About That Game is a series looking at the data stories underpinning classic matches. This edition looks back at England vs. Argentina at the 1998 FIFA World Cup, a meeting that saw chaos, drama and a penalty shootout win for La Albiceleste in Saint-Étienne.
International football rivalries are rarely intercontinental, but the ill-feeling between Argentina and England is an exception. The rivalry emerged in the latter half of the 20th century, partly due to the 1982 Falklands War between Argentina and the United Kingdom, but also on the pitch thanks to controversial World Cup meetings between the two sides in 1966 and 1986. This meeting in 1998 certainly didn’t help to heal the rift.
The 1966 meeting at Wembley is referred to in Argentina as el robo del siglo, translated simply to “the theft of the century,” referring to both Geoff Hurst’s goal in the 1-0 victory that the Argentines claimed to be offside, but also the unfairness of captain Antonio Rattín’s dismissal in the second half. This red card led to unsavoury scenes that spilled over post-match when England manager Alf Ramsey refused to allow his players to swap shirts and then labelled the Argentine’s as “animals,” even though England conceded 35 fouls in that very match.
Twenty years later, the two sides would meet in a competitive fixture for the first time since that occasion, as well as the first meeting between the sides since the Falklands War four years previous. The story of the game was dominated by Diego Maradona, both in his ability to fool the officials with his ‘Hand of God’ goal, as well as the sublime talent he showed when scoring his second goal – later voted the best goal in World Cup history. This fixture fuelled the already tense rivalry between the two nations, and Argentina saw the victory as a form of revenge for both the Falklands War and the 1966 World Cup defeat.
Fast-forward to 1998. Both England and Argentina headed to the World Cup in France as two of the favourites for the trophy – Glenn Hoddle’s Three Lions were ranked fifth in the world, while Argentina occupied sixth.
England arrived at the tournament off the back of a strong Euro 96 campaign on home turf, having reached the semi-finals before being knocked out on penalties by Germany. They followed this up with an unexpected victory a year before the World Cup, at the 1997 Tournoi de France – beating Brazil, France and Italy to the trophy. This victory was sandwiched between a successive qualification campaign for France 98, beating top-seeded Italy to first place in the group following a heroic display in Rome stemming from a tactical masterclass from coach Glenn Hoddle.
England’s 22-man World Cup squad didn’t contain a single player with World Cup experience – not helped by the failure to qualify in 1994 – with a mix of players who performed admirably at the 1996 European Championships and young talent that entered the squad following that semi-final knockout.
England captain Alan Shearer had endured an injury-hit season domestically, appearing in less than half of Newcastle’s Premier League games in 1997-98 (17) and scoring just twice in the top flight. However, Hoddle had the precocious talent of Michael Owen to call upon – the 18-year-old had scored 18 goals in his first full top-flight season to win the Premier League Golden Boot.
Owen had only played 281 minutes for England prior to the 1998 World Cup but was one of the few players to impress in their warm-up games for the tournament and netted the only goal in a 1-0 friendly win over Morocco on the eve of the finals. The Liverpool striker scored England’s only goal in a disappointing 2-1 defeat to Romania in the second group-stage game to become the youngest English scorer in a World Cup at just 18 years and 190 days old.
England’s squad contained 22 players with an average of 22 caps before the tournament began – one of those players under this average was David Beckham (15).
Beckham arrived at France 98 having assisted more goals in the Premier League across 1997-98 than any other player (13) but was unable to get a place in the starting XI for the opening two games against Tunisia and Romania, despite being a constant figure through qualification. Hoddle was said to be concerned about his lack of focus, pointing to his off-field relationship with Spice Girl Victoria Adams. There was plenty of spice in Beckham’s performance against Colombia to seal a place in the knockout stages, however – the Manchester United midfielder curled in a beautiful free kick to secure a 2-0 win. It was his first goal for the Three Lions.
With Paul Gascoigne not making the squad, England relied on Beckham for their creative spark. Perhaps you’ve read the stories about Gazza’s exclusion from the 1998 squad in a pre-tournament training camp (worth its own article), but the reality is that he’d played only 284 of a possible 720 minutes in qualification for the finals and had ended the season in the second tier of English club football at Middlesbrough.
