World Cup Saints ‘n’ Sinners

Suarez, Barkley, Sturridge  – who’ll be a star at this year’s World Cup? Merseyside players have had mixed fortunes in the tournament over the years. John Hinton looks at five examples. (This article is taken from Issue 5 of The Merseysider magazine. Cartoons by Spanner.)

Alan Ball

Alan Ball was 21 and weeks away from joining Everton when he won a World Cup winners’ medal at Wembley in July 1966. Also in the team that memorable afternoon were Liverpool’s magisterial striker Roger Hunt and Everton’s Ray Wilson, often described as England’s finest ever full back.

Ball didn’t play in all of the early tournament matches, but for the quarter-final against Argentina manager Alf Ramsey settled on the team that would play through to the end of the championship, and Ball was in it. He became the engine room of the midfield, a perpetual motion machine whose gritty, hardworking approach complemented Bobby Charlton’s artistry and flair. The quarter-final is most remembered for some brutal Argentinian tackling and for the furore that followed the dismissal of the Argentine captain, Antonio Rattin. England won 1 – 0 and with the final now in sight the whole country was behind them. The semi-final against Portugal was a glorious match, with some beautiful football from both sides and England the 2 – 1 victors.

The dramatic events of the final against West Germany need little repetition here. The sides exchanged the lead during the first 90 minutes then, in extra time, there was Geoff Hurst’s disputed goal, which hit the crossbar and bounced over (or on) the goal line. Roger Hunt could have followed it in, but it’s been said the way he did react – throwing his hands up in celebration – helped to convince the linesman it was a goal. With some of the German players famously thinking it was all over, Hurst completed his hat trick at the death to seal a 4 – 2 victory.

Ball was one of England’s best players that day, his tireless running throughout the 120 minutes prompting one journalist to compare him to the legendary runner Emil Zatopek. After the official banquet in the evening, Ball and some of the other players celebrated by going to watch Ronnie Corbett performing in cabaret. A different era indeed.

Gary Lineker

Gary Lineker can be a very irritating television presenter, but he was some player – and unlike many his club form was often duplicated when he played for England. In the 1986 and 1990 World Cup tournaments he scored 10 goals in 12 matches.

In Mexico in 1986 he scored a hat trick against Poland in the first stage and another couple against Paraguay in the second round. Then came a quarter-final against Argentina, where he made up an Everton quartet alongside Peter Reid, Gary Stevens and Trevor Steven. There was already historic (and, after the Falklands war, partly political) bad feeling between the two sides. Peter Reid later recalled, ‘I’ve played in big games in club football, but I can’t tell you what the atmosphere was like that day. We were the enemy, without a doubt.’ England lost 2 – 1; Argentina’s first was Maradona’s notorious ‘hand of God’ goal, but there could be no complaints about his second, which crowned a wondrous dribble. Barcelona’s interest in Lineker was strengthened by his World Cup display and they signed him after the championship.

The 1990 tournament in Italy was England’s best performance of recent decades. Lineker was again prolific en route to a semi-final against the old enemy, Germany. He scored again, but England lost on penalties (though Lineker converted his). The footage from the game that’s most often shown is of Paul Gascoigne bursting into tears after getting booked; Lineker looks at the bench as if to say, ‘Watch him – his head’s gone.’ It was the beginning of Gascoigne’s ill-starred celebrity status.

John Aldridge

The Republic of Ireland have only reached three World Cup tournaments, and two of those occasions (1990 and 1994) were during Jack Charlton’s managerial reign. Big Jack’s side won the hearts of fans all over the world with their resilient, never-say-die approach. It wasn’t pretty, but it was effective enough to defeat Italy in 1994 and get them to the quarter-finals in 1990.

John Aldridge, a key member of the team, was eligible to play for them because of his Irish grandmother. He was one of a band of players (Liverpool’s Ray Houghton was another) who to all other intents and purposes were English. They were branded ‘mercenaries’ by some, but their commitment to the Irish cause soon silenced the critics.

