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The Hand of God Has Left Its Mark on England

By William Gildea
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, June 30, 1998; Page B7

 Michael Owen (foreground) is grabbed by teammates after scoring against Romania on June 22. The 18-year-old might start Tuesday against Argentina.
(Lynne Sladky/Associated Press)
PARIS — The downside of every World Cup, apart from hooliganism, is saying goodbye to a team you like. We had to do that with the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon in the 1990 quarterfinals in Italy. Tuesday we must bid farewell to England or Argentina, two appealing teams that have entered new phases in their soccer histories only to collide all too early in a round-of-16 game in Saint-Etienne. The consolation of an unwanted end in World Cup soccer is that often the dearly departed lived and died gloriously.

Such was the case three times in the 1986 Cup in Mexico. Denmark became the baby darlings of that tournament only to be crushed by Spain in the second round. The popular Brazilians — including Careca, Socrates and Zico — lost in a quarterfinal overtime game to an attractive French team lead by Michel Platini. Then, try as Platini might, the French went down to the Germans in the semifinals. The eventual winner was an ordinary team, Argentina, with one brilliant player, Maradona, who scored four exceptional goals and an infamous fifth known as the "Hand of God."

Maradona punched the ball into the net with his hand, an act unseen by the referee, but never forgotten, especially in England, which lost that quarterfinal, 2-1. Maradona also scored Argentina's other goal, one of the World Cup's finest, at the end of a spectacular half-the-field run. That was the last time Argentina and England met in the World Cup. To read today's English tabloids, or merely their headlines, you would think the "Hand of God" struck yesterday. "We don't need to cheat to win," the Express proclaimed. The Daily Mail put it just as boldly: "England won't need the Hand of God to beat Argentina, says Hoddle." The headlines hardly left room for the stories.

Glenn Hoddle, who played on the losing side when Maradona got away with soccer's all-time heist, now is England's coach. He is a fair-and-square fellow who has professed that he wants to beat Argentina fairly and squarely, and sees no reason why he can't. The tabloids simply have hatched a grudge match, as in this Daily Mail header: "Hoddle offers the hand of forgiveness." The Times, staid as it usually is, began its sports pages today with: "England Seek to Balance Scales of World Cup Justice."

Now comes the game's subplot. Sir Alf Ramsey, coach of England's only World Cup winner, in 1966, suffered a stroke over the weekend. The current English team's burden simply has become to beat an Argentine team many believe can win this World Cup, plus take revenge for Maradona, plus win one for Sir Alf. "Some day, when the going gets tough and the boys are up against it ..." No, that was Rockne. Sir Alf was a buttoned-up guy not given to imaginative pep talks. His three favorite words were "yes," "no" and "maybe," and he rarely amplified — although, in an abrupt exception, he called the Argentines "animals" after England's 1-0 quarterfinal victory at Wembley during the 1966 Cup.

All these yarns leave Tuesday's papers clear to deal with yet another subplot, a real one, that being whether Hoddle should play his 18-year-old phenom, forward Michael Owen. All one needs to know about Owen is that he plays like a South American. He'll put the ball between an opponent's legs and be gone like lightning. He likes to veer close to last defenders to draw penalty kicks and cards. He's the pride of Liverpool, a scoring threat of the kind that England used to have when it was a World Cup, and world, power.

But the English have long been known for their plodding ways, and Hoddle — no different from most coaches — may prefer a veteran plodder named Teddy Sheringham against such a difficult opponent as Argentina. But if Owen doesn't start and the game grows long for England, it would be hard to imagine not seeing him in there eventually with captain and striker Alan Shearer and Paul Gascoigne's midfield successor, David Beckham, deluxe free kicker and fiance of one of the Spice Girls.

These are a few of the principals helping resurrect English soccer after its bottoming out of 1994, when it failed to reach the World Cup finals. Argentina has been relying on Gabriel Batistuta, 29, known as "Batigol" — whose four goals in this tournament are surpassed only by Italy's Christian Vieri's five — and the No. 10 midfield successor to Maradona, Ariel Ortega, 24, to help forge a future without Maradona. His fourth World Cup appearance ended in disgrace in 1994 when he tested positive for drugs and the team collapsed in the round of 16. Argentina's new edition is strong end to end. Juan Veron, like Ortega, will set up Batistuta from midfield. The team has shut out eight straight opponents.

Batistuta, Argentina's all-time leading goal scorer, hopes to use a convincing performance against England to enhance his chances of leaving his Italian club for a new home in, of all places, England. Batistuta wants to play for Manchester United, which would have to pay a fortune of a transfer fee to Fiorentina, where he has spent seven productive seasons. But for now, he wants a World Cup championship, and if the English are in the way, so be it. It's unlikely at the moment that he would wish them a departure from this tournament as honorable as those of Chile, Paraguay and Mexico.

Both Argentine and English players have said during news conferences the past two days that they expect a stellar game, possibly to be decided by a single goal. Such a margin could create the vast difference between a glamorous team continuing its comeback in World Cup competition and the vanquished who surely will be mourned by a watching nation. Should the game live up to its heady forecast, it will be bitter saying goodbye to either England or Argentina.

But the sweet part again could be the memories left behind.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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