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Michael Owen’s Moment of Magic, Followed by England Heartbreak in 1998

The apex and the nadir of England’s “Golden Generation” in one game. This is the story of an era of astonishing optimism followed by breathtaking failure, all set to the soundtrack a toxic sports-media culture.

Daniel Zalkus

The Ringer’s 22 Goals: The Story of the World Cup, a podcast by Brian Phillips, tells the story of some of the most iconic goals and players in the history of the men’s FIFA World Cup. Every Wednesday, until the end of Qatar 2022, we’ll publish an adapted version of each 22 Goals episode. Today’s story involves Michael Owen’s moment of magic in 1998.

1. A Terrible Confession

All right. I have to tell you something embarrassing about myself.

If you are a keen reader of this series—and I think all our readers are keen, frankly. If you’re a regular 22 Goals reader, and therefore a bit keener than the readers of other internet features, you may have noticed that I have a tendency to tease a particular … nation-state, I guess is the term?

I make fun of one country more than all the other countries. More than all the other countries combined, probably. Can you guess which country it is?

I’m not gonna make you guess. It’s England. Of course it’s England.

That’s not the embarrassing thing! But it’s true.

I’ve said things about England, from time to time, that are not absolutely rise and grind. That’s Cockney rhyming slang for “nice and kind.”

I’ve mocked their pies and the organ meats that come inside them. I’ve mocked the frankly astonishing prevalence of the name “Terry” among English men in the 1980s. I’ve invented, and subsequently mocked, entire English towns with names such as Flintsnitch and Scunbridge.

That’s not nice. And let me tell you, in the village of Flintsnitch at this very moment, there’s a man called Terry sitting in his cottage pouring horseradish sauce into a pie crust. And Terry does not appreciate my attempts at so-called humour. H-u-m-o-u-r.

Well. The explanation for my savage roasting of the lower five-eighths of the island of Great Britain is that I … am not a fan of the English national soccer team.

That’s also not the embarrassing thing! But it’s also true.

Not liking the England national soccer team is my right—I want to say my duty—as an American. If I didn’t take a stand, the king of England could walk right in here and force you to root for Harry Kane and his weird, well-groomed face. No. I stand for freedom. I root against England as a matter of principle.

But there’s a deeper truth here. OK, here’s my embarrassing confession.

My deeply embarrassing confession is that in most arenas, except for soccer, I am kind of an Anglophile.

The English national soccer team? No thank you. But England itself? Ugh, I’m fairly into it, I’m sorry.

I love English place names. Anything that ends in “-wold,” sign me up. I love soft green English landscapes. I love English novels. I love English poems. I love tea, the beverage. I love the phrase “mind the gap.” I love old crumbling English country houses covered with vines. I love English murder mysteries, relatedly. I love English comedy.

English imperial politics of the 16th through 20th centuries-ish? No thank you. But English dogs? Like a good English sheepdog? Sign me up twice.

Also Pickles, obviously. Thanks, Picks.

This humiliating fondness I feel for England is only partly my fault. I mostly blame my grandma. I grew up watching Masterpiece Theatre with my grandmother and I came away with the idea that the apex of civilization was a costume drama in which a guy in a Regency neckcloth was stepping out of a carriage and saying, “Pray make haste, Arabella.”

There are two types of Americans in (uh) America. The rational type who hears the sentence “pray make haste, Arabella,” recoils in horror, drops whatever they’re carrying, and sprints away. And the irrational type who hears the sentence “pray make haste, Arabella” and immediately subscribes to BritBox.

I am the second type of American, unfortunately.

My embarrassing confession actually gets worse, if you can believe it.

Now, I don’t know all that much about my ancestry. But I know the Phillipses are English. Among my three non-Phillips grandparents, you’ve got a Bailey (Irish), a Campbell (Scottish), and an Ellis (Welsh).

So I am a microcosm, basically, of the British isles. And the English part of me won out over the other parts. The English part of me gave me my name.

Footnote one, see colonialism. I colonized myself.

So. Do I make fun of England because I dislike the English national soccer team? Yes. Do I dislike the English national soccer team largely because I’m overcompensating for the low-grade humiliation I feel over my unjustifiable affection for English culture generally, despite the numerous and highly justifiable reasons one might have not to be affectionate toward English culture generally?

