The night sky was nowhere to be seen. The roof was closed. The cameras were out for David Beckham. The heat was on for England.
The World Cup draw is one of the most iconic aspects of the greatest sporting tournament on earth. It always delivers.
Down on the pitch, under the steep sloping seats of Japan’s indoor Sapporo Dome, Sven-Göran Eriksson’s second tournament match as England manager was set up irresistibly as a battle for the ages. A historic clash so brimming with narrative and context that it was going to be memorable regardless of the football produced.
England against Argentina. Second group game. The 2002 FIFA World Cup.
“I made my way up to Sapporo on the bullet train,” recalls England fan Ron Grainger, a seasoned Three Lions traveller who had been to Spain 82 and Italia 90 to support the team. And when he had emigrated to the United States in 1993, he thought he’d timed it perfectly, ahead of a US World Cup the following year. Alas, the Netherlands — and lowly San Marino — ensured it wasn’t perfect at all. England failed to qualify. When they needed magic beans, all they got was a turnip.
So by the time the 2002 World Cup came round, Grainger simply had to be in Sapporo for this clash.
“There were probably a couple of thousand Argentinian fans at the stadium,” he recalls. “We hung out in the main square in the afternoon. It was a pretty friendly environment.”
However, the backdrop to the game was anything but friendly.
It was only four years previously at the round of 16 stage of France 98 that Beckham’s kick out at Diego Simeone saw the Manchester United midfielder sent off. Glenn Hoddle’s England struggled to recover from that setback. Argentina prevailed from the spot in Saint-Étienne and promptly goaded their opponents from the team bus as they left the stadium.
The rivalry went further back than that, though. Back in 1986, England had been knocked out in Mexico by a Diego Maradona brace that’s etched in World Cup history. The first, the infamous Hand of God that deceived the referee to put La Albiceleste in front; the second, a miraculous solo run that left England’s players trailing his wake.
Add to that the Falklands War between the two nations in 1982 and Sir Alf Ramsey branding Argentina’s 1966 side “animals” after an ill-tempered World Cup quarter-final, and there was plenty of bad blood over the years.
“As a fan, I’m never looking for revenge because it’s just a game of football. But I thought that Simeone mugged David Beckham, got him sent off and I really wanted England to win,” admits Grainger.
“[It was] nothing to do with the Falklands. I’ve met great Argentinian fans at World Cups. I really wanted England to win that game, but purely because I thought they’d done us over in 1998. I also felt that Maradona’s Hand of God was unforgivable. But a fantastic player, of course.”
Fellow England fan Gregory Philip follows the national team home and away. And those tournament departures at the hands of Argentina were at the forefront of his mind as he took his seat at the Sapporo Dome, too.
“1986 was my second year of university and my exams finished the day before the quarter-final,” Philip remembers. “Myself and a friend were going out to Mexico, had we beaten Argentina.
“France , I was more peeved with the fact that we didn’t take it to Argentina after Beckham was sent off. It was a daft sending off. If we’d have played to the strength that we had — the shock factor of Michael Owen and his pace and the fact they were scared stiff of him — rather than sending Shearer out to the wings, I’m absolutely convinced they’d have been down to 10 men within 10 or 15 minutes themselves. At the time, I thought we were potential winners of that World Cup.”
Four years later and Eriksson’s side started brightly. Sol Campbell and Rio Ferdinand provided the solid base from which England could build. Beckham and Paul Scholes took the right and left wings respectively. Emile Heskey and Michael Owen was a natural pairing up front. Owen had already run the South Americans ragged at the last World Cup. Could he do so again? And could he this time end up on the right side of victory?
Argentina’s ranks boasted Gabriel Batistuta, Javier Zanetti, then-Manchester United midfielder Juan Sebastián Verón and, yes, Beckham’s arch nemesis Simeone.
Beckham’s influence started to rise and England’s share of the ball rose with it. Owen twisted and turned and struck the post with a shot through Walter Samuel’s legs. Kily González came close at the other end, thundering just over the bar with a fizzing volley.
England were the side pushing for a lead before the break. And everyone looked like they needed a break; it was scorching. Everyone bar Owen. He received the ball on the left of the area, jinked inside and went down after the tiniest clip from Mauricio Pochettino.
“In fairness, when you look at him [Pochettino] in those days, he had this great big mop of curly hair”, Philip remembers. “If he’d have walked past me while he was walking into Southampton for the first time, I wouldn’t have recognised him.”
If the Argentina defender have walked past Owen he might have been alright. But that slight jab at the diminutive attacker’s leg was enough for Pierluigi Collina to point to the spot. Owen had earned it and now it was Beckham’s moment. Could he hit the back of the net with Simeone watching on just yards behind him?
He may have never struck a ball cleaner in his entire career. Beckham slammed the spot-kick down the centre of the goal and it was advantage England. Half-time. Pause. Go again.
Argentina would need an improved half of football if they were to quash England. Eriksson’s side, in red and white, had shown they were well up for the occasion in the first half. The second period would prove just the same.
Scholes crashed a volley from range which Pablo Cavallero punched clear. Beckham skewed wide. Substitute Teddy Sheringham wound up a side volley which Cavallero pushed over as well. England were irrepressible at one end and at the other, looked as though they’d predicted everything Argentina were hurling at them.
With less than 15 minutes to go, Pochettino so nearly clattered home a header from a corner. What a response to his penalty concession that could have been. David Seaman got down to block. England dug in. And in what might be the very first example of conscious England time-wasting in a major tournament — the sort of savviness Wayne Rooney called for from his team-mates 14 years later at Euro 2016 — the Three Lions got the job done.
Seaman shunted one final goal-kick down field and Collina put the whistle to his mouth. England had beaten Argentina at the World Cup for the first time since 1966. An omen? They hoped so.
It wasn’t, of course. Eriksson and England be dumped out at the quarter-final stage, falling prey to Brazil and to Ronaldinho’s lobbed free-kick.
But their hopes were sky high after this win and still so after a draw with Nigeria in the final group game sent them through to a last-16 meeting with Denmark where they’d once again turn on the style to prevail.
“It was a great thing to be there,” Grainger says about the Argentina win.
“I was to Beckham’s left,” says Philip. “That felt like quite a lot of redemption.”
But it wasn’t until a week later that Philip formed his take-home memory of that match.
“The day after [England’s game against] Nigeria, we went straight from Osaka back to Tokyo,” he says. “We made our way back to Narita Airport and I’ve got some photographs of a particularly pissed-off Diego Simeone getting his flight back to Argentina after they’d been eliminated. His son was smiling because he thought I was being nice. But I was saying, ‘Are you going home? Beckham’s not going home! Why are you going home? Are you out? Beckham’s not out!’
“He was absolutely incandescent with rage. He knew exactly what I was on about. As soon as he heard the word ‘Beckham’, he knew. He was just angry. What a perfect way to be able to finish the group stage, by mugging off Diego Simeone.”