“So Portugal celebrating once again, England lose a penalty shootout. Tears on the pitch, no doubt tears right around the country. Another World Cup dream comes to an end. Complete desolation.”
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And so Gary Lineker, voice unusually dreary, drearier than you've ever heard it, narrates the moments immediately following England's defeat to Portugal at the 2006 World Cup.
The players linger on the field. Hunched. Distraught. Rio Ferdinand can't stop crying nor use his legs to stand up. Steven Gerrard lays still on his back trying to remember how to breathe. Frank Lampard just sits and shakes his head in disbelief. Stewart Downing looks a bit lost, probably because he is Stewart Downing.
Ashley Cole glares into the middle distance. It glares back. David Beckham, an empty vessel even among other footballers, has nothing meaningful to say to his teammates. And Gary Neville, eyes wet and red, puffs his chest out just far enough to go over and congratulate the Portuguese players.
It's time we talked about one of the greatest performances we've ever seen from an England player. It was none of them. It's time we talked about Owen Hargreaves.
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Let's be honest, the bar isn't particularly high for standout individual performances under Sven-Goran Eriksson. Only Wayne Rooney's one-man demolition jobs against Switzerland and Croatia at Euro 2004 spring to mind.
But over the course of 120 gruelling minutes in Gelsenkirchen, Owen Hargreaves reminded fans that some players really did care about representing the country, even despite all the weird resistance he received in the press and from the stands as a result of being born in Canada to a Welsh mother.
After being named as a surprise inclusion in the final squad, the Daily Express wrote that the Bayern Munich midfielder would make a good tour guide. The Sun, bizarrely, said he had ‘the public persona of a mass murderer'. Henry Winter believed Hargreaves could ‘count himself lucky to be on board'.
It was likely due to the media reaction that Hargreaves was booed by England supporters after replacing Joe Cole for the final seven minutes of England's opening game against Paraguay. Despite his success at Bayern, where he had started and won a UEFA Champions League in 2001 and was coming off the back of a league and cup double, he was painted as an unnecessary defensive option England didn't need.
Hargreaves was not the fourth striker Eriksson should have taken alongside Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney and Peter Crouch and therefore got the blame. Never mind that a selection was completely wasted on 17-year-old Theo Walcott.
None of this phased Hargreaves, who started in central midfield in England's final group game against Sweden, a 2-2 draw, and then played right-back in the following 1-0 win over Ecuador in the round of 16.
Against Portugal, Sven moved Hargreaves back to anchor the midfield behind Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. What followed was a masterclass.
Off the ball, Hargreaves was everywhere, snapping into Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo like he was, in fact, the mass murderer The Sun had described. The Portuguese midfield had no answer for his tenacity, work rate and determination as he won possession back for England time and time again throughout the game, covering every blade of grass in the process.
On the ball, he'd split Ferdinand and John Terry, recycling with short passes and minimal fuss. When it was on, he'd go more direct or carry himself from deep to break lines. Despite playing as a holding midfielder, Hargreaves was at times the furthest England player forward either driving past his man or directly at him to close down. Then he'd drop right the way back to mop up another Portugal attack.
Petit, Maniche, Tiago. All quality central midfielders. They couldn't get near him. Hargreaves looked quicker, fitter and stronger than everyone else on the pitch. Not only that, it was clear he wanted it more. Every Portugal move seemed to end with the curly-haired, England number 16 strutting away with the ball.
After England went down to ten men following Rooney's stamp on Ricardo Carvalho, it was Hargreaves' total dominance that kept them in the game and even looking as though they might snatch an unlikely winner.
In injury time, he left Miguel and Cristiano Ronaldo for dead with a lung-bursting surge down the wing to create a final goalscoring chance Terry scooped over. Even in extra time, Hargreaves was still – somehow – making selfless runs beyond the last man for doomed England counter-attacks. He simply refused to be beaten. Nobody else in a white shirt was approaching anything close to a sprint.
Portugal had numerical superiority. England had Owen Hargreaves. That was pretty much it. And then to top it all, he still had the legs to step up and rifle in a nerveless penalty as Lampard, Gerrard and Jamie Carragher – brought on in the 119th minute for the sole purpose of taking one – all failed to convert theirs.
Named England's Player of the Year and England's Player of the World Cup, Hargreaves' international career was over by 2008 due to injury.
It's a tragedy because during those two gladiatorial hours he showed that there was a solution for the eternal midfield conundrum that was England's ‘Golden Generation'. It had been Owen Hargreaves all along.
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