the Turks were not regarded as a good side at the time, a potentially tough fixture seemed in store in front of a partisan home crowd in Istanbul. But England had renewed confidence after winning away to Brazil in a friendly in the summer and a 5-0 victory over Finland in their opening qualifier the previous month. That buoyancy was in evidence as they won 8-0, looking capable of scoring with each attack. Captain Bryan Robson netted a hat-trick, with Tony Woodcock and John Barnes each bagging a brace and Viv Anderson rounding off the scoring.

It could have been more, leading to manager Bobby Robson saying afterwards he felt England had “let them off the hook” by ‘only’ winning 8-0. But that was just nit-picking, for it had been an excellent afternoon’s work for England. 

November 11, 1987 Yugoslavia (a) 4-1 European Championship qualifier 

  

John Barnes in action for England against Yugoslavia in 1987.

A crunch qualifier for England, as they looked to seal their place at Euro ’88. A draw away to Yugoslavia would be enough, but if they lost to a decent-looking side then in all probability they wouldn’t make it. A tight contest was forecast, with England expected to keep things tight on a filthy afternoon in Belgrade. To everyone’s amazement England led 4-0 within half an hour, as they looked extremely potent in front of goal. “I had to pinch myself when the third and fourth goals went in,” said a delighted Bobby Robson afterwards.

Peter Beardsley, John Barnes, Bryan Robson and Tony Adams all found the net as even the most pessimistic of England fans began celebrating early. Although a late consolation goal would deny England from qualifying without conceding a goal, this was a day to treasure and the 4-1 victory looked a very impressive result. England had scored 12 goals in their last two qualifiers and would seemingly go into Euro ’88 as a genuine contender. Alas, it was not to be.

November 13, 1999 Scotland (a) 2-0 European Championship play-off

 

England celebrate as Paul Scholes scores against Scotland in 1999.

There was excitement both north and south of the border in the autumn of 1999 as old rivals Scotland and England were paired together in the play-offs to decide who would qualify for Euro 2000. England had struggled in qualifying to even reach this stage and they knew they would be up against a determined Scottish side, backed by a fervent home crowd in the first-leg at Hampden Park – where England had not played for 10 years. Kevin Keegan’s side rode their luck a bit at times but enjoyed a memorable 2-0 win as Paul Scholes scored twice in the first half and left the Scots facing an uphill struggle to qualify. “We played fantastic today. I couldn’t have asked for more,” raved Keegan afterwards.

The result meant England were unbeaten in 23 consecutive November matches since losing to Italy in 1976, a record which helped back up former manager Bobby Robson’s belief that this was a time of year when the team was at its best. But sadly it would be the end of the run, as the second-leg was lost 1-0 and England scraped into the finals. However, that first-leg win had been decisive in taking them through.

November 12, 2005 Argentina (n) 3-2 Friendly

  

Michael Owen gives England a memorable win over Argentina in 2005.

So far this century friendlies have – with a couple of exceptions – monopolised England’s November schedule. Although they have enjoyed wins over Germany, Spain (World Cup and Euros holders at the time) and Scotland in such matches that could all have well have made our selected six, the friendly that stands out most took place in neutral Geneva against Argentina 10 years ago. 

“No such thing as a friendly when these two meet,” may be a bit of an overused cliché when England take on any of their main rivals, but in this instance it was true for positive reasons – as unlike many friendlies it felt like a genuine international contest where the result really meant something. Three momentous World Cup clashes between the sides in the previous 20 years added to the fixture’s intensity. Argentina were predicted to be a force in the following year’s World Cup so this fixture looked a good benchmark as to how good England were, coming after poor defeats in recent months to Denmark and Northern Ireland.

Despite a goal from Wayne Rooney, England trailed 2-1 with four minutes remaining before Michael Owen popped up twice to give them a dramatic 3-2 win. Although England’s cause had been helped by Argentine substitutions in the closing stages, this was still a widely heralded win that raised expectations to a particularly high level for the following summer. As England friendlies go, this was as enthralling as it gets. Owen reflected afterwards: “There was so much more to it than a friendly. Even when they scored their fans and players were going mad. It really could have gone either way – they had chances too – and it shows there is not much to choose between the top few teams in the world.”