I don’t know, Terry! You tell me.

2. One Shining Moment

Maybe I should hyphenate my name? Hi, it’s me, Brian Phillips-Campbell-Bailey-Ellis.

My God. I say that out loud and immediately want to cook a kidney inside a doughnut.

We are here today to talk about England. Specifically, we’re here to talk about Michael Owen’s astonishing goal against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup, scored when he was just 18. Truly one of the high points—one of the most optimistic moments—in the recent history of English soccer. A moment when the future looked full of promise.

This moment lasted about half an hour. That’s not an exaggeration. It literally lasted about half an hour. But it was a good half hour.

We’re here to talk about Michael Owen. By extension, we’re here to talk about the entire Golden Generation of English soccer. Do you remember the Golden Generation of English soccer?

This was the, in retrospect somewhat ironic, name given to the group of English players who came of age in the late ’90s and early 2000s, a group headlined not only by Michael Owen but by several other global superstars, including David Beckham, the world’s most perfectly symmetrical human being (except for that one eyebrow. You know that one eyebrow?); including Steven Gerrard, the talismanic Liverpool captain; including Frank Lampard, the Chelsea midfielder; including John Terry, the Chelsea defender.

This was also the era of English soccer that produced one of the most toxic sports-media cultures in the history of toxic sports-media cultures. Like picture the Jane Lynch Glee meme: “I am going to create a celebrity-industrial complex so toxic ...”

This was the moment when British tabloids of the Rupert Murdoch slash Piers Morgan slash celebrity-phone-hacking slash racist jingoist slash misogynist variety were at the peak of their power and influence. This era gave us the term “WAGs,” short for “wives and girlfriends.” It gave us endless exposés about star players’ often quite legitimately disturbing excesses, based on sources of the “friend of a friend” slash hairstylist’s cousin variety, sources who were paid by the tabloids to come forward with wheelbarrows full of dirt.

We’ve got players cheating on their wives with their teammates’ girlfriends (John Terry). We’ve got players cheating on their wives with their brother’s wives (Ryan Giggs). That went on for eight years, by the way.

That’s Rhodri Giggs, Ryan’s brother, truly expressing the spirit of the age by advertising his exclusive tell-all about the affair in the British mega-tabloid The Sun. Also not the worst thing Ryan’s allegedly done!

We’ve got high-speed Lamborghini crashes. We’ve got wadded-up restaurant receipts featuring tens of thousands of pounds of pink champagne. We’ve got one million puns about Wayne Rooney’s receding hairline.

We’re gonna talk about that, too. And along the way, we may find time to psychoanalyze me. And to discover whether my inconvenient combination of obnoxious Anglophilia and equally obnoxious Anglophobia can possibly produce a balanced look at one of the most obnoxious eras of soccer anywhere in the world. A true British empire of sheer obnoxiousness.

The Sun never sets on Wayne Rooney tabloid puns. I cannot tell you what a relief it is to write that joke for print. I tried to drop it into the podcast version of this essay, where no one could see the italics, and let me tell you—Wayne Rooney’s hairline thrives compared to that joke.

This is not a soccer essay; this is my bow of burning gold. These are my arrows of desire. This is my spear: O clouds unfold! This is my chariot of fire.

Stick with me, and over the course of the next however long it takes to boil these kidneys, we are going to follow the promise of England’s unofficial sporting anthem. We’re going to build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.

Let’s make haste, Arabella.

3. The Golden Generation

OK. England’s Golden Generation. Little history. We’ll be quick. In the early 1990s, the biggest clubs in English soccer broke away from the lower divisions to form the Premier League. When we talk about England’s Golden Generation, we’re basically talking about the nucleus of players who came of age in the years just after that happened. Early Premier League times.

We’ve got Rio Ferdinand. We’ve got Ashley Cole. We’ve got Paul Scholes. All these English stars whose careers coincided with a moment when the internet and satellite TV were transforming the game in a couple of different ways.

Way number one: The globalization of club soccer was making the Premier League the most popular and lucrative sports league on earth.

It used to be that Arsenal fans were people who lived near Arsenal. Now Arsenal fans could live anywhere, as long as they were prepared to spend 90 bucks on a licensed Jermaine Pennant shirt.

