This feature is a part of RETEUROSPECTIVE
One last chance. There’s always one last chance. Strategy, mind games, 10,000 man-hours of preparation: they all drop out of the equation, rendered meaningless in the face of one last chance. Except in Lisbon on 12 June 2004, there were two.
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England vs France – both teams’ first match in Group B at the European Championship in Portugal – was framed as a meeting between two gálacticos at the peak of their powers. David Beckham and Zinedine Zidane led their respective teams out of the tunnel at the newly constructed Estádio da Luz hoping to establish supremacy.
Ultimately, their fates would be disparate. Beckham would leave the pitch in tears after his missed spot-kick opened the window of opportunity just about wide enough for the contortionist Zidane to slip through.
Though it would turn into one of the most breathless matches of the tournament, the first half was – for the most part – relatively torpid. With seven Premier League players in France’s starting 11 and ten in England’s, the two teams were familiar with each other to the point of paranoia.
But with seven minutes until the break, a spiralling, characteristically brilliant Beckham cross was met by the black spikes of Frank Lampard and England scored the first goal of their Euro 2004 campaign.
In terms of France’s main threat, Sven-Göran Eriksson’s instructions were clear: Zidane was to be tackled and tackled hard. Remarkably, both Lampard and Steven Gerrard escaped bookings for wildly irreverent tackles on the Real Madrid playmaker.
After the restart, France’s magnetic kingpin began to take charge. A stepover here, a backheel there, a scheming glint in the eye – the warning signs were written in royal blue on the grass. As he clunked into gear, so did the French team. The opening exchanges in the second half were dominated by Jacques Santini’s side, but during one of these sieges, England broke free. An aimless clearance was all it took.
Starting his race ten yards inside the England half, Rooney flicked the ball over Lilian Thuram’s head and launched a one-man counter-attack driven by such boundless kinetic energy it might as well have been sponsored by cocaine. Leaving scorch marks in the turf and three flat-footed French defenders in his slipstream, he seared towards the wide-eyed Fabien Barthez; the smack of plastic on plastic rang out like applause as 64,000 seats flipped up, their occupants standing to rapt attention.
Great players are recognisable by their silhouettes. There were a few out there that night. In motion, Zidane was graceful but deliberate. Beckham’s swinging limbs cast a spidery shadow. Thierry Henry was deceitful: flamboyant but understated. When Wayne Rooney bore down on goal, his head down, his boots flashing three times as fast as any of the chasing pack, it looked as though he was propelled by raw aggression – a wind-up toy turned by a jet engine. Even at 19 years of age, his gait was as distinctive as anyone’s.
Dropping his shoulder, he surged past Mikaël Silvestre. Already a yard clear of the centre-half, a buzz-killing limb lunged into frame and denied the teenager the chance to become the youngest goalscorer in European Championship history as he went sprawling. The penalty given, his teammates slapped him on the back. He had played his part. The game was as good as won. Except it wasn’t.
Barthez’s wrists were strong enough to deny Beckham from 12 yards. After his mishit against Turkey the previous year, it was two missed penalties in a row in England colours for the captain. England fans are naturally fatalistic, but even the most world-weary of them couldn’t have predicted what happened next.
Heskey foul. Zidane goal. James foul. Zidane goal. With England weathering the storm, substitute Emile Heskey added to the catalogue of fouls on Zidane by bringing him to the ground 25 yards from goal. He put his soul into the resulting free-kick, walloping it into the top right corner and seemingly rescuing a point for France.
Barely two minutes later, Gerrard under-hit a backpass and David James felled Henry. Penalty. Even with seconds to go, Zizou was unhurried – as he always was. With the coolness of a bomb disposal expert and open-heart surgeon rolled into one, he did what Beckham could not and pumped home the penalty. Those three added minutes were an elevator pitch for his brilliance. Like so many others, England fell victim to the zen of Zidane.
France would top Group B with England qualifying for the first knockout round as runners-up. Both teams would leave the competition at that stage, with France going down 1-0 to eventual champions Greece and England – predictably – losing on penalties to Portugal.
By Adam Williams