Part 4 of my 5 part look back at tough groups from World Cup’s gone by, today we journey to the Far East for England’s grudge match with Argentina.
Japan/ South Korea 2002: Argentina, England, Sweden, Nigeria
How did it go down?
Argentina entered the 2002 World Cup as joint favourites (with holders France). They got the draw most wanted to avoid: Sven Goran Eriksson’s rejuvenated England. As the draw unfolded it was clear Argentina & England had a tough task ahead with the ever difficult Sweden and African heavyweights Nigeria completing the group.
Argentina were confident whilst England were on a high following their 5-1 qualifying win over old foes Germany. But English confidence took a knock 2 months before the tournament when star man David Beckham was injured in Champions League match after a tackle by Argentine defender Pedro Duscher and the nation became experts on metatarsal bones with Beckham a doubt for the tournament, Beckham was picked for the squad but remained a doubt for the opener against Sweden.
Sweden were unmoved by the tough draw and still had the predatory Henrik Larsson and a potential partner in hot new talent Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whilst Nigeria lead by Jay Jay Okocha had made the knockout phase of both the 1994 & 98 tournaments.
The group kicked off with Nigeria playing Argentina and as expected Argentina proved too strong in tight game with Gabriel Batistuta scoring a second half winner. So to Saitama and England against their managers home nation Sweden. Beckham did make the starting lineup but struggling for fitness, meanwhile both Steven Gerrard & Gary Neville missed the tournament injured. But England got a good start with Sol Campbell powering home a first half header. But this new England quickly started to show signs of the old England and couldn’t hold their lead and Nicklas Alexandersson fired home after a mistake by Neville’s deputy Danny Mills, the game finished 1-1.
The next round of games started with Sweden taking on Nigeria and Julius Agahahowa gave Nigeria the lead. But Larsson was bang in form and quickly equalised and then put away a second half penalty to put Sweden on 4 points and eliminate the Nigerians.
The biggest game of the round took place in Sapporo as England faced Argentina. Many focused on political tensions between the countries and the ‘Hand of God’ but England’s players were more focussed on the last 16 clash in St Etienne 4 years previous, aside from Beckham’s red card many England players burned with anger from Argentina’s players celebrating in front of them in the stadium coach park after the game.
England started well with Michael Owen as in St Etienne causing Argentina’s backline plenty of trouble and on 21 minutes he hit the foot of the post- Argentina were nervous and where as they’d had the majority of the crowd in ’98 Sapporo was very much England’s town. Just before halftime Maurico Pochettino (sporting a hair band) brought down Owen to give England a penalty. Beckham would take and his nemesis from St Etienne, Diego Simeone attempted some mind games. Beckham smacked the penalty straight down the middle and England had the halftime lead.
In the second half England hed possession well but inevitably came under sustained pressure. But Nicky Butt was outstanding shielding the back 4 and England saw out the game 1-0. In the aftermath Argentina talked of how they could play England again in the Semi Finals for revenge, a strange line to take when they now needed to win their final group game to qualify. England and Sweden stood on 4 points and a point each would seem them through with Argentina on 3 and going home.
In the final round of games England played Nigeria and Sweden faced Argentina. The games were played in sweltering midday heat and both were played at a slow pace. England controlled their match with eliminated Nigeria and rarely looked like losing but made few attempts to finish off their opponents as the game headed towards a 0-0 draw. Meanwhile the first half in Miyagi saw Sweden and Argentina scoreless and Argentina in trouble.
Trouble turned into panic early in the second half with Anders Svennson’s free kick giving Sweden the lead with Argentina requiring a win to progress. Argentina brought on Hernan Crespo, Juan ‘bastian Veron and even veteran Claudio Caniggia to save their tournament Caniggia got himself sent off! But all was not lost and Crespo poked home an 88th minute equaliser to give Argentina hope- but there was to be no great escape and Argentina were out in the group phase.
What Happened Next
Argentina were out along with co favourites France and it was France’s conquerors Senegal who lied in wait for Sweden. The last 16 clash saw Sweden boss Lars Lagerback finally unleash Ibrahimovic but it was Sengal forward Henri Camara who got the winner and Senegal made it to the last 8. Largeback would later coach Iceland to victory over England at Euro 2016.
Sven’s England meanwhile thrashed Denmark 3-0 in the last 16 with Owen, Rio Ferdinand and Emile Heskey blitzing the Danes with 3 first half goals. England faced Brazil in the quarter finals and Owen gave them a perfect start with a 23rd minute strike, but Beckham bothered by his injured foot pulled out of a table just before half time that lead to Rivaldo’s equaliser. Ronaldinho then scored with a bizarre looping free-kick to give Brazil a 2-1 win.
Had England held out for the win they’d have have been in the last 4 with South Korea, Turkey and the worst Germany side in living memory making this England’s closest brush with World Cup triumph since 1990. Eriksson went on to coach England to 2 more quarter final defeats (both on penalties) with far more gifted England teams than the 2002 vintage making this his best tournament with his adopted country.
Argentina’s squad may have been considered a national embarrassment at the time but still produced 2 World Class managers of later years in Simeone and Pochettino, the later now ironically considered English football’s great hope.
Next time: Van Gaal Entertains, Spain Crash and Cahill’s Scorcher in Brazil 2014