Way number two: The globalization of club soccer was leading to an influx of non-English players into the rosters of English club teams.

It used to be that English teams were almost exclusively made up of English players, in the same way that NFL teams are largely made up of Americans. Now that’s changing. In 1999, Chelsea fielded the first-ever starting XI in the English Premier League with zero English players. In 2005, Arsenal fielded the first entirely foreign matchday squad. No English players on the first team or on the bench.

More people are watching English teams than ever before. At the same time, those teams are featuring fewer English players.

Are you a Great British Baking Show fan, by any chance? I am. Bring me my rough-puff of burning gold. I think about the underlying xenophobic anxiety of this era of English soccer by imagining what it would feel like if the Baking Show suddenly fielded a tent with zero British bakers in it. Just wall-to-wall Jurgens and Giuseppes and Januszes.

Obviously those guys are great! But you have to think the sudden disappearance of British bakers from a show called British Baking Show would occasion some anxiety among the viewing public. British people would be like, what does this mean? Have we been supplanted as bakers by the rest of the world? My God … are the French better at pastry than we are?

This is basically what happens with English soccer. And what it means is that due to the new scarcity economy of English stars, the English players who are good enough to thrive in the Premier League become celebrities on a scale almost unprecedented in British sports.

David Beckham, the startlingly symmetrical and stylish Manchester United midfielder, obviously becomes, very symmetrically, one of the most recognizable humans on earth.

Wayne Rooney, the Manchester United forward who’s a little more challenged from a symmetry standpoint, becomes one of the most recognizable humans ever to be charged an “ugly tax” by a sex worker whose friend later divulged details of the encounter to the Daily Star.

(I don’t know if I’ve gotten this across, but British tabloids? They’re not great. Vibes are off! Just my opinion as a human being.)

Anyway, for most of the 20th century, soccer players in England were seen as working stiffs, lucky if they could grind out a middle-class income playing what was regarded as an unglamorous, working-class game. But now, England’s best players are caught in the updraft of the shiny new 24-hour sports-TV paparazzi Daily Mail volcano.

These guys are serving two important functions, on top of their soccer functions, and in Beckham’s case, handsomeness functions. Function number one: They’re branding the English Premier League as English for the rest of the world. And function number two: They’re reassuring their home fans that English players are still good enough to play for English teams.

And they all have a ton of success, at the club level. Beckham, Rooney, Ferdinand, and Scholes win basically everything that can be won for Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United dynasty. Lampard and Terry win multiple Premier League championships, multiple FA Cups, and a Champions League with Chelsea. Gerrard wins a Champions League with Liverpool and becomes famous for bonking in ridiculous long-range goals in high-stakes moments.

Success and fame breed more success and more fame. David Beckham dates and eventually marries the pop star Victoria Adams, a member of the wildly popular girl group the Spice Girls. It goes great!

Ashley Cole dates and eventually marries the pop star Cheryl Tweedy, a member of the wildly popular girl group Girls Aloud. It goes marginally less great! (Don’t look it up.)

Joe Cole—no relation to Ashley—maybe dates and eventually leaps bare-chested and shoeless out the window of the house belonging to the model Keeley Hazell, an action that multiple tabloids attribute to Hazell’s bodybuilder boyfriend beating the shit out of Cole after finding him asleep in her house.

There’s a lot of that. There is just. So. Much. Of. That.

Success. Fame. Headlines. Flashbulbs. Sky-high expectations for the English national team at every big tournament as long as this core group is around. The logic seems sound. If Manchester United and Chelsea are the best club teams in the world, and many of Manchester United and Chelsea’s best players are English, why shouldn’t England be expected to win the World Cup for the first time since 1966?

Well ...

For now, let’s just say that this group of players soon develops a paralyzing reputation for underperforming at international tournaments. Their success at the club level doesn’t quite translate to the Euros and the World Cup.

How badly does it fail to translate? Let’s turn to Wikipedia for the answer. Bring me my disambiguation page of burning gold!

4. Footnotes of Despair

One of the saddest sentences I have ever read can be found on the Wikipedia page explaining the concept of a “Golden Generation” in sports. A Golden Generation is exactly what it sounds like. The saddest sentence on the Golden Generation Wikipedia page falls under the “England” subheading. Subheading 2.2.4.