As we’ve seen, November has often been a good month for England over the years – there were several other games that could have easily been included here. But there have been some exceptions and later this month we will reflect on six instances where things didn’t go quite so well…

Six of the Best – yet they didn’t even make the last four…

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As the excitement mounts ahead of the quarter-finals of the World Cup, it seems an appropriate time to look back at some of the sides who had the world talking – but then it would all end prematurely before the semi-final stage, with the teams returning home with just the happy memories of their early good form to treasure…

Brazil 1982
For anyone who fell in love with football shortly after the 1970 World Cup, they would have to wait until 1982 to see a genuinely captivating Brazil team on the global stage. The names of Zico, Socrates, Eder, Falcao and others are likely to have football fans of a certain age drooling at the memory. The goals flew in from all over the pitch as Brazil dominated their first round group and looked clear favourites to go all the way. But then they had the misfortune to be placed alongside Argentina and Italy in the second round group of three teams (probably the ultimate Group of Death at any World Cup, with only one side able to advance to the semi-finals).

Brazil beat their South American rivals, but then lost out in one of the greatest World Cup matches of all time against Italy. Italian forward Paolo Rossi suddenly rediscovered his goalscoring touch with a hat-trick to turn the competition on its head, as Italy won an epic encounter in which Brazil were exposed defensively. The Brazilians had scored 15 goals in just five matches, but they wouldn’t even be in the semi-finals – some would argue the magic of 1982 has never quite been matched by them since.

Denmark 1986
From nothing, Denmark emerged to be one of the most popular and stylish teams of the 1980s as they gained admirers well beyond Scandinavia. After reaching the semi-finals at Euro ’84 (qualifying at England’s expense), Denmark made their World Cup bow two years later. With players like Michael Laudrup and Preben Elkjaer weaving their magic, the Danes emerged with a 100% record from the Group of Death (yes another one) including Scotland, West Germany and Uruguay (who they thrashed 6-1).

The Danes were now being talked about as potential winners and it came as little surprise when they led Spain 1-0 in the second round. Suddenly, a misplaced backpass from Jesper Olsen allowed Spain back into the game and a second half collapse ended with the Danes thrashed 5-1 and crashing out in the last 16. They had promised and deserved much more. They wouldn’t even qualify for the next two World Cups, but for a couple of weeks in 1986 they had looked as good as any side in the world.

Argentina 2006
It seems much of Argentina’s luck was used up in struggling through to the final in 1990, as they haven’t been beyond the last eight since then despite having several highly-rated sides. The tournament that stands out is 2006. During the first round Argentina produced one of the great World Cup performances in modern times to thrash Serbia and Montenegro 6-0, scoring a truly outstanding team goal as they took possession football to new heights. “I think we’ve just seen the World Cup winners,” was the sort of comment I saw widely being posted on messageboards afterwards, but the tournament can be a cruel mistress. A stunning extra-time winner from Maxi Rodriguez was needed to dispose of Mexico in the second round, but then came the toughest test yet as hosts Germany lay in wait in the quarter-finals. The Germans equalised late in normal time and triumphed in a penalty shoot-out, also knocking Argentina out in the last eight in 2010.

Cameroon 1990
For many youngsters of the time like me watching the World Cup in 1990, Cameroon will always have a special place in our hearts. Widely dismissed as African outsiders before the start of the competition, their raw, cavalier approach won hearts as more established football nations struggled to deal with them. Their disciplinary record wasn’t the best and they had two men sent off in the tournament opener against holders Argentina, but they sensationally won 1-0. 38-year-old ‘supersub’ Roger Milla was the hero in wins against Romania and Colombia, leading to his corner flag ‘wiggle’ celebration being mimicked the world over.