Much of England’s strength under Hoddle was their solid defensive record. Coming into this fixture, they’d conceded just nine goals in 23 internationals under him, but two of those had come in the 2-1 defeat to Romania just eight days before the meeting with Argentina.
With Brazil already qualified as 1994 World Cup winners, Argentina cruised to qualification by topping the South American group. Their 22-man squad for the finals consisted of world-class talent from clubs in Spain’s La Liga and the Italian Serie A, many of whom were in their peak years. This felt like an Argentinean side that could challenge the best in the world.
One of their star players was 29-year-old striker Gabriel Batistuta, who’d come off the back of a 24-goal season at Fiorentina, while Hernán Crespo – seven years his junior – had scored 14 times for fellow Serie A club Parma in 1997-98. Creative midfielders Ariel Ortega and Juan Sebastián Verón were still only 24 and 23 respectively, while their defensive unit containing talent such as Javier Zanetti, Roberto Ayala and Roberto Sensini had helped Argentina keep eight successive clean sheets in an eight-game winning run ahead of this Round of 16 match.
Daniel Passarella – a World Cup winner with Argentina as a player in 1978 – was looking to become just the third man to win the competition as both a player and a coach following Mário Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer. He got off to the perfect start too, as Argentina were just one of two sides to win all three group games alongside hosts France but were the only team to not concede a single goal in their three group matches.
The tie between England and Argentina was to be played at Saint-Etienne’s Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, with a capacity of just over 30,000. This relatively small ground helped to heighten the atmosphere and contributed to one of the best World Cup matches in recent history.
The thought of one of England or Argentina leaving the World Cup at the first knockout hurdle added tension. Any game between two footballing superpowers, with expectations of success back in their relative countries would be tense, but two nations with a rivalry like Argentina versus England? New levels.
Ahead of the game, Adidas ran an advert featuring their poster-boy Beckham. “After tonight, England vs. Argentina will be remembered for what a player did with his feet,” was the slogan – a spin on the Hand of God from 12 years before. Little did they know how prophetic those words would be.
Beckham earned a place in the starting line-up for the second successive game, following his impact in the win over Colombia. He partnered Paul Ince in the centre of midfield with Paul Scholes in a more advanced role behind the strike partnership of Shearer and Owen. Hoddle’s use of wing backs saw Graeme Le Saux on the left and Darren Anderton is a less-familiar role on the right – a formation nearly matched by Argentina, except for a deeper lying midfielder – Lazio’s Matías Almeyda, over a No. 10.
The game began dramatically, and referee Kim Milton Nielsen became a central figure from the start.
Just five minutes in, David Seaman rushed out of his goal and clattered into Diego Simeone to give away a penalty. This was Simeone’s first major involvement in the match – it wouldn’t be his last.
Batistuta was a striker known for his incredible shot power. Seaman guessed right for the penalty but could only divert the ball into the net, such was the ferocity of the strike. Many other takers would have seen the penalty saved, but not Batigol. 1-0 to Argentina after six minutes.
Just over three minutes later, Owen’s threat became apparent – winning England a penalty after picking the ball up in space halfway into the Argentine half and spinning to run at Ayala. The penalty was soft, but Ayala’s careless challenge on Owen was a dangerous decision against someone as quick and nimble as the England youngster. His strike partner Shearer slammed the penalty home into the top corner to give Carlos Roa no chance. 1-1 and only 10 minutes played.
Then came that goal. Within the opening 15 minutes, it had already become clear that Argentina were terrified of Owen’s pace. The Argentina defence made decisions that didn’t help cope with that fear, dropping so deep and allowing the 18-year-old to advance at will, just like the move to win the penalty for the first goal.
Owen’s second World Cup goal was vastly different to his opportunistic first-time finish against Romania to open his tournament tally. Just 6.3 seconds after picking up a pass from Beckham, he travelled from the centre circle to the Argentina box and left both José Chamot and a static Ayala for dead before a clinical finish past Roa. He was just 18 years and 198 days old at the time and is remains the youngest English player to score a knockout-stage goal in an international tournament.
Argentina hadn’t conceded a goal for eight matches but had been breached twice in 15 minutes and 29 seconds of this match – the first time England had scored two goals this early in an international for nine years, since doing so against Albania in 1989.
