The first World Cup you remember will always occupy a special place in any football fan’s heart. The tournament itself may even be a bit of a let-down, whether from poor overall standard of football, no underdogs causing an upset, or just England disappointing yet again. For any young enthusiast, it really is a novelty that top-quality football becomes an everyday occurrence for that wonderful month in the early summer.
It’s not just the games that grab peoples’ attention, but also the build-up to the tournament. The 30-page pull-outs from newspapers, covering each team in depth. The official sticker books, containing not only unheard-of players from relatively unknown nations but also several players that won’t actually appear at the tournament itself. The flags dangled from windows or stickers added to car rear windows. An international tournament is one of the few times nowadays where people put aside the club tribalism and come together, drink together and cheer together.
When France 1998 came around I was seven. Back then I spent all my free time playing football, whether at school, for my Cub Scout’s team, or even just at home on my own in the garden. I was too young to be caught up in the Euro 96, 3 Lions excitement, so for me, this was my first occasion to put on some face paint and beg my parents to buy me an England shirt.
While it isn’t considered a classic, that 98 home shirt will always be my favourite England shirt, so much so that I recently bought a replica (for an almost embarrassing amount of money). The collar is very 90’s, as were the red side panels. It really is a product of its time, and it isn’t any surprise that they changed design rapidly for the next tournament.
With England not qualifying for USA 94, this was their first appearance at the World Cup to since the emotional loss to West Germany in the semi-finals of Italia 90. In addition, with Euro 96 being hosted in England, and the team again being only a penalty shoot-out away from being in the final, excitement and expectation was high. Glenn Hoddle’s side always seemed likely to qualify in a group containing Georgia, Moldova and Poland, but top spot went down to the final match, away in Turin against Italy. They ground out a dogged 0-0 draw, with the captain for the night Paul Ince losing a lot of blood from a head wound in the process. England won the group, and were back at the top table of international football.
Looking at the group of players Hoddle had to pick from, I was shocked by the real dearth of quality we had in certain positions. While David Seaman was the undisputed number one, both Nigel Martyn and Tim Flowers were experienced goalkeepers who could have easily stepped into his place. At centre back, the options were Tony Adams, Sol Campbell, Gareth Southgate, Martin Keown and the emerging Rio Ferdinand. In midfield, there was a good blend of solid options (Ince, David Batty, Rob Lee) with some more dynamic players capable of creating chances (David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Darren Anderton, Paul Merson and Steve McManaman).
Upfront there was almost an embarrassment of riches. Alan Shearer was a guaranteed starter, leaving the final position being between Teddy Sheringham, Les Ferdinand and the inexperienced Michael Owen. Not forgetting that Ian Wright probably would’ve been picked had he been fit, likewise Robbie Fowler. Andy Cole was another candidate, but was harshly told by Hoddle he wouldn’t be picked because he suggested he ‘needed four or five opportunities to score a goal.’ Clearly this was one area that England were spoilt for choice.
One of the biggest controversies surrounded the dropping of Paul Gascoigne. The mercurial midfielder had been a mainstay in the side since 1990, famous for his tears in the semi-final against West Germany and the wonderful goal/dentist chair celebration against Scotland in Euro 98. Unfortunately for the Geordie, his personal problems were starting to catch up with him. The manager claimed it was ‘purely a football decision’ to leave him out of the squad, after recent lacklustre performances in friendlies against Morocco and Belgium, but it was clear he wasn’t happy with his off-field antics, including being photographed out on the town with celeb friends Rod Stewart and Chris Evans. While Gazza clearly wasn’t the player he was in the early ’90s, it still was a huge call made by Hoddle on the eve of his first tournament as manager.
The first England match kicked off at 1.30 pm on Monday the 15th of June. Extra excitement went around the playground that morning as it was announced we’d be able to watch the game in our classroom instead of having to go to lessons. Watching football and not having to learn about fractions? What a result! For this opening fixture, Hoddle opted to put the experienced Sheringham up front to partner Shearer, a three-man central defence and Darren Anderton at Right Wing-Back, leaving no space for David Beckham. As Barry Davies (still one of my all-time favourite commentators) said at the beginning of the game “it’s about having a strength of squad, and picking the right team for the right opponents”.
Watching back the highlights on YouTube, what really struck me was how involved Scholes was, constantly getting forward and creating chances. He scored the second goal just before full time (with a trademark Shearer header the first) but in truth, the Manchester United midfielder could have had three or four. His role in the midfield during his England career is a well-known story; constantly being shunted out of position to accommodate Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard. But before these two arrived on the scene, and with the strong base of Ince and Batty anchoring the midfield, he had the license to get forward and demonstrate his creative flair. As a Liverpool fan I always am very dismissive of any United ‘legend’, but it’s impossible to not appreciate his talent.
