God Save the Team

or can soccer superstar Michael Owen do it on his own? In this 22-year-old lad from Liverpool, England has its best chance in 36 years of winning the World Cup.

One hot June day when he was 18 years old, Michael Owen, a soccer ball at his feet, accelerated around an Argentine defender like a Ferrari past a traffic cone. Another defender stepped up, squaring his body. Owen veered past him at a dead run. Just as he seemed about to lose control, he suddenly cocked his right foot midstride some 15 yards from the net and sent the ball in a taut arc past the goalkeeper. A billion people saw it happen.

Owen's goal on that solo run didn't win the 1998 World Cup for his team. It didn't even win that second-round match—England lost to Argentina on penalty kicks after a 2-2 overtime draw. Yet in one moment this Liverpool teenager, who looked a little like Matt Damon, talked a lot like Paul McCartney, and lived down the street from his mum and dad, transformed his country's expectations.

From Hampstead Heath to the pubs of Newcastle, Owen's headlong rush registered as a promise. Led by him, it was now clear, England would win the next World Cup, in 2002, and resume its place as champion of the sport that had sprung from its ancient pastures. This thought simultaneously entered the minds of millions of Englishmen gaping at the goal on their televisions. Owen returned home a hero and a national obsession, all the more because France, the host nation, had won its first World Cup even while seeming, in that maddening French way, blasé about the sport. The London newspapers started a 2002 countdown: 1,400-odd days until England's next chance.

Such cause for optimism was a long time coming. England had won its only World Cup 13 years before Owen was born. It was 1966, and apart from the swinging Londoners buying bell-bottoms on Carnaby Street, the country was in a sullen mood. Taxes were high, African colonies were checking out of the crumbling Empire, the Beatles had stoppedtouring. An era was ending.

That '66 team was made up of taciturn sons of coal miners and factory hands. They played with a steadiness and tenacity that spoke volumes about the strength of the English character. No national moment since Churchill vowed to fight the Nazis on the beaches of England had made the country feel so good about itself as Geoff Hurst's three goals in the final, and the 4-2 victory over West Germany.

But the world was changing. Pelé's Brazilian team, playing with the grace of samba dancers, had brought an almost sexual languor to the game. Brazil won the next World Cup, the first to be televised worldwide. Before long, creative players were emerging from countries that were more commonly the settings of BBC nature documentaries. They migrated to the Italian League and the German League, lured by lucrative contracts. Suddenly, it seemed, a generation had passed since England's championship. By 1985, the country was better known for its loutish fans overturning garbage bins and inciting riots in European cities than for its soccer; in that year English clubs were banned indefinitely from European competition—a punishment for the misbehavior.

Rehabilitation came slowly. Eventually, in1990, the ban was lifted. Highly skilled foreign players arrived. England's loathsome strategy of kicking the ball as far as possible downfield and then running after it evolved into a postmodern approach that was equal parts muscle and grace. Still missing, though, was that single transcendent talent, an English equivalent to Italy's Roberto Baggio or Argentina's legendary Maradona. Then Michael Owen scored his remarkable goal and introduced himself.

Four years later, Owen has not disappointed. At 22 and a smallish five foot eight, he is officially the finest player in Europe, having won European Footballer of the Year for 2001. His hat trick against Germany last September—three goals in a World Cup qualifier—punctuated England's 5-1 rout and led one newspaper to proclaim "Our Finest Hour" in Churchillian hyperbole. Owen's home team, Liverpool, won five elimination tournaments in 2000-2001, an unprecedented achievement.

His highlight reel gets longer each time he pulls on a uniform, with a breathtaking run here and a perfect pass there. But it's the scoring that sets him apart, that innate talent for willing the ball into the net. "Fundamentally, he's a goal scorer, and one who seems to turn it on for big occasions," says Gary Lineker, who played for some of Europe's biggest teams in the eighties but could not lift England out of its doldrums.

