Michael Owen is reminiscing about a game against Argentina. It is not the one you might think.
The match being discussed took place exactly 369 days before he slalomed his way through the Albiceleste defence for one of the truly great FIFA World Cup™ goals at France 1998. Yet according to Owen, that memorable, career-defining moment in St Etienne might not have even come about had it not been for the experiences he had gleaned the year before.
Johor Bahru, Malaysia was the venue for his earlier meeting with Argentina on 26 June 1997 and, if ever a match encapsulated the appeal of the FIFA U-20 World Cup, it was surely this one. The tournament’s promise of giving supporters a glimpse of ‘tomorrow’s stars today’ was certainly more than fulfilled, with an England side featuring Owen, Jamie Carragher, Danny Murphy and Kieron Dyer going up against a team featuring the likes of Walter Samuel, Esteban Cambiasso, Juan Roman Riquelme and Pablo Aimar.
The Three Lions had topped their group with three straight wins and harboured genuine ambitions of winning the tournament. However, just as they would 12 months later at the senior event, Owen and his English colleagues came unstuck against a familiar foe.
“I remember that game well,” the former Liverpool and Real Madrid striker told FIFA.com. “It was a tournament I really enjoyed and it had been going well for us until then. I’d been in good form personally and scored a couple of goals during the group stage, and the team was looking strong.
"But Argentina had an outstanding side. I remember Riquelme and Aimar being particularly impressive, and everyone knows the kind of careers those guys went on to have. They were two-nil up by half-time and although Jamie Carragher scored for us quite early in the second half, we came up just short and lost 2-1. But I have good memories of that tournament and it was no disgraces to lose so narrowly to such a talented side.”
Argentina, in fact, went on to win the tournament, seeing off Brazil, Republic of Ireland and Uruguay en route to lifting the trophy. Yet Owen left Malaysia feeling better prepared than ever for the challenges posed by the senior game. Within eight months, he had made his full international debut and, soon after, became the youngest player to score for England (a record that has since been snatched away by Wayne Rooney).
Then, of course, came France 1998. Owen was later voted the tournament’s best young player and, while his performances stunned the watching world, he was neither surprised nor fazed. His experiences in Malaysia had left him ready, he felt, for anything.
“I did feel it gave me a great grounding,” he said. “By the time I got to France, I felt totally prepared for it. Obviously the scale of a senior World Cup is bigger, and the attention is much greater than the U-20s, but you still feel that you know roughly what’s coming. I had played for England at every age level from U-15 up, so going to the senior side seemed at the time like a natural progression. It didn’t faze me at all.
"I felt I had served my apprenticeship and that tournaments like that U-20s had left me well prepared for playing in the senior version. And without boasting, I think that was pretty evident. I hit the ground running from my first match at France '98 and it ended up being a brilliant tournament for me. I took to it all like a duck to water.”
The FIFA U-20 World Cup’s role in preparing him for the feats that followed has ensured in Owen an enduring esteem for such youth events. He will certainly be following events in Turkey with interest, and said that the players competing can expect a tournament full of fresh challenges and invaluable experiences.
“You learn so much at tournaments like these,” he said. “It’s all about getting used to playing in a national squad, in different countries, in different temperatures and time zones, and on different surfaces against different styles of play. A lot of it will be new but that’s what players need when they’re developing, and that’s the kind of education these international youth tournaments give you. It will be interesting to see who comes out of this one.”