One last chance. There’s always one last chance. Tactics, mind-games, a thousand man-hours of preparation: all drop out the equation, rendered meaningless in the face of one. last. chance. Except in Lisbon tonight, there were two.
In the end, it was a tale of two Galacticos and two penalties – one scored, one missed. Triumph turned into tragedy for England as a pair of last gasp gut punches from Zinedine Zidane – a free-kick and a penalty – left David Beckham lamenting his own missed spot-kick at the other end.
Fifty minutes earlier the captain’s spiralling, characteristically brilliant cross met the hair gel of Frank Lampard and England scored the opening goal of their 2004 European Championship campaign. The French were outnumbered in the stadium and in their own penalty box. It was the first international match played at the Estádio da Luz but the €162 million stadium’s beautiful swirling architecture was concealed completely behind an undulating veil of St. George’s flags.
There were seven Premier League players in France’s starting 11 and the two sides were familiar with each other to the point of paranoia. Robert Pires’ right-footed delivery was a lurking source of anxiety and David Trezeguet went close with a header but, besides Lampard’s goal, few clear openings presented themselves in a tentative first half.
In terms of France’s main threat, Sven-Göran Eriksson’s instructions were clear: Zinedine Zidane was to be tackled and tackled hard. Remarkably, both Lampard and Gerrard escaped bookings for wildly irreverent tackles on Real Madrid’s number 10.
After the restart, France’s magnetic kingpin began to resemble the player who had won this competition almost single-handedly last time around. A stepover here, a backheel there, a scheming glint in the eye – the warning signs were written in royal blue on the grass. As he clunked into gear, so did the French team. The opening exchanges in the second half were dominated by Jacques Santini’s side. But during one of these sieges, England broke free. An aimless clearance was all it took.
Starting his race ten yards inside the England half, Rooney flicked the ball over Lillian Thuram’s head and launched a one-man counter-attack driven by such boundless kinetic energy it could have been sponsored by cocaine itself. Leaving scorch marks in the turf and three flat-footed French defenders in his slipstream, he seared towards the wide-eyed Fabian Barthez; the smack of plastic on plastic rang out like applause as 64,000 seats flipped up, their occupants standing to attention.
Great players are recognisable by their silhouettes. There was a few out there tonight. In motion, Zidane is graceful but deliberate. Beckham’s swinging limbs cast a spidery shadow. Henry is deceitful: flamboyant but understated. When Rooney bore down on goal, his head down, his boots flashing three times as fast as any of the chasing pack, it looked as though he was propelled by raw aggression – a wind-up toy turned by a jet engine. His gait is as distinctive as anyone’s.
Dropping his shoulder, Rooney jagged past Mikaël Silvestre. Already a yard clear of the centre-half, a buzz-killing limb lunged into frame and denied the teenager the chance to become the youngest goalscorer in European Championship history. His teammates slapped him on the back. He had played his part. The game was as good as won. Except it wasn’t.
Barthez’s wrists were strong enough to deny Beckham from 12 yards. After his mishit against Turkey last year, it’s two missed penalties in a row in England colours for the captain. He would later leave the pitch in tears.
Perhaps it’s the natural fatalism of the England fan speaking, but there was a sense of inevitability about what followed. While the mood inside the stadium could have led you to predict the outcome, however, no-one could have foreseen the manner of England’s defeat.
After the under-hit backpass which led to France’s second, Steven Gerrard’s name will no doubt be the focus of the tabloids’ blustering tomorrow morning. But England’s problems tonight were more holistic than a single moment. Owen was ineffective, leaving the responsibilities of leading the line with 19-year-old Rooney. Scholes looked uncomfortable on the left-hand side of midfield in a 4-4-2 which sacrificed strategy for star power. After Switzerland and Croatia played out a 0-0 draw earlier this evening, England find themselves at the foot of a group which should have their flag waving proudly at the pinnacle.
Heskey foul. Zidane goal. James foul. Zidane goal. With just three minutes time added on at the end of 90 minutes, you’d have got long odds on France taking all the points. But Zizou was unhurried, even with seconds to go. There are bomb disposal experts and open-heart surgeons with less composure. His free-kick was superb, his poise from the penalty spot even more so. Like so many others, England fell victim to the zen of Zidane.