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May 3, 2006

1998 - Life after Gascoigne

England's dramatic failure to qualify for USA 1994 under Graham Taylor was followed by Paul Gascoigne's omission from the squad for France 1998 - effectively ending the international career of one of England's football icons.

Despite a vintage performance in the final qualifying match, away to Italy in Rome, new manager Glenn Hoddle remained unconvinced by Gazza's infamous off-field problems - and the decision to leave him out gave other players the chance to shine.

Hoddle switched formation from predecessor Terry Venables' 4-4-2 to a 5-3-2, and also drafted 21-year-old David Beckham and Liverpool's teenage striker Michael Owen into the England squad.

The changes helped get the 1998 qualifying campaign off to a flyer, with Middlesbrough's Nick Barmby scoring the opening goal in a 3-0 win over Moldova. Qualification continued to go well and - despite a 0-1 hiccup against Italy at Wembley - England topped the group ahead of tha Azzurri , Poland, Georgia and Moldova.

When the World Cup kicked-off Beckham and Owen were on the bench for England's opening Group G game against Tunisia in the Stade Velodrome, Marseille. The midfield included Newcastle's David Batty and Liverpool's Paul Ince, and in attack Hoddle decided to stick with the 'SAS' strike force of Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham, who had helped England to the semi-final of Euro '96.

Tunisia started the match with a flurry, but Hoddle's men gained control and Shearer headed home a cross from Chelsea left-back Graeme Le Saux to make it 1-0. Manchester United's Paul Scholes made it 2-0 with a fine late effort.

Romania and England were favourites to progress from the group, and their clash in the Stade Municipal, Toulouse, went some way to deciding the eventual winner.

Hoddle again played two holding midfielders and defied public and media pleas for Owen, following his few minutes as a substitute against Tunisia, and Beckham to start the match. But with 32 minutes gone, Ince picked up an injury and was replaced by Beckham.

After the break, Adrian Ille put Romania 1-0 up, and with things looking bleak Hoddle brought on Owen for Sheringham in the 72nd minute. With time ticking away, Beckham crossed, Shearer pulled it back and Owen - 'not a natural goalscorer', according to Hoddle - put England level.

But disaster struck in stoppage time when Le Saux's Chelsea teammate Dan Petrescu out-muscled the defender and scored. There was still time for Owen to hit the post, but England could not find a way back.

It all meant that Hoddle's men needed to beat Colombia to qualify for the second phase, and this time both Beckham and Owen played from the start.

Within half an hour, Spurs star Darren Anderton and Beckham - with his first goal for England, a superbly-struck free-kick - had tied up the game, earning their side second spot in the Group G.

That outcome left England facing a tough match in the next round against the winners of Group H, Argentina, in St Etienne.

Argentina made the breakthrough after five minutes when Gabriel Batistuta hammered home a penalty after goalkeeper David Seaman had brought down Diego Simeone.

But matters were soon all square when Owen's pace led to him being brought down, and Shearer slotted home the penalty to equalise. Minutes later, 18-year-old Owen scored the goal that catapulted him to fame.

A perfectly weighted Beckham pass sent him racing at - and through - the Argentine defence, who tried unsuccessfully to force the striker out wide on the right. With Scholes poised to take the ball from his toe, Owen lofted a shot past goalkeeper Carlos Roa to give England a 2-1 lead.

That strike brought him to the attention of a worldwide audience - but his joy was to be short-lived as Javier Zanetti equalised from a cleverly-taken free-kick.

England had performed superbly, but just after the break their fortunes took a dramatic downturn when Beckham kicked out at Diego Simeone after being scythed down by the Argentine midfielder. Danish referee Kim Milton Nielsen sent him off.

Down to ten men, Hoddle brought Owen back into midfield - and England's attack became ineffective. The remaining players stuck at their task and in the 82nd minute Tottenham defender Sol Campbell headed the ball home from a corner, only to have the 'goal' disallowed for a foul by Shearer on Roa.

After extra time had brought no further breakthroughs, England were to face more penalty woe. They had looked to be in control when Seaman made the first save, but both Batty and Ince missed to hand Argentina a 4-3 spot-kick victory.

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