Now that role is left to Owen. Yet the rest of his squad remains spotty. If not for a miraculous goal against lowly Greece by David Beckham, a match that Owen missed because of recurring hamstring injuries, England wouldn't have qualified for this World Cup. When play begins this June in Japan and SouthKorea, hosts of the event, Argentina will be favored to win its third World Cup in a quarter century. Defending champion France, formidable Italy, and four-time winner Brazil come next on the odds chart.

This unhappy convergence of expectation and reality spells trouble for Owen, who takes his responsibilities seriously. The hamstring caused him to miss four months of play in 1999 and kept him out of several matches this season. A recurrence in Asia would be a catastrophe.

Owen is sitting in a dressing room inside the BBC's television studios in Shepherd's Bush, London. Star that he is, he has been assigned two dressing rooms, though he has no dressing to do. He's already in eveningwear that looks just as you'd expect, a conservative navy suit paired with an equally conservative navy tie. He looks as if his hair has been parted with a damp comb before a first job interview. Or that he's headed to the senior prom.

Owen has driven down from Liverpool with his family to sit in the audience during a two-hour awards show, though he well knows that his teammate David Beckham, not he, will be named the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year. Beckham, who has lately been benched by his Manchester United team even while captaining the England squad, is a gifted player who makes more news with social engagements, gaffes, and obscene gestures than Owen does with his steadily brilliant play.

Beckham—and you can tell this by the way he is dressed tonight, in a shiny black shirt and a tie that extends only about four inches below his throat, in the prevailing fashion—is the personification of London hip. There is the shaved head and earrings. A country house called Beckingham Palace. Erratic performance on the soccer pitch, virtuosity alternating with embarrassment. The tabloid marriage to Posh Spice, of the Spice Girls, who is as rich and famous as he is.

If Beckham is today's Mick Jagger, Owen is its Paul McCartney. He's the Cute One: loyal and consistent, every mother's son, at heart a Liverpool provincial. He watches the commotion that follows Beckham down a BBC hallway with the same wide-eyed enthusiasm he brings to everything he does. "Maybe it has helped me in my career that David's around to take the spotlight a bit," he says. "I prefer to keep a low profile with my family."

Owen hasn't ever given fans the finger for taunting him, as Beckham has, or brutally kicked an opponent and been ejected from a match for it, as Beckham did. Nor has he been linked romantically with anyone more interesting than his local sweetheart. He has managed to handle the growing pressure since the Argentina goal with a grace that belies his youth. In this way, too, he has earned comparisons to Gary Lineker, who seemed the paragon of grace under pressure until Owen came along to accomplish more and deal with it better.

"To be able to handle everything with such aplomb and dignity and modesty at that age, with all the trappings that come from success, is really quite remarkable," says Lineker, who is now a BBC commentator and who happens to have the dressing room next door. "It's almost as impressive as his football itself. He's got good people around him. He's sensible, thinks about the right things to do. He's already a great ambassador for the game."

"He's so talented and levelheaded, it's a pleasure to work with the boy," agrees Phil Thompson, Liverpool's assistant manager, who runs the team for the ailing skipper, Gérard Houllier. "You know what you are going to get out of him every time. And he gets on so well with all the other lads, superstar though he might be."

Yet Owen is not a comic-strip hero, full of platitudes. In conversation he looks you in the eye and softly, soberly speaks his mind. He bristles at a description of him as an instinctual player, blessed with speed and a goal-scorer's touch. "It's easy to see a player and decide right away that if he runs past someone that he's only got speed, and that's exactly what a lot of people say about me in England," he says. "But if you look at all my goals, maybe twenty percent would be from the speed. I'd like to think I have got a lot more to my game."

He does. His game has evolved significantly since 1998. Owen not only has the finest right foot in England, but a dangerous left foot as well. He's mastered the art of "creating space"—which essentially means running away from everyone else without the ball while at the same time devising ways to get it back. And because Owen draws defenders wherever he goes, he has become a superb passer—a development that suits his personality as well his game.

