Can the Empire Strike Back? Long-suffering England hopes the force is with its talented young striker, Michael Owen

June 10, 2002
June 10, 2002

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June 10, 2002

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Can the Empire Strike Back? Long-suffering England hopes the force is with its talented young striker, Michael Owen

For years Michael Owen has lived the ultimate English schoolboy
dream. Only Harry Potter has had a more magical ride: In 1998,
at 18, Owen became the youngest player in the 20th century to
play for England, then the youngest to score for England, then
the youngest Englishman to play in a World Cup. BOY WONDER, the
tabloids dubbed him. It seemed just another perfectly plotted
chapter when he stepped in for the injured David Beckham in
April to become, at 22, the youngest national-team captain since
the legendary Bobby Moore, who in 1966 led England to its only
World Cup championship. The Times of London cheered Owen's
ascension in an editorial. Three minutes into his first game
wearing the captain's armband--a friendly against Paraguay in
England's farewell to the home fans before leaving for the 2002
World Cup--Owen smacked a header into the net and England went
on to win by four goals. Bobby Moore, indeed!

This is an article from the June 10, 2002 issue Original Layout

On Sunday night, at a sparkling new stadium in Saitama, Japan,
packed with England fans, Owen's golden glide became something
else entirely. He's still 22, still one of the world's great
strikers, but when the sore-footed Beckham--back in the lineup
for the first time in seven weeks--handed the armband back to
Owen and walked gingerly off the pitch with 63 minutes gone in
England's opening World Cup match against Sweden, all the
pressure, all the history, all the nationwide yearning that
comes with being England's soccer hero bore down squarely on
Owen's back for the first time. At that instant his World Cup
career became a matter of performance, not promise. On this
night he didn't perform. There were no spectacular goals, no
breathtaking runs. Caught in a thicket of Swedish defenders,
with his defense falling apart and his goalkeeper under siege,
Owen spent much of the game shuffling his tiny feet, spitting
curses into the air.

In London, that's the cue for tabloid panic. England tied Sweden
1-1 but could easily have lost the game by two or three goals.
For much of the second half an English band kept playing the
theme from The Great Escape. It has been 34 years since the
English beat Sweden, and if they couldn't rectify that bit of
history--with a Swedish coach, no less--one could only imagine
how they would do in this Friday's showdown against Argentina.
Forget the national obsession with regaining the soccer throne;
it's revenge time again. Great Britain may have won the Falkland
Islands war in 1982, but Argentina has made the English pay for
it ever since. First came Diego Maradona's Hand of God goal in
the 1986 World Cup. Then, four years ago, Beckham became a
victim of Argentine trickery: After being fouled by Diego
Simeone, he brain-locked and lightly kicked the downed Simeone,
who reacted as if he'd been grievously wounded by the blow.
Beckham was sent packing. England lost again.

Beckham has long since redeemed himself as England's captain and
Manchester United's keystone, but all that bad karma came
flooding back during an April game between Man U and Deportivo
La Coruna when Argentine midfielder Aldo Pedro Duscher broke a
metatarsal bone in Beckham's left foot with a brutal tackle.
ARGIE DID IT!!! one tabloid screamed. On Sunday, Beckham
returned to lash a gorgeous first-half corner kick that set up
England's lone goal, a header by Sol Campbell. But midway
through the second half Beckham's lack of conditioning and
renewed pain in his foot forced him out of the game. Asked if he
would play against Argentina, Beckham offered only, "I hope so."

Which, of course, ratchets up the pressure on Owen, who may be
the only Englishman looking forward to the game. After all, his
finest hour came against the Argentines. In the '98 World Cup
loss that saw Beckham so thoroughly suckered, Owen produced a
goal for the ages: Blowing by three defenders, moving like
mercury and striking like lightning, he rocketed the ball past
keeper Carlos Roa with such authority that, for England fans, it
made the loss almost palatable. That night a friend rang Owen's
mobile phone on the team bus and declared, "Your life is never
going to be the same."

It wasn't, because Owen was unlike any other English player in
years. With unparalleled acceleration and a nose for the net,
he's what D.C. United coach and ESPN guest analyst Ray Hudson
calls a "fantasy player," one of those rare talents churned out
by the dozen in Brazil but rarely in England. Seemingly
unburdened by a national soccer history that had devolved from
that lone World Cup championship to hooliganism, boring play and
a parade of players never good enough when it mattered most,
Owen promised greatness. Even while battling severe hamstring
injuries, he led a resurgent Liverpool to an unheard-of five
titles in 2001, including the championship of the FA Cup, and
was named European Player of the Year.

"Nobody knows how fast he is until they play against him," says
U.S. goalkeeper Brad Friedel, a former Liverpool teammate. "When
he's in a 30-yard race, somebody can get a 10-yard head start
and he'll beat the player to the ball by 10 yards. When the
defenders are running one way and then have to stop and go the
other way to catch him--you simply do not do it. He has games
when everything he touches turns to gold."