It reads:

“Despite some impressive performances”—it then lists exactly one impressive performance, in a match against Germany in 2001—”inconsistency resulted in this group of players failing to live up to expectations, resulting in the group becoming synonymous with disappointment and failed potential.”

And what’s sad about this is not just the sentence itself. It’s not just that these wildly successful, famous, and wealthy guys became synonymous with disappointment and failed potential.

It’s also the sheer number of citation footnotes that follow the sentence.

You know how when a Wikipedia page states a fact, it’s supposed to include a reference supporting that fact? So you read, say, “Hemileia vastatrix is a fungus that causes the coffee rust disease,” and then there’s a little “1”, and the “1” points to an article in the scientific journal Agricultural Fungi Today or whatever?

That little superscripted “1” tells you that this fact is established. It’s known. People talk about it. And then sometimes, there’ll be more evidence, and you get two footnotes next to each other. A little “1” and a little “2.” Like, this fact is extremely known. People very much talk about it.

Well, the sentence about England’s Golden Generation becoming synonymous with disappointment and failed potential starts after citation 37. And if you include the footnotes, the end of the sentence goes:

“... synonymous with disappointment and failed potential, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43.”

Devastating, Wikipedia.

Just an incredible string of numbers sprouting out of the end of that sentence.

To put this in context, I looked at the Wikipedia page for the atom. The atom, the basic building block of matter. The atom also never won the World Cup. Or, I guess, technically the atom won all the World Cups? But this one sentence about the Golden Generation has more footnotes than the first eight full paragraphs on the atom—combined.

I realize this is not a perfect comparison. But if you just look at these citation numbers, the implication is clear. England’s failure to deliver at the international level is a truth so fundamental that it’s actually more fundamental than the basic structure of the universe.

5. Wanna Be Adored

So. England’s Golden Generation. Extremely golden when they play on their various club teams. Significantly less golden when they play together for England.

How did these players end up here?

OK. There is a question hanging over this essay like my mouse cursor over the ACTIVATE FREE TRIAL button on literally any streaming service with a Miss Marple vertical. The question is, what counts as success for a soccer player? What do you have to do to have a good career?

Who gets to decide what constitutes a good career?

For most people, I’m guessing, the Golden Generation players have what look on paper like the trappings of a wildly successful career. Get rich? Check. Get famous? Check. Be idolized by children? Check. Be cheered by tens of thousands of people on a near weekly basis? Check.

Be called “Captain Fatso” in a massive headline in the Daily Star? OK, maybe not that one.

Wayne Rooney was Captain Fatso, by the way. This really happened. I don’t know why I find that headline so endearing. The Star intended it as body-shaming. But I just think it sounds so cute. He’s Wayne Rooney to you, but he’s forever Captain Fatso in my heart.

Anyway, money, fame, sports cars, mansions, awards, trophies, beautiful spouses, etc. etc. etc.—on paper, it sure looks like success. And yet footnotes 38, 39, 40, 41, and so on all tell me that every one of these players is living with an asterisk. Is synonymous with disappointment. Is, to some degree, an embarrassment.

Because they never won the European championship. And more importantly, they never won the World Cup.

So. Is it a good career, if you accomplish all that other stuff, but people remember you largely for the one big thing you didn’t accomplish? Or is it a bad career, because you’re defined by a failure, even if your failure meant that when you came down with a mysterious ankle infection, you get to rehabilitate it from a luxury hotel in Abu Dhabi?

That’s Steven Gerrard. 2011. This really happened. How can an ankle even get infected? He was fine.

6. Chester, Cheshire, Cheddar

How did we end up here? This era started so promisingly. Remember that half hour of pure hope?

Let’s rewind for a second. Let’s go back to the beginning. Before all the drama. Before all the News of the World headlines. Before all the assault charges stemming from alleged attacks on DJs in bars who refuse to play Phil Collins songs (also Steven Gerrard, 2009, the DJ was fine).

Before all the visits to the hospital bedsides of 10-year-olds you hit with your Bentley (that’s Steven Gerrard again, 2007, the 10-year-old was fine).

Before all the madness, there was Michael Owen’s goal.

