On England and France
England never has and never shall lie at the feet of a proud conqueror. So it was said.
That is generally true, save for the exception of the Normans of Northern France and, of course, when Association Football is concerned. The Americans called it soccer, while the Europeans called it football. But for many countless others like myself, we simply know it as the beautiful game.
Perhaps the greatest English invention to Europe was the beautiful game but the English played neither a beautiful nor a memorable game against France on 13th June 2004.
Well, to be fair, Englands performance for most part of the game was rather commendable but it wasnt outstanding by any stretch of imagination. They did manage to contain the fiery French attack and stifled French flair for long periods of time. On the whole, the English defence looked the more comfortable, settled and robust of the two despite of the absence of their best defender, Rio Ferdinand.
It was one of their newly capped players namely Frank Lampard whose headed goal in the 37th minute evidenced the inability of the French to defend effectively. Certainly, the present back four of the French was nowhere in the class of '98 which won the World Cup. They were certainly missing the likes of Laurent Blanc at his best.
On the other hand, the French were clearly more comfortable in attack than the English who certainly had in the back of their minds the spectre of a rampant and fleet-footed Thierry Henrys breaking away and scoring on the counterattack. The French attack came in waves orchestrated by the balding Zinedine Zidane, FIFA World Player of the Year 2004. The English stood firm and taught the French a lesson of their own when young Wayne Rooney broke free and steam rolled his way into the French penalty box, threatening to dispatch a second goal which would have effectively ended the game as a contest in favour of the English. The nervous Silvestre visibly in two, perhaps three minds, hesitated and then instinctively, haplessly brought down the young lion as the latter threatened to bear down on the French goal and it was a penalty - no doubt.
On came Englands captain, the immaculate David Beckham, the English galactico who had scored from the spot for England on another occasion. Beckham was one of the best free kick takers in the modern game but taking a free kick was quite a different matter from taking a penalty. Beckham had a unique approach to the ball and that often exaggerated leaning stance and the twisting of his body when he takes a shot always imparts furiously wicked spin on the ball setting it on a rather ludicrous curved trajectory that has left many a goalkeeper in a lunging despair.
But the French keeper, Fabien Barthez, who was his former club teammate of Beckham, was obviously well aware of Beckham 's dead ball abilities. What happened in the split second after Beckham struck the ball was to have a dramatic impact on the play ten or more minutes later. Barthez could read the direction at which Beckham would have to strike the free kick, just as most of us in front of our TV would have. He was right and the ball ricochet off his outstretched arms. Without a doubt, Silvestre was the most relieved man on the pitch that moment.
That was the beginning of the end but not quite the end; the English still had their lead and most save for the truly foolhardy would have bet on the English to prevail at that stage of the game.
It seems that the Frenchs luck had finally run out after their earlier consecutive triumphs in the World Cup '98 and Euro 2000 and an agonizing defeat was looming.
Then, in a matter of two minutes, lady fate turned her back and smiled on the French. Emile Heskey ,a late England substitute, had brought down a French player just a few metres outside the English penalty box rather needlessly. Zidane stepped up and curled the ball into the lower right-hand corner of the English net in a most imperious fashion. David James, the English keeper, stood and watch as the ball sailed unhampered into the net.
England was crestfallen. After 81 minutes of dogged resistance, a moment of indiscretion and another of folly had cost them the two points which they probably deserved more over the French.
Then the disaster escalated into a full-scale catastrophe when the usually dependable Steven Gerrard mysteriously choose to hit a woefully misconceived back pass to his keeper even though many other options were available. The ball fell instead to Thierry Henry, of all persons, who sped into the English penalty box without resistance. James challenged for the ball but was doomed to miss that one. Instead he clattered into the on-rush, and Henry and the referee had no choice here but to award a penalty.
Zidane came up and converted as a matter of course. Fittingly, the referee blew the full-time whistle upon the re-start. It was a close run thing for the French but victory was sweet nevertheless. For the English, it was sheer agony. The whole issue of making it past the quarterfinals is now in doubt.
Lightning does strike twice in football.