England may have only reached the second round at France 98 yet they provided one of that tournament's defining moments with the wonder goal Michael Owen scored against Argentina. It was a strike that made the jet-heeled 18-year-old a household name around the world - and set a standard by which he will be judged, rightly or wrongly, for the remainder of his career.
Owen's prodigious talents were the talk of England in the season leading up to France 98. Just under a year after his goals had helped Liverpool's juniors win the 1996 FA Youth Cup, he made a scoring senior debut in the Reds' 2-1 loss at Wimbledon in May 1997, aged 17 years old and 143 days.
His international bow came against Chile in February 1998 and on his fourth appearance in a friendly against Morocco on the eve of the finals, Owen registered his first England goal. That made him his country's youngest ever scorer at 18 years and 164 days (a feat since surpassed by Wayne Rooney) but he was still not guaranteed a starting place when the finals began the following month.
The Liverpool striker was a substitute for England's two opening matches. After a five-minute run-out at the end of the 2-0 win over Tunisia in Marseille, he replaced Teddy Sheringham with 18 minutes to go of the second game against Romania with England trailing 1-0. Owen took just seven minutes to find an equaliser, having galvanised the England attack with his speed and fearlessness, and although England were beaten by a late Dan Petrescu strike, Owen had won his place.
After beating Colombia 2-0 in their final group game, England progressed to a second-round meeting against Argentina on 30 June in Saint-Etienne. England lost the game on penalties after a thrilling 2-2 draw but Owen wrote his name in FIFA World Cup™ legend.
Gabriel Batistuta and Alan Shearer had already traded successful spot-kicks when, in the 16th minute, Owen collected a David Beckham pass just inside the Argentina half. With his first touch he carried the ball past Jose Chamot and now there was just another defender, Roberto Ayala, between him and the South Americans' goal. Owen sped past Ayala as if he was not there and as goalkeeper Carlos Roa came off his line flashed a shot over his head and high into the net.
It had taken just a matter of seconds but it was time enough: a star was born. "As a teenager I didn't realise what I had achieved," Owen recalled years later. "The goal was instinctive." The pity for England was Javier Zanetti cancelled it out on the stroke of half-time before a shoot-out settled their fate.
Owen has provided no shortage of magic since, not least in 2001 when he struck a hat-trick as England beat old rivals Germany 5-1 in a FIFA World Cup qualifier in Munich. It was a memorable year in his club career too as his two late goals won the FA Cup for Liverpool against Arsenal, one of a treble of cup competitions the Reds won in 2000/01, and the year ended with him becoming the first Englishman since Kevin Keegan 22 years earlier to collect the European Footballer of the Year award.
In 2002, Owen returned to the FIFA World Cup stage and found the net against Denmark and Brazil as England reached the quarter-finals in Korea/Japan. A hamstring injury may have lessened his once lightning pace, but his instinct for goals is undiminished and his second international hat-trick in a 3-2 victory over Colombia in New Jersey in May 2005 lifted him to third place in England's all-time goalscorers' chart behind only Gary Lineker and record-holder Bobby Charlton.
Owen left Liverpool for Real Madrid in 2004 but returned home the following year to join Newcastle United, where his contribution was severely restricted by injuries – none more serious than the ruptured anterior cruciate ligament he suffered in the opening minutes of England's third group game at Germany 2006, marking a bitterly disappointing ending to his third FIFA World Cup. Only time will tell if the striker, now with Manchester United, will be back for a fourth time at South Africa 2010.