The euphoric feeling of witnessing my first England victory soon vanished. A week later they took on Romania in Toulouse. The game started at 8.00 pm, so I had to get special permission from my parents to stay up way beyond my bedtime to see it through to the end. The only change to the starting line-up saw Southgate make way for Gary Neville, who played on the right-hand side of the back three. When researching the teams, I was surprised to see this was how Hoddle chose to set up-mainly as I’d ignorantly believed every other formation apart from 4-4-2 had been banned by the FA for being too avant-garde.
After an evenly matched first half, it was the Romanians who struck first through Viorel Moldovan, less than a minute after the restart. While my boyhood hero nabbed the equaliser (more on him later), Chelsea’s Dan Petrescu struck the winning goal right at the death. This would be my first of many experiences of England ballsing it up in the group stage of a World Cup. Cue a very grumpy seven-year-old slouching upstairs, feeling like the world was about to end.
Thankfully I only had to stew for four days before the next match. With Colombia also having beaten Tunisia, the final game was a crucial decider to see who would finish the group in second. Due to their better goal difference, England only needed a draw to guarantee qualification. Hoddle made one change, replacing Batty with Beckham in the centre of midfield. With it being a Friday night, the evening kick-off was not an issue, so as a family we sat down with some Fish and Chips (the frequent start-of-the-weekend treat) and settled in, fingers crossed Glenn’s guys could pull it off.
In the changed strip of red & white, England managed to evoke the memory of Geoff Hurst and 1966 and secure a 2-0 victory, despite the very distracting presence of Carlos Valderrama’s hair. Anderton rifled a half-volley into the top corner, while Beckham became the first England player to score a free-kick at a World Cup. While not quite as spectacular as his one against Greece a few years later, it still demonstrated his special talent from a dead-ball situation. This secured the win, and with it a place in the round of 16 against their old foes Argentina. Being born in 1990 I wasn’t really aware of the animosity between the two nations. I’d never heard of the Falkland’s war and thought the Hand of God was something to do with going to church. But I sure did feel the hatred it after the match.
The game really did have everything. Four goals. Two penalties (in normal time). A sending off, (following a moment of pure South American shithousery). A disallowed goal. A penalty shoot-out. All in the space of just over two hours. It had the feel of a semi-final rather than a first knock-out game. David Beckham’s red card is probably the most infamous moment; being sprawled on the turf, lashing out at Diego Simone, who then reacted as he’d stepped on a landmine. The red card, the turn as he walked off the pitch with minimal fuss, wearing a look on his face that he knew what a terrible error he’d made- not only that it might cost England the game, and therefore the tournament, but also the barrage of abuse from the fans and the media that would be waiting for him on his return home.
Michael Owen deserves his own paragraph. Remember, he was 18 years old at the time. In this game alone he won the penalty for England’s equaliser, scored a penalty in the shoot-out, and scored probably my favourite goal of all time. Picking up the ball just inside the opposition half, his touch took it past the left-back José Chamot. He then hit top speed, racing towards the goal while managing to hold off Chamot who was desperately trying to knock him off course. The defenders were sitting so deep, right back on the edge of the penalty area, petrified of him sprinting through on goal. Instead, he dropped his shoulder and moved right, ghosted past Roberto Ayala before firing it beyond the on-rushing Carlos Roa. I ran around my living room celebrating, positive that we would now win the game at a canter, become World Champions, and in ten years time it would be me partnering Owen up front for England. Then of course reality struck, Argentina equalised, Campbell’s goal was inexplicably ruled out and the game went to penalties.
Despite seeing them finally break the curse and beat Colombia on penalties in the 2018 World Cup, I’ve experienced enough shoot-out disappointments that I now expect England to lose as a matter of course. Back then, however, my young naive mind hadn’t been hurt before, so I wasn’t prepared for what was to follow. Seaman stopped Argentina’s second penalty, only for Ince to immediately miss his. The Arsenal keeper even got close to a few of the others, but wasn’t able to keep any further efforts out. It all came down to David Batty. Kevin Keegan on the co-commentary, when asked if the Leeds midfielder would score, confidently said yes. And I believed him. Seconds later, it was all over. My heart was broken, and the summer was ruined.
Obviously, there were a lot of incredible moments and stories at France ’98 that had nothing to do with England. Dennis Bergkamp’s magnificent goal against Argentina. Croatia’s unlikely run to the semis. France overcoming Brazil in the final, especially given the strange circumstances surrounding Ronaldo being dropped, then reinstated to the starting eleven, despite having apparently suffered a seizure the day of the game. Looking back on the YouTube highlights it certainly stands the test of time. It was my first tournament experience, and unless England somehow go on to win one in my lifetime, it will forever remain my favourite.