Still, that doesn't stop him from flinging his arms high in the air and shouting for the ball at every opportunity. "You always want the ball," he says. "You want to take responsibility. You think, 'If I get the ball, I can run past someone' or 'I can score a goal' or 'I can do something.' I want the ball every minute of the game, but I know I cannot have it. Still, it doesn't stop me from shouting for it."

Despite his growing importance to the English psyche and his textbook Liverpudlian accent, all dips and rises like the old Beatles cartoons, Owen, but for the sake of his future glory, might not have been English at all. His father, Terry, played professional soccer for Everton, Liverpool's second team. (Owen still follows Everton even while playing for Liverpool, a delicious quirk that speaks to roots, loyalty, family pride.) Terry Owen spent most of his career in Chester, a small city just south of Liverpool on the Welsh border. After retiring, he stayed on in Hawarden, on the Welsh side. But on the day of Michael's birth, Terry insisted he and his wife drive into Chester so their son would be born a proper Englishman. That way there would be no question about which country he'd ultimately play for.

As an eight-year-old prodigy, Owen once scored nine goals in 20 minutes; two years later, he netted 92 goals in one season, which is like an American kid hitting three home runs in every Little League game all summer long. At 11, he was chosen for the Liverpool youth program. Soccer was his fixation—he had no interest in being a rock star, a fireman, prime minister. While his peers were committing petty arson in school bathrooms, Owen was eating right, getting his sleep, honing his skills. He had plans.

Mostly they involved the World Cup. Even before he understood the concept, he was pretending to play in it. There he is, pushing the ball up the playground. "I'm eight, nine, ten, and I want to be Lineker," he recalls. "You say to yourself, 'Lineker running through the World Cup final,' pretending you were him. That's how I was."

In 1997, Owen made a portentous debut for Liverpool, scoring against Wimbledon. He was 17. At 18 years and two months, he was the youngest player chosen for the English national team in a century. By the time he returned home after the '98 World Cup, his life had changed. "You speak to people, you read the papers, you realize that they're expecting more of you," he says. "Even though you're young, they want you to be the person they look up to. They want you to take the country further. It was after that goal against Argentina that I felt it. They wanted to know what car I drove, my favorite color."

Amid all the tumult, Owen remained the same. He bought up all the houses on a block in his hometown—and moved his family in. He deflected praise and deferred to journalists. And he kept scoring, more than a hundred goals in four seasons. "You find a lot of people who burst onto the scene and do one thing, but I think a smaller percentage actually fulfill their promise," he says. "Thankfully, I've been able to produce well for Liverpool and England. So now, instead of thinking, 'We have a young lad that could be good,' people expect me to be good. But that pressure is what you live for. You want people to expect you to play well, if you've got anything about you."

Those expectations have been so high, and Owen has dreamed of leading England to victory for so long, that he tends to ignore the odds against it. Part of it is breeding. He missed 1966 by more than a decade, but he has been hard-wired to understand just how important another win would be. "It is the height of my ambition," he says. "I know my life would change, but I'd take whatever came with it, just to experience being a World Cup champion. Whatever it took."

Yet most days Owen is a realist. On this night, for example, he is under no illusion that he'll win the BBC award. This is Beckham's stage. And when the balloting is in and his teammate is announced as the winner, Owen leans forward in his chair and claps hard, just as a friend should. Imagine Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley, if only Ripley had been sincere.

Friday night in Liverpool, and rain is falling. George Harrison has died, and the Mersey is choppy, sending rhythmic whacks of water against the pier. Nearby, a gaggle of teenage girls, arms linked, stride under the Christmas lights, singing about Michael Owen.