Aldridge’s personal moment of worldwide fame was actually on the touchline rather than the pitch – a bizarre, protracted argument with a UEFA official in the 1994 game against Mexico. Charlton had already rowed with UEFA officialdom over the difficulties of getting water to players who were wilting under the searing heat (so vocal was he on the issue that Terry Venables speculated he might be moonlighting for a water company). When attempts to bring Aldo on as a substitute suffered interminable delay, swear words, insults and water bottles flew as Charlton and Aldridge both turned on the hapless official. Impressively, some of Aldridge’s rant was in Spanish, possibly because there were so many Mexicans around (unfortunately the official was Egyptian).

The incident overshadowed the fine headed goal Aldridge scored when he eventually came on. Ireland still lost 2 – 1, but Aldo’s goal meant they got through to the next round on goal difference. Ironically, despite a phenomenal career record of 476 goals in all competitions it was the only goal he scored in a World Cup tournament.

Michael Owen

Sadly, Michael Owen’s international career never quite lived up to the promise of the wonder goal he scored as an 18 year old against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup tournament. He’s not alone in this, a member (like Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard) of an under-achieving ‘golden generation’ of English players.

He came to the 1998 World Cup in France on the back of a promising first full season with Liverpool. Even so, he wasn’t assured of a place in Glenn Hoddle’s starting line-up and was on the bench for the early games. But he was picked to start against Argentina in the second round. The match began at breakneck pace, with a sixth minute penalty goal for Argentina followed by an equalising England penalty four minutes later after Owen was fouled. A little over fifteen minutes had elapsed when Owen set off on a dazzling, high speed run from the centre circle. He waltzed past two Argentinian players then buried the ball in the top left corner of the net. It was the launchpad for his career, and Owen was a superstar from that moment on. As for the game, Argentina equalised, Beckham was famously (and somewhat harshly) sent off for a petulant kick and England inevitably lost on penalties.

The highlight of the rest of Michael Owen’s England career was a hat trick in 2001’s celebrated 5 – 1 defeat of Germany in a World Cup qualifying match. In the subsequent 2002 tournament in Japan, he scored in the quarter-final against Brazil to put England 1 – 0 up, but the South Americans deservedly turned things round and won 2 – 1. In 2006 in Germany his performances were hampered by injuries and England again went out in the quarter-final.

Wayne Rooney

Wayne Rooney has the chance to redeem himself at this year’s World Cup Finals, but as things stand he’s the epitome of England’s seemingly unending malaise. His electrifying performances for Everton brought an early call-up (aged 17) to the national squad, and records soon began to tumble: England’s youngest ever international player, then their youngest ever goal scorer. But though his massive potential was frequently (if not totally) fulfilled at club level, for England it’s all been a bit of a damp squib.

2006 was the year of the WAGs as well as of Rooney’s first World Cup tournament. The media circus surrounding the players’ wives and girlfriends at that year’s championship in Germany wasn’t entirely their own fault, but it all added to the general impression of players who off the pitch led lives of pampered excess while on it they couldn’t deliver the goods when it mattered. They rarely impressed on their way to the quarter-final and another defeat on penalties, to Portugal. Rooney was sent off for stamping on a player who’d fouled him. There was a suspicion that the Portuguese, aware of Rooney’s volatility, had deliberately sought to provoke him, and Ronaldo’s wink to his bench (implying ‘job done’) seemed to confirm this.

A veil is best drawn over 2010, when an abysmal England achieved one win in four games and were thrashed 4 – 1 by Germany in the second round. Rooney’s churlish response to the fans’ discontent after a goalless draw against Algeria didn’t do the team any favours either.

Rooney has yet to score at a World Cup tournament. Barring injuries he’ll no doubt be there again in Brazil this summer, and it should help that this time there’s so little pressure. England go into the Finals with expectations the lowest they’ve ever been – but don’t be surprised if an early victory or two doesn’t start raising those deluded hopes again…

Cartoons by Spanner.