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England Spices Up a Victory

World Cup: Beckham redeems himself for '98 red card with penalty kick for only goal in 1-0 victory over Argentina.


SAPPORO, Japan — This time, only the jersey was red.

This time, David Beckham played a full 90 minutes, and when he and Argentina's Diego Simeone converged at midfield, it was merely to shake hands.

This time, it was England over Argentina in the World Cup ... on a penalty kick, of all things ... by Beckham, of all people ... certifying that the only thing getting sent off Friday at the Sapporo Dome was Argentina's sense of invincibility every time it steps onto a soccer field against England.

So much about England's 1-0 victory over its longtime nemesis dabbled in the surreal.

The match was played on a natural grass field inside a climate-controlled dome, its air conditioning enhanced by the bellowing lungs of an England booster section the size of a small town.

The match was held in Japan, yet there was so much red and white strewn throughout the stands, it looked, felt, and most certainly sounded like an England home game.

The match was won by Beckham, who was infamously red-carded the last time England played Argentina in a World Cup, in 1998, removed in the 47th minute of a 2-2 thriller that eventually saw his teammates play short-handed for 73 minutes before being eliminated on penalty kicks.

Beckham returned from France four years ago a national villain, hung in effigy in London and heckled mercilessly at stadiums throughout the land. Beckham knows that the sins of St. Etienne will never be forgotten, but his 44th-minute penalty kick in Sapporo figures to go a very long way toward forgiveness.

Contrast the angry mob scenes and the bitter headlines of '98 with Friday's image of Beckham racing to the corner flag after converting his kick, grabbing his red shirt with both hands, kissing the England emblem and then deliriously tugging on the shirt some more--making sure that all 35,927 in the building, as well as the millions watching at home, knew precisely what this moment was all about.

That kick, Beckham said, finally "puts the ghosts of France '98 to rest once and for all."

Almost as significant, it puts England in an unexpected share of first place in Group F with Sweden, a 2-1 winner over Nigeria, and drops Argentina, one of the pre-tournament favorites, into third place--in danger of failing to qualify for the second round.

England and Sweden have four points each at 1-0-1, Argentina has three at 1-1-0. If England ties or wins its final group game against Nigeria, it will advance to the next round. If Sweden ties or beats Argentina, it will do the same.

Several of the main characters from the original French drama figured prominently again.

Michael Owen, who scored a classic goal in St. Etienne, hit the post in this one and ran Argentine defenders ragged again before Mauricio Pochettino took him down in the box for the game-deciding penalty.

Simeone, whose constant harassing and hard foul on Beckham four years ago prompted the fit that led to Beckham's ejection, tried messing with the English midfielder's mind again--offering a friendly handshake moments before Beckham stepped to the penalty spot.

This time, Beckham didn't bite. "Antics," Beckham said, taking the gesture for what it was--an attempt to rattle his concentration.

David Seaman, the losing goalkeeper in the '98 shootout, made two crucial second-half saves, stopping Javier Zanetti's close-range effort in the 70th minute and blocking Pochettino's point-blank blast eight minutes later.

Seaman had to do a lot of late scrambling because England, for the second time in as many games, hit the wall in the second half.

"It was a very hard last 15 minutes," England Coach Sven Goran Eriksson said. "We were tired, but we took our chances.... We played with a big, big heart."

Argentina Coach Marcelo Bielsa, visibly frustrated on the sideline, used all three of his substitutions by the 64th minute--including forward Pablo Aimar for Juan Veron, Argentina's captain, at halftime.

The move had nothing "to do with an injury," Bielsa said. "The inclusion of Aimar was due to footballing demands."

Bielsa and Argentina found themselves in an unfamiliar state: trailing England in a World Cup match and having to resort to pushing panic buttons.

"It doesn't get any sweeter than that," Beckham said. "As a footballing nation, we have waited a long time for this."

Going back to 1986 and Diego Maradona's infamous "Hand of God" goal for Argentina, the wait had reached 16 years, to be exact.

When asked how it felt to finally be done with it, Beckham's reply was entirely reasonable, all things considered.

"It feels better," he said, "than four years ago."

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