In the quarter-finals they were paired with England (not ideal for those of us who loved both). It was a momentous night, the only game in the tournament in which both teams scored at least twice. The match was a see-saw contest which Cameroon probably should have won as they outplayed England for much of the second half to lead 2-1 late on. But their defensive weaknesses resurfaced and led to them conceding a late penalty for Lineker to equalise and save England, with history repeating itself in extra-time as he netted the winner from the spot and Bobby Robson’s side won 3-2. “We’ve all aged 10 years,” said presenter Bob Wilson as he signed off the BBC’s live coverage, correctly summing up the exhausting nature of the night. Four years later we watched the World Cup in USA hoping for more magic from Cameroon, but it never came and they have not gone beyond the group stages again – this year produced a particularly underwhelming effort that did them no credit at all.

North Korea 1966
It’s perhaps easy to forget North Korea’s World Cup adventure in 1966 lasted just four games, losing two and needing a late equaliser to avoid defeat in another. And yet the diminutive Asians wrote their name into World Cup folklore in the tournament. Their 1-0 group stage win over Italy is regarded as one of the greatest World Cup giantkillings and ensured Pak Doo-Ik’s name would forever be well-known. They were now just three matches away from being World Cup winners!

Interest now grew beyond Middlesbrough where they were based for the group stage and had been adopted as the team to cheer on. The North Koreans headed to face Portugal in the quarter-finals at Goodison Park (joined by about 3,000 newly-acquired fans travelling down from Middlesbrough, preferring to do that than watch England’s quarter-final at the same time). In a thrilling match, North Korea led 3-0 after 24 minutes, before falling victim to a one-man goalscoring exhibition. The brilliant Eusebio scored four times (including twice from the penalty spot as the North Koreans lost their defensive discipline) to turn the game around by the hour mark, with Portugal eventually running out 5-3 winners. The dream had died and North Korea would disappear back into communist secrecy until qualifying again in 2010 – but their exploits in 1966 will never be forgotten in England.

An excellent documentary about North Korea’s World Cup adventure in 1966.

Romania 1994
When they clicked, they were brilliant. When they didn’t, they got punished. Romania, boasting such talents as Gheorghe Hagi and Ille Dumitrescu, were technically impressive and laid down a marker in their opening match against highly-fancied Colombia. Hagi scored a speculative goal from out wide in a 3-1 win. There was a reality check in the next match against Roy Hodgson’s Switzerland, as Romania lost 4-1. But a win against hosts USA took Romania through as group winners to a last 16 tie with Argentina, who had been rocked by Diego Maradona’s positive drugs test a few days earlier. The sides served up a classic, Romania playing some excellent stuff and Hagi’s creativity helping them go 2-0 up early on through a Dumitrescu double. Hagi would find the net himself in the second half as Romania held out to win 3-2 and send the 1986 winners and 1990 runners-up home.

Romania were now fancied to beat Sweden in the quarter-finals but they would show some hint of inconsistency as went out on penalties after a 2-2 draw. To rub salt into the wounds, neighbours Bulgaria surprisingly went through to the semi-finals by beating Germany so Romania could not even lay claim to being the last Eastern European side left in. But it had been good while it lasted.

And as for England?
Considering England’s high amount of past quarter-final exits, it would seem amiss not to mention at least one of them here. While perhaps not having the world on the edge of their seats, the one that stands out most is 1970. Sir Alf Ramsey’s side boasted arguably a better team than the one that won on home soil four years earlier and have never been so well fancied on foreign soil, being considered as potentially the biggest threat to favourites Brazil. The sides played out an iconic group stage match in which England could lay claim to one of the best saves (Gordon Banks), best tackles (Bobby Moore) and worst misses (Jeff Astle) in World Cup history. England lost 1-0 but looked good enough to go all the way to the final for a re-match with Brazil. Certainly when they held a 2-0 lead in the quarter-final against West Germany that looked odds-on to get there. Inexplicably, England threw victory away to crash out of the tournament. It would be a long 12-year wait until they even qualified for another finals.