Seaman’s goal wasn’t threatened again with the game ticking down to half-time. Argentina had attempted four speculative shots from outside the box following Owen’s strike in the 16th minute, but none of danger. Then 15 seconds before the 45-minute mark, Sol Campbell was adjudged to have fouled Claudio López, despite little contact. A very soft decision from referee Nielsen, but a situation that England now needed to concentrate for and see out the half. They didn’t manage to do so.
England were expecting a Batistuta thunderbolt, but the Fiorentina striker ran over the ball, leaving Veron to pass to Zanetti – who’d snuck out of, and behind the England wall to strike home unchallenged. An excellent goal to grace an excellent first half of World Cup football.
“We had worked on that for four years, but it was the first time it succeeded. It came off perfectly when we needed it most,” Zanetti revealed to Eurosport years later.
England kicked off to restart the game, and then the half-time whistle blew. Hoddle’s team talk would need a re-write.
2-2 at half-time in a World Cup game is rare. This match is one of only six occasions in World Cup history to see both teams score at least two goals in the first half, and the most recent time it’s occurred in the tournament. It was the first match to do so since Portugal’s astonishing 5-3 win over North Korea in the 1966 quarter-finals (3-2 to North Korea at half-time).
There would be no more goals scored in the game, but the remainder of the match wouldn’t be any less dramatic.
Just 37 seconds into the second half, Simeone fouled Beckham from behind. After a quick ‘hands-up’ apology to the referee, he is petulantly kicked on the back of his knee by Beckham’s raised foot. Most players think little of it, apart from some pushing and shoving between Batistuta and Shearer, but to the astonishment of the majority, Nielsen hands a yellow to Simeone before returning to his back pocket to brandish a red card to Beckham.
Beckham became only the second England player to be sent off in a World Cup match, following Ray Wilkins against Morocco in 1986. Argentina may have felt that this was payback for Rattín’s dismissal in 1966.
England would go on to play the remaining 75 minutes of this match with a man less than Argentina, but they wouldn’t be dominated. This despite Hoddle having to move to a 4-4-1 formation with Owen and Shearer taking it in turns to drop deeper on the right side of midfield.
This obviously had a negative effect on the ability of both England strikers to get forward. Shearer had more touches in the final third of the pitch across the opening 45 minutes (16) than he did in the next 75 (15), while it damaged Owen’s threat even more. His final-third touches after Beckham’s dismissal fell to eight in the final 75 minutes after having 12 in the opening half of the game alone.
Before Beckham’s red, Argentina had enjoyed 63.3% possession, but this only increased to 65.7% in the time that England had 10 men on the pitch. In fact, England still managed to attempt 11 shots following Beckham’s dismissal, six fewer than Argentina (17), and they even had one more shot on target than their opponents (3-2) in those 75 minutes.
It would have been 12 shots and four on target, had Sol Campbell’s header not been ruled out for a foul in the 81st minute. The goal was disallowed as Shearer was deemed to have fouled goalkeeper Roa – a harsh decision and with Argentina having run out of ideas in attack and resorting to long-range shots, it quite possibly could have seen the Three Lions through. Even in the incident before this ‘goal,’ England would have been awarded a penalty in today’s game with Veron clearly moving his arm towards the ball in the box from Shearer’s free kick, to deflect the ball out for a corner.
England battled their way to a penalty shootout, which felt like a victory having played most of the match with 10 men.
Coming into the 1998 World Cup, England had been knocked out of the 1990 World Cup and the 1996 European Championship on penalties – both times against the Germans, but they’d successfully dispatched Spain in the quarter-final of Euro 96 on penalties. While no England fan would describe their side as experts at this point, the sheer terror of shootouts that developed in the 2000s was yet to form.
In the build-up to France 98, England had an opportunity to practice penalties in a match scenario – against Belgium in the King Hassan II International Cup in Morocco just a month before this game. After a 0-0 draw, they went on to lose that shootout too – 4-3, with Rob Lee and Les Ferdinand both seeing their spot kicks saved. Alongside Owen and Paul Merson (who both took and scored a penalty in this shootout vs. Argentina), Beckham was one player to score in that shootout against Belgium and would have undoubtedly been picked to take one in this match against Argentina had he not been sent off.
