The Three Lions’ last venture in Asia: the 2002 World Cup

england 2002

Despite it being just a matter of weeks away, I’m really not in the World Cup groove as of yet. Whether it’s the time of year it’s being played, or more realistically who it is that’s hosting, something feels off about the 2022 Qatar World Cup. Pub gardens at 1 pm on a wet and windy Monday afternoon in November and December just won’t have the same vibe as past tournaments. 

Whilst recent performances would see England go into this edition of the World Cup as one of the favourites, our recent form has been nothing short of abysmal. Gareth Southgate united the nation four years ago in Russia, but his insistence to play an out of favour centre back has somewhat disillusioned many England fans.

I don’t want to be a negative Nancy, however, I haven’t actually witnessed the Three Lions win a competitive game since the 10th of November 2021. Even then it was against San Marino, who without being disrespectful, fielded a second-hand car dealer and a qualified dentist. Beating a nation with one-tenth of Luton’s population is nothing to write home about.

Unfortunately, in an endeavour to get in the World Cup spirit, I made the silly mistake of looking at the Three Lions’ last adventure in Asia, the 2002 World Cup. Co-hosted by South Korea and Japan, the tournament was a fascinating watch for the neutral, but one of many that England fans will quickly want to forget.

In this article, I will take a look back at the Three Lions’ disappointing display at the 2002 World Cup, which signalled the beginning of the end for Sven-Göran Eriksson as England manager.

World Cup qualifying: two historic nights

Arguably the best part of the 2002 World Cup from an England perspective was the qualification process. Like most of Eriksson’s reign in charge, it wasn’t particularly convincing, nor was it attractive on the eye, but it did create two games that will live long in the memory.

With a rivalry that stems all the way back to the 1930s, it would be an understatement to suggest that Germany and England aren’t the best of friends. When the Three Lions advanced through to the quarter-finals at Euro 2021, it was made sweeter by the fact it was at Germany’s expense.

Drawn in the same qualifying group for the 2002 World Cup, a Didi Hamann goal at Wembley saw Germany take all three points in the first meeting between the pair. By the time the pair met again, 14 months later, it looked for all the world that the Germans had all but secured their place in South Korea, as they sat top of the group six points ahead of England in 2nd. Knowing that they needed a win to have any hope of avoiding the playoffs, Eriksson’s squad travelled to Munich with revenge fresh in their mind.

This didn’t look very viable just six minutes in when Carsten Jancker opened the scoring for the Germans, however, not even the most deluded England fan could have predicted what would happen next. Emile Heskey and Michael Owen ran riot on the German defence, with the latter scoring a hat trick. As we approach the 100th anniversary of the England-Germany rivalry, the 5-1 decimation in Munich remains the largest victory in the history of the fixture.

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Despite the humiliating home defeat at the hands of England, Germany went into the final matchday with the knowledge that all three points would guarantee the top spot in the group. England on the other hand required a favour from Finland to avoid the playoffs.

As this article is about England’s 2002 World Cup campaign, we all know what happened next. Finland did their job, holding Germany to a 0-0 draw, whilst England struggled to a 2-2 draw against Greece. The game itself was pretty poor, but the fixture will be remembered for one thing, and one thing only, David Beckham’s beautiful free kick.

“Beckham could raise the roof here with a goal… I don’t believe it! David Beckham scores the goal that takes England to the World Cup finals!”

Many England fans may be unable to forgive Becks for his actions at the 1998 World Cup, but no England fan will forget his infamous free kick against Greece. With that goal, Beckham had secured the most unlikely of World Cup qualifications. Old-foes Germany had blown a six-point lead, although did progress to the tournament with a 5-2 aggregate victory over Ukraine in the UEFA play-offs.

Group of death

As the subtitle suggests, England pulled the short straw when it come to the group allocations, being drawn into the same group as Argentina, Nigeria, and Sweden. It was immediately labelled the group of death, and the Three Lions faced an uphill task to reach the knockout stages.

Up first for England at the World Cup was Eriksson’s native Sweden. Due to the time difference, the game was played at 10:30 am. I’m sure thousands would have had the day booked off in anticipation, but after the full-time whistle, they probably would have wished they never bothered. Despite taking the lead early in the first half through Sol Campbell, England never really got going.

It appeared the handbrake was on, with Eriksson subconsciously not looking to inflict too much damage to his native side. Although, conservative tactics are what England fans became accustomed to throughout his reign in the national team dugout. Jens Niclas Alexandersson tied the game up for Sweden in the 59th minute, and neither side showed the required quality to get a winner. There have been many amazing World Cup group games over the years, but this wasn’t one of them.