Let’s talk about the goal. It is such a great goal. Michael Owen was 18 years old during the 1998 World Cup in France. Four years earlier, England had humiliatingly failed to qualify for the World Cup in the United States, so the Three Lions’ return to the tournament in ’98 represented a new birth of optimism. A shot at redemption.

Three Lions is, of course, the nickname of the English national soccer team. Very strong nickname, by European standards. Kind of a weirdly specific number of lions? I think that makes it better. More teams should do this. I am a fan of the Chicago Seventeen Bears.

Michael Owen was born in December, 1979, in the English city of Chester. That sounds like part of an English city. Manchester. Colchester. It’s the whole city. Chester.

Chester is in the county of Cheshire. Chester, Cheshire. This is quite simply the most English shit imaginable.

If I could eat a slice of cheddar in Chester, Cheshire, I might die of happiness.

Here lies Brian Phillips. Loving husband, son, and internationally revered soccer writer. Died of cheese consonance.

Actually, hang on. I’m looking this up. It turns out that cheddar cheese is named after a village in Somerset, England. And it also turns out that there is another, different type of cheese called Cheshire cheese.

So one could, theoretically, eat cheddar in Cheshire and then eat cheshire in Cheddar.

Just when you think you’ve reached maximum England, England unlocks a new level.

OK, we gotta move this story along. Pray make haste, Arabella!

Michael Owen. Born in Chester. Chester is sort of sandwiched between Liverpool and the Welsh border. So Michael’s parents worked in Liverpool. He had family in Liverpool. He had an aunt and uncle who ran a restaurant in Liverpool. But he grew up just over the border, in northern Wales. In his autobiography, Owen describes the region where he grew up as, quote, “near Mold in Flintshire.” I simply cannot.

Michael’s mom, Jeanette, worked in the head office of a frozen foods company. His dad was a former professional footballer who’d played for Everton, in Liverpool, among many other clubs. Now he worked as an insurance agent.

Michael’s dad’s name, inevitably, was Terry. He also had a brother named Terry. Don’t look so surprised. I’m guessing their next-door neighbor was also named Terry, and that guy had a dog named Terry. I don’t know.

Michael was an Everton fan as a kid, but as a schoolboy, he was scouted by Everton’s ferocious crosstown rival, Liverpool. So he ended up joining the Liverpool youth program.

It was clear immediately that he was a sensational talent.

As a teenager, he scored 11 goals in five matches to lead Liverpool to the youth FA Cup. He broke multiple scoring records for England’s national youth teams. He was fast, he was tenacious, he was dogged. He was a prodigy.

He played his first senior match for Liverpool in 1997 at the age of 17. Scored a goal in his debut. The following year, he finished in a three-way tie for the Premier League Golden Boot—the other two players were Dion Dublin and Chris Sutton—and finished third in the PFA Player of the Year voting, behind Dennis Bergkamp and Tony Adams.

At the end of 1998, he finished second behind Zinedine Zidane for World Soccer’s World Player of the Year award.

I just love watching old videos of Michael Owen as a young star. If Wayne Rooney was a wrecking ball and David Beckham played with a sort of slow, aristocratic grace, Michael was one of those funny attackers who kind of seem to squirt everywhere on the pitch. Like they’re being shot out of a water cannon.

He’s not a big guy. He’s like 5-foot-8. Just zippy as hell. Changes directions on a dime, runs with this sort of all-out, full-body intensity that looks uncoordinated but isn’t.

It looks as though the different parts of his body are taking different routes to their destination, and only he knows exactly where and how they’re going to meet up.

And in all these old clips, you see him, like, running neck and neck with a couple of much larger defenders. They’re keeping up with him, and then suddenly someone depresses the plunger on the water gun and—WSHHHHH—he goes squirting past them.

I’m making him sound kind of hectic. But his technique also had a level of refinement that made soccer aficionados curl their pinkies in appreciation.

Listen to the commentator describe the goal he scored against Crystal Palace in 1997—you can practically see the light glittering off his glass of wine as he pauses to sniff the bouquet.

And of course the backdrop of Michael’s stunning rise was the rise of the Premier League era.