After Sergio Berti and Shearer had both scored to open the shootout, Crespo was to become the first player to miss with Argentina’s second penalty. Paul Ince then missed for England, and they were unable to capitalise. Following five successive penalties across both teams, David Batty was to be the unlucky player to see his crucial effort saved and send England home from the World Cup. Batty would later admit that it was the first penalty he’d ever taken as a professional and his England career could have ended there, but he decided to finish with a red card against Poland in 1999 instead – a trademark way to go out.
Unlike 1990, with Chris Waddle and Stuart Pearce, or 1996, with Gareth Southgate, there was little vilification of Batty and Ince following their crucial penalty misses in the shootout. That was all saved for Beckham.
The Daily Mirror led with the headline of “Ten Brave Lions, One Stupid Boy” – factually incorrect anyway, England having used 14 players. They even went as far as producing a darts board with Beckham’s face replacing the bullseye, for people to print out and use at home.
Of course, there was more powering the national anger towards Beckham than just the red card. Beckham’s fashion and lifestyle choices were seen as the antonym of the stereotypical footballer. United boss Sir Alex Ferguson said at the time, “He could hardly have been more vilified if he had committed murder or high treason.” He was right. Beckham – 23 years old at the time – had to face appalling actions such as an effigy hung from a lamppost, and even intruders at his home, not to mention terrible abuse from opposition fans on his return to Premier League action.
Of course, there was a happier ending to the story for Beckham, who received redemption in an England shirt at the following World Cup in 2002, scoring the only goal of the game from the penalty spot in a 1-0 victory over Argentina – a result that contributed to the Argentines’ unexpectedly exiting the competition in the group stage.
Owen – undoubtedly the star of this game – went on to score 40 goals in 89 games for England, but having been England’s youngest World Cup goalscorer, many might have expected him to break Bobby Charlton’s then-England record of 49 goals. Maradona thought Owen had it all, revealing in his autobiography El Diego that Owen was the only good thing to come out of the 1998 World Cup. He said, “Speed, cunning, balls. I hope injury doesn’t destroy him.” In the end, it did, much to the misfortune of Owen and England, who he played his last game for in March 2008, aged just 28 years and 103 days old – less than 10 years after this match.
In 1998, Argentina managed to go one stage further before being knocked out by the Netherlands in the quarter-finals. Just like against England, it looked as if the game was heading for extra time, but some magic from Dennis Bergkamp sent the Dutch through to face Brazil in the semis.
Goalkeeper Carlos Roa would never play another tournament match for Argentina. Only a year after this match, he walked away from football and went off the grid. As a Seventh-day Adventist, he believed the world would soon end, so lived in isolation with his family awaiting the apocalypse in the mountains near Córdoba, Spain.
Glenn Hoddle only managed England in four more games, before having his contract terminated for some controversial comments made in an interview with The Times. With a 61% win ratio in charge of the Three Lions, he was the most successful England manager since Alf Ramsey (also 61%), but without a World Cup trophy to show for it.
Thirteen of England’s 22-man squad at the 1998 World Cup were named in their selection for Euro 2000 under the management of Kevin Keegan, but a woeful group-stage exit saw the FA to eventually look outside of England for the first time for the following tournament, with Swedish boss Sven-Göran Eriksson taking after Keegan resigned during qualification for the 2002 World Cup.
England’s penalty shootout woes didn’t improve, with further exits at Euro 2004 and World Cup 2006 to Portugal and a shootout defeat to Italy at Euro 2012. It wasn’t until the 2018 World Cup Round of 16 against Colombia that they were able to end their run of five successive shootout defeats in competitive international tournaments.
Argentina haven’t had much more luck at World Cup tournaments since 1998, though unlike England they have reached a final in that time with their 2014 extra-time defeat to Germany. Their top player in 1998, Gabriel Batistuta went on to score 54 goals for his country before retiring after the 2002 World Cup. This tally was a national team record until a certain Lionel Messi entered the scene. Batigol later told ESPN “You go around the world and people say, ‘He’s the top scorer for the Argentina national team,’ but the advantage I have is that I’m second to an extra-terrestrial.”
Both England and Argentina will play at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, and if the stars align, they may face one another as early as the quarter-finals. There’s little doubt that it would be another classic.
You can enjoy this game in its entirety, as FIFA have uploaded the full match footage here.
Enjoy this? Subscribe to our newsletter to receive exclusive content.