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Even on the Screen, Great Theater

By William Gildea
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, July 1, 1998; Page D1

PARIS — This was a game people will remember watching from wherever they were. It was captivating from any minute you happened to tune in. The action was back and forth, the directions the game took were bizarre and dramatic. Whenever Argentina and England play soccer, something extraordinary happens. Tuesday night was no different.

Argentina-England was the first game of the 16th World Cup that actually got the French excited. Of course, virtually everyone in Argentina and England was watching the action from Saint-Etienne in the central part of the country, but TV snippets showed the French, too, in front of television sets in bars and cafes, some of which were staying open later than usual. Thousands watched the big screen in front of the Paris city hall. The game went so long — at least as soccer games go — that it seemed the end would never come. It seemed as if the "Hand of God" would have to intervene.

Instead, it was the hand of Carlos Roa. After 120 minutes, the game came down to penalty kicks and then to one last penalty kick by England's David Batty. He needed to make it to keep England alive. But Roa stopped him to end one of the most thrilling round-of-16 games in World Cup history. It was 2-2 after overtime, 4-3 Argentina on penalty kicks.

In 1986, the last time these countries met in the World Cup, Argentina won, 2-1, as Maradona punched a ball with his hand into the net — and the referee didn't see it. Asked about it after the game, Maradona replied: "If there was a hand, it had to have been the hand of God."

In 1966, as England was making its way to its lone World Cup title, former coach Sir Alf Ramsey called the Argentines "animals" after a particularly bitter 1-0 quarterfinal match.

Given the history between the teams and that they appeared well matched, this game simply seemed too good to come so early in the tournament. One of the glamour teams was going out, and it was too close to call which it would be. A Paris hotel night clerk — who on the eve of the game was asked for a prediction because he had been making predictions correctly every other night — demurred. "It is too close," he said. Didn't he think Argentina would win? He shrugged. "England has Michael Owen," he said.

I watched with hundreds of other writers in the main press center. In Europe, writers ignore the cardinal rule of the American media: no cheering in the press box. I was in the midst of a highly pro-Argentine crowd. People groaned with every Argentine close call, cheered every Argentine threat and finally roared in delight at the finish. Even a woman who spoke English was celebrating. "This is incredible. This is incredible," she kept repeating.

But while it was going on, they all were in agony, mainly because they couldn't be sure Argentina would contain the "Mighty Atom," Michael Owen. He is a young talent, a teenage striker, unlike almost anyone who has ever played for England. He plays to a beat not heard in that land. He's quick, he can dribble through traffic, he likes to move forward, he's a threat to score at almost any moment. He's English, but plays Brazilian. He's on the Liverpool club in the English Premier League, and much, much more will be heard from him.

He carried England to its first two goals. Against a wary Argentine defense, he cut for the net only to be taken down, drawing a penalty kick. England's captain, Alan Shearer, took the kick, and evened the score, 1-1, in the ninth minute. Three minutes earlier, Gabriel Batistuta had scored his fifth goal of the Cup for Argentina on a penalty kick. He rocked an imaginary cradle afterward because his wife had given birth on the eve of the game.

When Owen scored for a 2-1 lead, his speed and change of direction taking him clear for the shot, it looked as if England might at long last gets its revenge for 1986. But in a stroke of good fortune — the kind Argentina seems to get and England doesn't when they play — Javier Zanetti tied the score just moments before the end of the first half. He did it on a free kick after Batistuta faked the English defense. It might have been a morale crusher going to intermission, but the English were determined.

Then came the long tense scoring drought, first one team threatening, then the other. In the main press center, those who had been seated in the back of the huge room to start the game carried their chairs forward a few at a time until all were packed together as in a crowded theater. Still, some managed to find floor space to drop to when England's Paul Ince, for one, almost ended the game, shooting just wide to right.

Nobody in the room cared that England was playing a man down for most of the time after intermission — David Beckham was sent off two minutes after the break. Argentine Diego Simeone crashed into him from behind and sent him sprawling face down on the grass. As Simeone walked past him, Beckham appeared to kick back and Simeone took a tumble himself. There stood the Danish referee, Kim Nielsen, who pulled his red card. It hardly seemed warranted.

Talk about the hands of God, Maradona and Roa, what about Nielsen's? He had a hand himself in this game — long before the red card, calling two questionable penalty kicks. Argentina benefited from the first, and the second seemed as if it were a makeup call as Owen did a bit of acting worthy of Covent Garden.

"We couldn't ask for more," England Coach Glenn Hoddle said. "I don't know if it's destiny or what, but everything seemed to go against us." He referred in part to Beckham's expulsion, but would only add: "It's not a night for excuses. It's a night to be proud for England. We defended like lions. We thought we'd done it. It's a bitter, bitter pill to take again."

In the main press center, though, it was celebration time. "It was the best match so far," said a writer from Mexico, but she agreed she wouldn't have felt that way had England won. The upside for all concerned was a farewell to the English hooligans, with the hope that they wouldn't create too much havoc on their way home. On the way out of the press center, a photographer carried a bottle of champagne to continue the spirit of the evening.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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