At Arsenal, the great Dutch midfielder Dennis Bergkamp was adding a new level of sophistication to English soccer. Nick Hornby’s 1992 book Fever Pitch had helped make soccer appealing to the types of people who collect rare LPs and not just the types of people who beat up the types of people who collect rare LPs. Satellite TV was now beaming games around the world. There was a feeling of surging growth and possibility around the sport.

David Beckham and Victoria Adams, who was then still more widely known as Posh Spice, got very symmetrically engaged at the start of 1998. English soccer, for the first time—maybe ever? Certainly for the first time since George Best left Belfast—was young, cool, beautiful, and going places.

And the national team’s roster reflected this changing paradigm. National-team stalwarts like Teddy Sheringham and Tony Adams were joined by 23-year-olds in Beckham and Scholes and teenagers in Owen and Ferdinand.

By the time the 1998 men’s World Cup kicked off in France, Michael Owen was the most promising young soccer star in the most exciting league in the world.

And in the round of 16 against Argentina, he scored a goal that turned the Michael Owen hype into the Michael Owen legend, at least for a little while.

7. Scholesy’s!

I am aware, incidentally, that the sentence “pray make haste, Arabella” is not something that actual English people are likely to say in 2022. I understand that England is a modern country.

Very few people are traveling by mail coach or captaining frigates in the Napoleonic wars these days. I get that.

But if I’m 100 percent honest, I kind of think they still do all that stuff when no one’s looking? Like you walk into the room, and all the English people are looking at their phones and complaining about Brexit. And then the second you walk out, they all breathe a sigh of relief and go back to acting out a Jane Austen novel.

Whenever I’m in England, I always open doors really fast, like I’m trying to see the refrigerator light come on, in the hope of catching someone in the act of captaining a Napoleonic frigate.

I have not yet succeeded in this quest. But I’m not giving up.

England-Argentina. Sixteenth minute of the game. We’re tied 1-1. England’s goal came through a penalty that Michael Owen set up. Alan Shearer converted it.

Now young David Beckham, resplendent in profoundly symmetrical glory, has the ball in the middle of the pitch, behind the halfway line.

Beckham spots Owen lurking in the center circle, and plays a slightly tricky oblique ball between Owen and the Argentine defender José Chamot.

With his first touch, Owen uses the outside of his right foot to knock the ball about 8 feet ahead of him. Gorgeous first touch. And now it’s a foot race to the ball between Owen and Chamot. You can guess how that goes. Owen squirts forward, blows by Chamot, gets on the ball, and cannons toward the goal.

But there’s still one defender ahead of him, Roberto Ayala, planted just outside the Argentina area. And Chamot is still at his heels.

Chamot clatters him hard enough to knock him off balance. But Owen does the thing where his legs seem to be scrabbling in one direction and his arms seem to be pumping in the other direction. And he somehow uses this scramble to recover his balance to help him cut unexpectedly inside.

He cuts inside so suddenly that he not only loses Chamot, he also manages to get around Roberto Ayala, even though Ayala has been standing there waiting for him while he sprinted across half the pitch.

This is the second installment in this series, by the way, in which poor Roberto Ayala gets destroyed just before an incredible goal in the 1998 World Cup. Dennis Bergkamp did it to him, too.

Ayala was a really good defender! It’s sports. It happens.

Anyway, Owen rounds Ayala and takes a hard shot across the face of the goal. Right to left. Top left corner of the net. Goal.

Eighteen years old. And the kid went out and did it. Unbelievable sports story. Fairy-tale sports story.

The commentator—who’s obviously biased, he’s English—fully embraces the fairy-tale energy of the moment. He sounds like an anthropomorphic teapot who’s watching a prince slay a dragon.

Michael Owen’s autobiography, by the way, is called Off the Record. Not a great title, in my opinion. Like, you’re not off the record, dude, you’re publishing this on purpose, for money. But it’s still a fun book. It’s fun mostly because Owen comes across as a kind of charmingly pragmatic, even slightly boring, person, and those qualities are allowed to shine through rather than being edited out, as they would have been in a lot of sports memoirs.

It feels unscripted, but like, boringly unscripted? For example, one of the first things Michael says about the goal against Argentina is that it, quote, “Started a process that has given me and my family financial security for life.”

You want a fairy tale? I want a 401(k).

