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Bitter Endings

England has painful memories from playing Argentina

June 07, 2002|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FUKUI, Japan — Once again, it is England against Argentina in the World Cup, four years removed from the nervous breakdown at St. Etienne, where one English icon was born, where another was nearly ruined, where two controversial referee decisions threatened to undermine 120 minutes of contents-under-pressure soccer, where one of the greatest World Cup games played ended in limp predictability--England going out on penalties.

Has it already been four years? The English, who still haven't fully recovered from their first World Cup loss to Argentina in 1986, will argue that they need more time, because David Beckham's broken foot might have healed, but what about those millions of broken hearts?

Once again, England appears to be up against it. Argentina looked fast and formidable in its World Cup-opening victory over Nigeria last weekend while England unraveled against Sweden just as quickly as Beckham, making his first appearance since breaking his foot in mid-April, ran out of gas somewhere around the 40-minute mark.

England held on for a 1-1 tie, barely, saved twice in the second half by its aging goalkeeper, David Seaman. Now, a point in the World Cup is a point in the World Cup, unless you're England and your next game is against Argentina and your best player might not have the lungs to last much more than a half and your once-reliable defense is now faced with questions it might not be able to answer.

On the bright side, England has dealt with worse. Amid caldron conditions on the night of June 30, 1998 in St. Etienne, France, England and Argentina had their tense second-round struggle--tied at 2-2--interrupted in the 47th minute when the Argentines' cagey captain, Diego Simeone, goaded Beckham into a retaliatory red card.

After the teams had exchanged first-half penalty kicks, after England's Michael Owen had scored the goal that changed his life, after Argentina equalized just before the break on a slick bit of free-kick trickery, after fans of both countries had settled in to see if the second half could somehow maintain the pace of the first, there came the halting thud.

Simeone, sensing that World Cup rookie Beckham could be had, hounded the young midfielder throughout the first half and opened the second by fouling him from behind, knocking him to the ground and appearing to step on Beckham as he walked away from the collision.

Just as Simeone wanted, Beckham lost it. Sort of. Still on the ground, Beckham flicked his foot at Simeone, knocking the back of Simeone's leg. Not a smart maneuver, but not the kind of thing that gets a key midfielder ejected from a round-of-16 game in the World Cup.

Danish referee Kim Milton Nielsen, hovering over Beckham, disagreed. Out came the red card, out went Beckham.

Down to 10 men against Gabriel Batistuta, Claudio Lopez and Co., England seemed destined to quickly follow suit.

Suddenly, it was 1986 all over again. The England-Argentina soccer rivalry, emerging from the emotional fallout of the Falklands War, is really only a two-part drama--a World Cup quarterfinal in Mexico in 1986, followed by the rematch in France 12 years later. But about that first act: It featured both the most famous goal in the history of the World Cup--FIFA recently named it the tournament's greatest goal--and the most infamous, both engineered by Argentina's Machiavellian midfielder, Maradona.

The match was scoreless in the 55th minute when Maradona and English goalkeeper Peter Shilton went up for an aerial ball. Shilton was taller and appeared to have a bead on the ball, but Maradona succeeded in revolutionizing the sport, if only for a fleeting moment: He punched the ball, spiking it like a volleyball, away from Shilton and into the net.

This is a violation of the soccer rule book, traditionally speaking. Except Ali Ben Nasser, the Tunisian referee, did not have a clear view of the play and did nothing to disallow it.

The goal stood, despite England's vehement protestations. Replays--and English fans have seen thousands of them since, mostly in their nightmares--show Maradona indeed cheated to score. But after the match, when asked about the goal, Maradona smirked and cheekily attributed it to "the hand of God."

There was nothing illegal about Maradona's second goal four minutes later, a half-field dance-and-shimmy through four English defenders and past Shilton for what proved to be the game-winner.

In four minutes, 114,580 fans inside Azteca Stadium had seen Maradona at his absolute worst and his absolute best.

In four minutes, England was headed out the tournament, bound for a galling 2-1 defeat.

Twelve years later, the English had come to St. Etienne intent on revenge--and were angling in the right direction, following the 18-year-old Owen's dazzling burst through the Argentine defense and full-sprint strike. Halftime accounting showed some kind of haul: three halves of Argentina-England World Cup soccer, three of the most memorable World Cup goals ever scored.

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