With 16 goals in 37 games for the national team--capped by a
stunning hat trick in a 5-1 win over Germany last
September--Owen has made coach Sven-Goran Eriksson look like a
genius. "He's a born goal scorer, a killer," says Eriksson. "A
clean killer."

It's an odd and potent combination. Owen is invariably polite,
never pops off in the press and says he doesn't drink beer, tea
or coffee. It is, he insists, no act. "I want to be a topflight
football player, so I lead the life that enables me to be that
type of player," Owen says. "I prefer to be seen in a decent
light rather than an indecent one. But I don't try to be a
clean-cut person. It's other people who see me as that."

Were it otherwise, the English tabloids would no doubt stir up a
frenzy. The tawdry doings of contemporaries like Lee Bowyer and
Jonathan Woodgate of Leeds United filled papers for the last
year, but John Terry and three Chelsea teammates hit a new low
on the night of Sept. 11 when they ended a drunken night at a
hotel near Heathrow Airport by flashing guests, breaking bottles
and otherwise bothering the people stuck there because their
flights to the U.S. had been canceled. Those players all had a
good shot at making the national team, but Eriksson felt they
weren't worth the gamble. Owen, in the meantime, spent $1.2
million in 2001 for three houses for his family; he lives nearby
with his childhood sweetheart, Louise Bonsall. Even his one
vice--playing the horses--comes wrapped in family values; the
name of one of Owen's racehorses, Talk To Mojo, contains the
initials of sisters Lesley and Karen, brothers Andrew and Terry
and his parents, Terry and Janette.

"He's the future, and he's a good ambassador," Eriksson said,
when he announced Owen would step in as captain for Beckham.
"He's English football. If you don't know Michael Owen, and you
see a picture of him, he seems to be very clean. Am I wrong?"

The surprise decision won raves, with the Times calling
Eriksson's choice "yet another indication that he intends to
leave these dark days of English football behind him" and a big
reason why "Eriksson has already turned England's football team
into a metaphor for all that modern Britain should be. Now all
he has to do is win the World Cup."

England wouldn't have a chance at that if it weren't for the
other half of Owen's nature. Mr. Clean may endorse Pepsi and
potato chips, but it's the killer who pays Owen's bills. His
father played for Liverpool archrival Everton and had Michael
playing soccer at six. Always smaller and younger than the other
players, Owen had scouts hovering by the time he was 11. He
scored 92 goals in a season to break the schoolboy record of
Liverpool legend Ian Rush, and at 14 he won a spot at the
Football Association's School of Excellence. Told that only two
in his class could be expected to make the pros, Owen thought, I
wonder who the other one will be?

He has never gone in for false modesty. He'll casually say he
wants to average a goal for every two international games he
plays. Or, if he scores one goal, that he should have had two or
three. Knowing he was holding down the captaincy until Beckham
recovered, Owen still admitted to designs on keeping it longer.
"As a greedy person," he said, "you want a bit more." The
inevitable criticism? Another challenge.

"You always come back down to earth with a thump at some stage,"
Owen says. "Life has its ups and downs; the acid test is how you
handle the downs. It's easy when everything's going well and
everyone's patting you on the back. But when you play poorly and
you get slaughtered for it, that's probably the hardest bit."

It will only make him work harder. "He's so driven to improve,
always looking for advice," says Liverpool teammate Dieter
Hamann, who's German. "That's not common among English players.
He continues working even though so many things come easy to
him. Sometimes when you're too good too young, it's hard to find
the motivation to improve. Michael isn't like that."

Early in his career Owen relied on his speed and right foot.
Since 1999, though, he has worked with Liverpool coach Gerard
Houllier on expanding his range, drilling endlessly. In last
year's FA Cup final against Arsenal, Owen scored two goals in
the closing eight minutes to give his hometown the title--one on
a volley, the other with his left foot. "He has developed so
much," Houllier says. "He doesn't just score goals; he scores
vital goals, important goals."

Now, though, Owen has to come even further, and fast. Injuries
have left the English midfield a shambles. Beckham is, as the
Brits say, a bit dodgy. England sits in the middle of this World
Cup's Group of Death, and it's going to need some serious
wizardry to push through to the second round. "I'll be much
better for the Argentina game," Owen promised on Sunday. He has
no choice. Nobody in the World Cup stays young for long.

COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY GOT MILK? Owen (far left), who has a squeaky-clean image off the pitch and blinding speed on it, is the main reason English soccer fans (right) are entertaining World Cup dreams.COLOR PHOTO: ITSUO INOUYE/AP [See caption above]B/W PHOTO: PEDRO UGARTE/AFP SCHOOLBOY CRUSH The precocious Owen (below celebrating Campbell's goal against Sweden on Sunday) had pro scouts drooling before he was in his teens. COLOR PHOTO: MERCURY PRESS AGENCY [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: DAVID CANNON/GETTY IMAGES WOUNDED WARRIOR Beckham (7) set up the goal against Sweden, but his conditioning and injured foot did him in.
"He's a born goal scorer, a killer," says Eriksson, England's
coach. "A clean killer."
"Nobody knows how fast he is until they play him," says
Friedel. "He has games when everything he touches turns to gold."