Anyway, I really love two things about the way Michael Owen describes this goal in Off the Record. The first thing I love is that he says Paul Scholes materialized at the edge of his vision before he took the shot and started shouting at him to leave the ball for him. For Scholes. And Owen says he can’t remember exactly what Scholes shouted, but it was either “leave it!” or “Scholesy’s!”

Please, God, let it have been “Scholesy’s!”

Few people love Paul Scholes as a soccer player more than I do, but the idea that he popped up before one of the greatest goals in English soccer history, demanded to take the shot himself, and conveyed this demand by screaming “Scholesy’s”—it’s too good, I’m sorry.

I hear that story and I just, like, helplessly get my credit card out and start mashing numbers into the BritBox website. Bring me my bow of burning Scholes.

The other thing I love about the account of the goal in Owen’s book is how he describes the aftermath of the moment. I really like this description. He says:

When I say that scoring takes the pressure off, it implies that I go into a game experiencing pressure as an unpleasant sensation. I don’t. It’s just that when you’ve put that ball away you feel you’ve accomplished something that can’t be taken away from you. ... Before the goal, a voice says, I’ve got to do something, contribute in some way. In France, scoring against Argentina just made me feel that the possibilities for me in that game were endless.

England is now winning the match 2-1. The quarterfinals are in reach. Optimism abounds in Chester, in Cheddar, in Cheshire, and also in Chesham, and in Chatham, and in Chulmleigh, which are real English towns. Optimism abounds in Coulsdon, which is in Surrey.

The sky is the limit for English soccer.

8. Check, Mate

And the sky remains the limit for most of the rest of the first half.

Just before halftime, Javier Zanetti scores an equalizer, 2-2.

Just after halftime, David Beckham is provoked into a perfectly symmetrical outburst of anger by the Argentine midfielder Diego Simeone, who’s now the manager of Atlético Madrid. That Diego Simeone.

Simeone fouls Beckham hard. Beckham falls to the ground. He’s face-down. Symmetrically prone. And as Simeone walks by, Beckham sort of weakly kicks his leg at him, trying to trip him, I guess? There’s not much to it. But it’s just enough. Simeone reacts as if Beckham just threw him down a flight of stairs. And in the commentary of the English announcers, you can feel the sky falling on anthropomorphic teapots everywhere.

England is forced to play almost the whole second half and all of extra time with 10 men. And then England does what England does. They lose in a penalty shoot-out. Owen makes his.

And well, that’s just about the end of the line for that feeling of pure optimism.

Back in England, excitement about the team quickly curdled into a feeling of anger and disappointment. David Beckham was burned in magnificently symmetrical effigy outside pubs. A kind of nightmare feedback loop kicked in whereby the more media attention the superstar English players received, the more fans resented their celebrity and blamed their lifestyles for their failure to win big tournaments. But the more fans were angry about their lifestyles, the more newspapers they sold, and the bigger their celebrity became.

English soccer passed through the Sven Göran-Eriksson years—Sven Göran-Eriksson was the first-ever foreign manager of the men’s English national team. He’s Swedish. During his tenure, tantalizingly promising results alternated with disappointments and scandals and endless, exhausting debates about tactics and whether Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard could play in the same midfield.

The team did reach the quarterfinal of the 2002 men’s World Cup. Michael Owen scored in that quarterfinal game against Brazil. But they became better known for their unruly entourages of celebrity wives and girlfriends and their lavish spending on away trips.

In 2006, Wayne Rooney provoked a national crisis when he fractured his fourth metatarsal. The team again managed to make the quarterfinals, but lost to Portugal in a disastrous penalty shoot-out during which Lampard, Gerrard, and Jamie Carragher all had their penalties saved.

Then they passed through the Fabio Capello era. Capello, the disciplinarian Italian manager who was tasked with reining in the excesses of the players and restoring order—or you could say, if you wanted to be more cynical, that he was tasked with performing a sort of theatrical discipline designed to placate exasperated English tabloid readers by humiliating his celebrity players.

Whatever it was, it didn’t work. England went to South Africa, set up in a sort of monastic isolation designed to keep their focus solely on soccer, and lost 4-1 to Germany in the second round.

Things got even worse under Roy Hodgson. Then they got a little better under Gareth Southgate, but by that point, the Golden Generation had retired.