England faced Argentina in the second group game, and all eyes were on Diego Simeone and Beckham’s reunion. Beckham is widely regarded as an England legend, but things were very different back at the 1998 World Cup. A silly, and costly, kick out at the Atletico Madrid manager saw him shown a straight red card, all but ending the Three Lions’ tournament. Boos, jeering, death threats, you name it, and Becks was on the receiving end of it.

He had already redeemed himself slightly with the last-gasp free kick against Greece, however, Beckham would go on to complete the ultimate redemption at the 2002 World Cup. Captaining the side against Argentina, he provided the only goal of the game, holding his nerve from the spot to secure a memorable win for the Three Lions. A resolute performance from Eriksson’s side, showing there was still some life left in the ‘group of death’.

With four points from their opening two group games, England went into the final group game against Nigeria knowing that a win would guarantee their place in the knockouts. You’d think that would be enough encouragement for the players to go out and perform, wouldn’t you? Well, not this group of players.

England laboured to a 0-0 draw, in what was quite possibly the worst game ever staged at the World Cup. It was made worse by the fact that the game was played at 7:30 am UK time, and after watching the highlights, I think I’d have gone back to bed. The Asian heat had taken its toll on both sides, as they looked completely zapped of energy. Barring Michael Owen’s near repeat of his solo goal at France 98, the Three Lions yet again struggled to conjure up any real clear-cut chances.

Sweden’s unlikely draw against Argentina saw the South American side disappointingly bow out of the competition after just three games, as Sweden and England progressed to the knockouts. Tied on five points, and a plus one goal difference, Sweden topped the group on goals scored, as the Three Lions were made to rue their lacklustre performances in front of goal.

Denmark demolished

Both South Korea and Japan had made it out of the group stage, but arguably the biggest shock of the tournament so far was in Group A. On paper, France should have had more than enough to overcome Uruguay, Senegal, and Denmark, with the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry, and Patrick Vieira lurking in the squad. However, the French failed to win a single game, drawing one and losing two, securing themselves an early flight home and an extended summer break.

Like Euro 92, Denmark had thrived in the role of the underdogs, topping the group on the final match day with a 2-0 victory over France, setting up a round-of-16 clash with England. With the Danes notorious for being defensively solid, and the Three Lions uninspiring in attack, there were some doubts over England’s chances ahead of the game.

After 45 minutes of football, all of those doubts were erased. After being gifted a goal by former Stoke shot-stopper Thomas Sørensen in the 5th minute of the game, the England players smelt blood, and Denmark were there for the taking. Owen and Heskey, who had both been highly criticised by the media in the leadup to the game for their below-par performances in the group, had finally found their shooting boots, firing Eriksson’s side into a shock 3-0 lead at half time.

The second half was fairly boring, and the England players had clearly taken their foot off the gas. Denmark heavily pushed players forward to try and salvage even a consolation goal, but for all their efforts, David Seaman hadn’t broken a sweat. For all the pre-match talk about the Danes’ defensive organisation, they couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery. In fact, they defended as if they were nursing a hangover from the night before. Nevertheless, a convincing victory for England, something that wasn’t said too often throughout Eriksson’s reign in charge.

Beautiful Brazil

The demolition of Denmark sealed England’s place in the quarter-finals of the tournament, already a better feat than they achieved at France 98, but up next was the tournament’s most in-form team, Brazil. Managed by former Chelsea gaffer, Luiz Felipe Scolari, the South Americans had taken Asia by storm, scoring 13 goals in just four games. The three R’s, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, and Ronaldinho were in scintillating form, and despite not initially being fancied as favourites before the World Cup, Brazil had quickly established themselves as the team to beat.

Nothing says World Cup quarter-final like a 7:30 kick-off on a Friday morning. I’m not going to complain too much about the timings, number one because I was just four years old when this tournament was played and it didn’t affect me, but also the impact that hosting the World Cup had on football in South Korea and Japan.

After what happened in the Three Lions’ last 7:30 am match, the bore draw with Nigeria, England fans would have been desperate for a better display to make the 6 am alarms worthwhile. Staged in the Shizuoka Stadium, 47,436 fans gathered, along with several million fans in their pyjamas at home, in anticipation of what promised to be a thrilling spectacle.

Jubilation in Japan

England began the first half as expected, on the back foot and starved of possession, as Brazil applied some early pressure. Whilst England had been inconsistent in front of goal throughout the tournament, Campbell and Rio Ferdinand had marshalled the defence extremely well. They continued their fine form in the early stages of the quarter-finals, shackling Brazil’s deadly trio and restricting them of any real clear-cut chances. In the 23rd minute of the game, the goal we all expected came…… for England!

