This feature is part of RETEUROSPECTIVE
Odo last chance. There’s always one last chance. Strategy, mind games, 10,000 man-hours of preparation: they all abandon the equation, rendered meaningless in the face of one last chance. Except in Lisbon on 12 June 2004, there were two.
England against France – the first match of the two teams in Group B of the European Championship in Portugal – was presented as a meeting between two gelcos at the top of their powers. David Beckham And Zinedine Zidane led their respective teams out of the tunnel to the newly built Est-dio da Luz in the hope of establishing supremacy.
In the end, their fate would be disparate. Beckham left the pitch in tears after his missed kick opened the window of opportunity just wide enough for contortionist Zidane to slip through.
Although it turned into one of the most breathless matches of the tournament, the first half was – for the most part – relatively torpedoed. With seven Premier League players in France’s starting line-up and ten in England, both teams were familiar with each other to the point of paranoia.
But seven minutes from the break, a spiral and typically bright Beckham’s cross was met by the black spikes of Frank Lampard and England scored the first goal of their Euro 2004 campaign.
As far as France’s main threat is concerned, Sven Guran Eriksson the instructions were clear: Zidane had to be tackled and tackled hard. Remarkably, Lampard and Steven Gerrard Escaped reservations for wildly irreverent tackles on the Real Madrid playmaker.
After the restart, the French magnetic pivot began to take matters into its own hands. A step back here, a backheel there, an intriguing glow in the eye – the warning signs were written in royal blue on the grass. As he slipped into the speed, as did the French team. The opening exchanges in the second half were dominated by Jacques Santini’s team, but in one of those seats, England broke free. All you needed was a no-goal authorization.
Starting his ten-metre run inside The England half, Rooney slammed the ball over Lilian Thuram head and launched a counterattack of a single man driven by such unlimited kinetic energy, he might as well have been sponsored by cocaine. Leaving burn marks in the turf and three flat-footed French defenders in his wake, he walked towards wide-eyed Fabien Barthez; the plastic slap on the plastic sounded like applause as 64,000 seats overturned, their occupants standing to the delighted attention.
Great players are recognizable by their silhouettes. There were a few that night. On the move, Zidane was gracious but deliberate. Beckham’s swinging limbs cast a spider shadow. Thierry Henry was deceitful: flamboyant, but discreet. When Wayne Rooney sat on goal with his head down, his boots flashing three times faster than any of the hunting packs, it seemed like he was propelled by raw aggression—a winding-up toy turned by a jet engine. Even at 19, his approach was as distinctive as anyone’s.
Falling off the shoulder, he passes Mikael Silvestre. Already a metre from the centre-half, a member who was killing the buzz threw himself into the frame and denied the teenager the chance to become the youngest scorer in the history of the European Championship as he left. The penalty was given, his teammates slapped him in the back. He had played his part. The game was as good as it was won. Except that was not the case.
Barthez’s wrists were strong enough to deprive Beckham of 12 yards. After his mishit against Turkey the previous year, he was two penalties missed in a row in England’s colours for the captain. England fans are naturally fatalistic, but even the world’s most tired of them could not have predicted what happened next.
Heskey’s foul. Zidane’s goal. James for lack of fault. Zidane’s goal. With England weathering the storm, substitute Emile Heskey added to zidane’s list of fouls by bringing him to the ground 25 yards from goal. He put his soul into the resulting free kick, bringing it into the top right corner and apparently saving a point for France.
Just two minutes later, Gerrard hit a backpass and David James shot Henry. It’s a penalty. Even a few seconds from the end, Zizou was not in a hurry – as he always has been. With the freshness of a bomb disposal expert and open-heart surgeon rolled into one, he did what Beckham couldn’t and pumped home worth it. These extra three minutes were an elevator location for its brightness. Like so many others, England fell victim to Zidane’s Zen.
France would be top of Group B with England qualifying for the first knockout round as finalists. Both teams would leave the competition at this stage, with France losing 1-0 to eventual champions Greece and England, as might be expected, losing on penalties to Portugal.
By Adam Williams