England reached the finals of Euro 2020 but lost to Italy on penalties.

And this year—well, we’ll see.

Do you remember the question we asked earlier? The Miss Marple streaming service question? The question was, what counts as a successful career? What does it mean when one failure overshadows a whole lot of impressive accomplishments? What does it mean when that failure defines your career?

Well, among other things, in sports, I think it’s often a sign of a broken relationship between media, players, and fans. It’s a sign that something is not adding up in the stories we tell about players and what they do. Because success and failure are social concepts, aren’t they? They need a climate of relative sincerity—of good-faith communication—in which to function.

And this is an era in which everyone around this team is lost in such an astonishing labyrinth of bullshit that a climate of sincerity simply does not exist.

9. Five Semi-Randomly Selected Tabloid Headlines About Wayne Rooney

As supporting citations to buttress this assertion about a labyrinth of bullshit—as footnotes 1 through 5 in the bullshit labyrinth’s Wikipedia page—I bring you five semi-randomly selected British tabloid headlines about Wayne Rooney.

We’ll omit “Captain Fatso,” because we’ve already talked about that one. Does Captain Fatso have a Napoleonic frigate?

Here goes.

Number 5! The Daily Mirror. “Get Out of My Brothel Mr Rooney!” Subhed: “Massage parlour worker told star visits could ruin him, Old Bailey hears.” Yikes.

Number 4! The Daily Star. “Rooney Tart: I Charged Wayne Ugly Tax.” That one. Yikes!!

Number 3! The Sun, surprisingly. “Don’t Fancy Yours Much Wayne.” Subhed: “Revealed: PVC gran he bedded in brothel.” This was after the teenage Rooney had supposedly slept with a woman who had committed the unpardonable crime of being a grandmother. Getting a little desensitized here, but Jesus Christ, yikes!!!

Number 2! The Daily Mirror, one more time. “Rooney U.S. Booze Shame.” I guess he was arrested for getting drunk in an American airport. I didn’t know that was a crime. Yikes.

Number 1! The Sun, sometimes you wish it would set. “The reign of Wayne is waning in Spain. Now it’s over to Kane.” OK, that one’s kind of good, in a cheddar-in-Cheshire sort of way.

The best British tabloid headline ever, of course, remains a Sun headline from February 2000, after the second-tier Scottish club Inverness Caledonian Thistle—a real team—had upset Scottish soccer behemoth Celtic. Caledonian Thistle’s nickname is Caley Thistle. Caley.

The headline read, “Super Caley Go Ballistic, Celtic Are Atrocious.”

Just a spoonful of sugar helps the Ryan Sessegnon go down.

I’m so sorry.

10. There Goes Success

The point is, happiness in soccer isn’t just a matter of winning and losing. It also requires a climate that is receptive to the possibility of happiness. Look at the layers of contempt, resentment, entitlement, and sheer sneering malevolence folded into those Rooney headlines and it’s clear English soccer during the Golden Generation era is a cautionary tale.

It’s the story of what happens when you create a sports culture that expects triumph but is actively hostile to joy.

Michael Owen—who grew up in Wales, remember—actually left England for awhile. Like David Beckham, he went to play for Real Madrid. Just for about a year. Injuries ended up derailing the later part of his career. But I always thought the instinct to leave was a promising impulse. English stars very rarely leave their home country during their primes, but I don’t know. Try something new!

In any case, Anglophile or Anglophobe, I look at the English national team during the Golden Generation era and see more or less the opposite of what I, personally, want the game to look like.

I’m an American. I just want to have a good time.

Which is why, when I think about these players, I’d like to stay in 1998, in the moment when Michael Owen scored that spectacular goal. I’d like to be the supporting footnote on a moment that’s not synonymous with disappointment and failed potential, but that’s synonymous with their opposites.

It’s historically selective, obviously, but then, I enjoy English costume dramas. Historically selective is my middle name! And I’d like to be the supporting footnote on a goal that’s synonymous with joy.

Because—and this is basically my whole philosophy of sports, and very much not the philosophy of the English men’s national team—when you’re lucky enough be given a bow of burning gold and arrows of desire, you should really do your best to use them for some purpose other than shooting yourself in the foot.

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