A goal out of nothing really. Heskey picked up the ball near the halfway line and had a little bit of time and space. Like the classic ‘big man little man’ partnerships you read about, Heskey immediately tried to find the little man, in this case, Owen, with a forward pass. It looked to be under Brazilian defender Lucio’s control, but a poor first touch opened the door for Owen to pounce in typical fashion. The then Liverpool forward nipped in to steal the ball away from the Brazilian defender and instinctively dink the ball over the keeper to provide England with a shock lead.

The England players and manager alike looked almost surprised, the fans were in complete pandemonium, and Lucio with his head in his hands. Scolari didn’t panic, and Brazil’s approach wasn’t altered, the only change was that Eriksson’s men actually had a lead to defend. Ronaldo was relatively quiet still, but Ronaldinho and Rivaldo were growing in influence, and it wasn’t long before they combined for the equaliser.

After turning Ashley Cole inside out like a pretzel, Ronaldinho played a perfectly waited through ball through to Rivaldo, who calmly caressed the ball into the corner of Seaman’s goal. An excellent goal from Brazil’s perspective, but in the dying embers of the half, it was a sucker punch for the Three Lions, who had defended heroically up until this point. Within the blink of an eye, Eriksson’s half time team talk had completely changed.

Brokenhearted before breakfast

Whatever it was that the England boss had said in the half time interval, it certainly didn’t work. England started the second half sloppily, giving away possession of the ball too easily with tired passes. The subdued start was quickly punished by Brazil, but in extremely bizarre circumstances.

When Paul Scholes gave away an innocuous free kick on the right-hand side, a good 40 yards away from goal, there seemed to be no immediate danger. The England defence all lined up expecting a cross from Ronaldinho, as you would from the position the set piece was taken, but what happened next shocked the whole world. The free kick was taken, and it looked like the Brazilian had overhit his cross, as the ball sailed over everybody’s head. Unfortunately for the Three Lions, this included Seaman’s head, and the ball looped into the top left corner of the England goal. 

Everyone looked around at each other, wondering what on earth had happened. Seaman, like the rest of the world, anticipated a cross into the box, and his starting position was very high. The ball seemed to be travelling in slow motion, yet there was nothing the frantically backpedalling England shot-stopper could do.

Now time for the vital question, did he mean it? In interviews since, Ronaldinho has claimed that he meant to lob Seaman, as his captain, Cafu, had told him that the Englishman steps forward early to claim crosses. Personally, I’m not so sure. Regardless of his intentions, a goal is a goal.

An energy-zapped England were handed an incredible lifeline when Ronaldinho received a dubious red card just six minutes after breaking England’s hearts. I mean VAR probably wouldn’t have overturned it, but in my opinion, it was incredibly harsh. The former PSG man dived into a tackle with Danny Mills, with his studs slightly showing, in what was a 50-50 challenge. Mills dropped to the floor clutching his ankle, and the referee immediately brandished the red card.

Ronaldinho is about the only man on the planet, other than Joey Barton, that would still be smiling after immediately being red carded, it was almost as if he knew it was game over. Even with the man advantage, England looked flat on their feet, drained by the Japanese heat both physically and mentally. What should have been the most difficult 30 minutes of Brazil’s tournament ultimately ended up being the easiest of the game.

With aimless attacks, tired legs, and no real urgency, the second half was one to forget for Eriksson and his side. Clearly the England squad hadn’t had their Weetabix. The full-time whistle sounded, and the cameras panned to a distraught Seaman being comforted by the England coaching staff. 

The aftermath

The Three Lions fans have a tendency to scapegoat players when things don’t go their way. In 1998 it was Beckham, in 2010 it was Jorge Larrionda, at Euro 2021 Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho shared the blame, and in 2002, all fingers were firmly pointed at Seaman. Yes, he made a mistake, but nobody could have predicted that Ronaldinho’s free-kick was going to nestle into the back of the net.

The truth is, and as painful as this is to admit, Brazil were just a better side, an admission that many England fans had to make on their way to work straight after the final. Owen’s first-half goal proved to be the last that the South Americans would concede, as they beat Turkey 1-0 in the semi-final before defeating England’s old foes Germany 2-0 in the final courtesy of a Ronaldo brace. The victory made them the most successful nation in World Cup history, winning the holy grail on five different occasions.

As for England, their disappointing run of 36 years without a major honour continued. A run which has since extended a further 20 years, until the Lionesses, who weren’t allowed to play football when the nation last won a trophy, brought football home at Euro 2022. 

Seaman swapped goalkeeping for dancing, appearing on both Dancing on Ice and Strictly Come Dancing post-World Cup 2002. Eriksson somehow survived a further two tournaments in the England dugout, before his insistence on playing 4-4-2, with three of the best central midfielders this country has seen, ultimately cost him his job. 

Despite his team performing poorly in Japan, Eriksson clearly enjoyed his time in Asia, as he has since gone on to manage in China and the Philippines, as well as a brief spell as technical director of Thai side BEC Tero Sasana.