Music and soccer have made Liverpool famous. For a few years at the end of the seventies, before the ban, Liverpool was the best soccer team in Europe. Since then, the city has had little to boast about. The Cavern, the club where the Beatles played more than 200 times, has been rebuilt as a tourist attraction. Buses carry sightseers past John Lennon's old house, and to the gates of Anfield, the stadium where Liverpool plays. Then everyone files into the local for a pub lunch.

These days, Liverpool is said to play boring soccer: Wait for Owen to score, then hold the lead. But such a strategy has lifted the team to the top of the English Premiership, the nation's top league—a situation made more delightful because Liverpool's main rival, Manchester United, has collected many of the world's best players, including Beckham.

The next afternoon, Liverpool faces Middlesbrough, before the usual sold-out crowd. Beatles songs play on the public-address system as the players stretch. Then the Anfield anthem: Gerry and the Pacemakers' 1963 hit version of "You'll Never Walk Alone." Most fans have no idea that the song comes from Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel. If anything, they think it was written for the club.

This is an unlikely setting for genius, but in the middle of the first half of a scoreless game, genius makes its scheduled appearance. Owen receives a ball 30 yards out from the goal and smashes it, from a standstill, into the upper-right-hand corner of the net, the one place the goalkeeper can't cover.

Only a handful of players could have scored in such fashion. If it were June in Tokyo, it would be the Argentina goal all over again. Steve McClaren, the Middlesbrough manager, seems to have seen a ghost when he relives the moment after the match. "He scores with his head, he scores with his feet, right foot, left foot," McClaren says, eyes wide. "He scores tap-ins, and now we see that he can score from thirty yards. Absolutely incredible."

Owen's goal has rendered the rest of the match unimportant. The Middlesbrough side does not score, Liverpool scores once again, and in that peculiar soccer calculus, a 2-0 game becomes a rout. The crowd starts singing, as soccer crowds do. The tune is "Guantanamera," a dying Cuban patriot's lament—but the substance, for now, is pure idolatry. "One Michael O-o-o-wen, there's only one Michael O-wen," the fans serenade. England's hope is that one is all you need.


Goooaaaal!

The 32 nations that have advanced to the 2002 FIFA World Cup in Japan and Korea starting May 31 are divided into eight groups of four. Each team plays the others in its group; the top two in each group advance to a knockout round. Here are five first-round matches not to miss (all games will be shown in the United States on ESPN, ESPN2, or ABC).

FRANCE-URUGUAY June 6: Skilled and experienced, the French qualified automatically as the titleholders. Senegal on opening night should be a romp, but this match, against the dogged, physical Uruguayans, will be an early sign of how far France can go.

ARGENTINA-ENGLAND June 7: Virtually every international soccer tournament produces a so-called Group of Death. This time around, it's the formidable quartet of England, Argentina, Sweden, and Nigeria. Two of these powers won't advance, and both the dangerously opportunistic Swedes and increasingly polished Nigerians are poised to produce an upset. If that happens, either ambitious England or odds-on favorite Argentina gets bounced. This match may well decide which.

ITALY-CROATIA June 8: Italy's operatic azzurri (so nicknamed for their traditional blue shirts) are a microcosm of the country—beautiful, disorganized, creative, capricious. They glided through an easy qualifying group, but here face perhaps the most underrated team in the tournament, and the one with the stingiest defense. Croatia's biggest names play for some of the world's best teams—and typically play even better when inspired by the nationalism of their embattled homeland.

BRAZIL-CHINA June 8: How good is Brazil? Good enough to win its record fifth World Cup, perhaps, yet this uncharacteristically physical team lost an unheard of six qualifying matches. China, making its World Cup debut after four decades of trying, is led by vagabond coach Bora Milutinovic, a master of the upset.

U.S.A.-POLAND June 14: The Americans have little chance to defeat potent Portugal on June 5, but a win against this accomplished Polish team will likely mean advancement to the knockout round, a major victory.

Bruce Schoenfeld wrote about tennis coach Larry Stefanki in the September 2001 Departures.