England vs The Big Boys: a (horrible) history of narrow tournament defeats

Can you remember the last time the Three Lions beat a big gun at a major tournament? As England prepare to face Belgium, it's been 14 years of narrow torture, writes Huw Davies...

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Here’s a fact for England fans to consider. We’re sorry to prick any bubble of excitement after the Three Lions bested Tunisia and spanked Panama, but England haven’t beaten a major footballing nation at a major footballing tournament since 2002 – and even that was thanks largely to a dodgy penalty decision and Argentina being rubbish.

Why is this? England haven’t been uniformly terrible in the past 16 years, despite what post-traumatic, post-tournament post-mortems would have you believe. In fact, only one of those 10 finals defeats to a decent side was by more than a single goal. You’ll remember which one. Yes, that one.

Let’s look back at those matches with a more judicious eye to see where the Golden Generation and their various managers went wrong. Were England really as bad as all that? OK, but apart from in Bloemfontein? And, you know, against the rather non-major Iceland.

England 1-0 Argentina (World Cup 2002, Group F)

That last tournament win over a top nation came against an Argentina side that looks great now (Veron, Batistuta, Samuel, Zanetti...) but flattered to deceive, finishing third in Group F.

England adjusted well after Owen Hargreaves’ early injury. Their winner was fortunate, however. Having hit the post, Michael Owen tripped over an invisible stool lingering next to Mauricio Pochettino, and Pierluigi Collina – like Owen – fell for it.


Even David Beckham’s penalty wasn’t great: low, central and helped by Pablo Cavallero failing to move his foot three inches. David Seaman later saved on the line from Pochettino, who’d had better days.

England 1-2 Brazil (World Cup 2002, quarter-final)

Did he mean it? Ronaldinho’s Nayim impression gave Brazil the winner and office bores a chance to rehash ‘lobbed Seaman’ jokes. Big Dave was barely three yards off his line but ageing feet wouldn’t shift into reverse. He’d retire four months later, at 39, having let Macedonia score directly from a corner.

Find out what Ronaldinho himself had to say about it to FFT...

Earlier, Owen had exploited Lucio’s error and Ronaldinho had assisted Rivaldo after Paul Scholes missed a tackle and ambled back (he’d later give Brazil their winning free-kick). England didn’t come close to equalising, despite Ronaldinho’s 57th-minute red card for wish fulfilment, leaving his foot in on Danny Mills.

England 1-2 France (Euro 2004, Group B)

Again England led 1-0 but lost 2-1 – despite being ahead after 90 minutes. As the Guardian asked at full time: “What the hell happened there?”

Well, on 91 minutes Zinedine Zidane placed a free-kick through a shoddy wall. Then, 25 seconds after the restart, Steven Gerrard’s patented backpass led David James to foul Thierry Henry with his arse, and Zidane converted the penalty.

This, after England had led for an hour through Frank Lampard and had Beckham’s penalty saved by his ex-clubmate Fabien Barthez, England’s only non-shootout miss at a tournament.

Without romanticising an inconsistent performance, defeat was arguably unlucky, unarguably harsh.

England 2-2p Portugal (Euro 2004, quarter-final)

This was England’s biggest what-if-we’d-won game since Euro '96. They scored early with some gloriously old-fashioned football, Costinha’s misjudged header providing the only touch between David James’s punt and Owen’s finish.

England had chances to seal it but retreated once Wayne Rooney, 18 yet somehow in his prime, hobbled off. Portugal’s equaliser was both inevitable and inexcusably simple, John Terry letting Helder Postiga shoulder in a cross.


Referee Urs Meier controversially disallowed a Sol Campbell goal and so, after extra time strikes from Rui Costa (a brilliant hit, after Phil Neville had curled up like a spider in the bath) and Lampard, it was shootout time. Beckham blamed an exploding penalty spot for his miss despite clearly aiming for the moon, and Ricardo saved from Darius Vassell, then scored himself.

If Rooney had stayed fit, England could’ve won Euro 2004... or just lost in the semis instead.

England 0-0p Portugal (World Cup 2006 quarter-final)

Very much the Tim Burton remake of their 2004 match-up, this quarter-final reunion had everyone except England fans begging for penalties.

Both teams had made the last eight on the back of easy fixtures (Portugal’s all-out war against the Dutch aside) and the only spark came when Rooney was red-carded for trying to turn Ricardo Carvalho’s testicles into a colander.

England’s penalties personified their performance – only the superb Hargreaves scored. Goodbye, Sven; hello, Schteve.

England 1-4 Germany (World Cup 2010, last 16)

Rose-tinted spectacles show a wrongly disallowed goal preventing England from entering half-time with momentum and the score 2-2. It’s also true, though, that Germany could very easily have been 5-0 to the good by the time one crazy minute saw Matthew Upson exploit Manuel Neuer’s flap and Lampard have his dink ruled out.

England’s defence was non-existent and their midfield – Gareth Barry in particular – horribly exposed, their 4-4-2 allowing too open a game. To say Fabio Capello’s side had a couple of chances is to say the Titanic had a couple of survivors. The ship went down in spectacular fashion.

England 1-1 France (Euro 2012, Group D)

For all the talent in the Golden Generation and those that replaced them – this game saw 18-year-old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain start alongside Terry, Ashley Cole and Gerrard – England’s first tournament goal since Upson’s came from Joleon Lescott. Go-go-gadget set-pieces!

However, Samir Nasri beat Joe Hart at his near post, Hart’s goldfish memory making him forget the Frenchman had tried to do exactly that half an hour previously.

The draw that commenced England’s tournament was a fair result, and not a bad one given it was only Roy Hodgson’s third match.

England 0-0p Italy (Euro 2012, quarter-final)

England were knackered. Chasing the ball for 120 minutes didn’t help. Their most common pass combination was Joe Hart to Andy Carroll, who came on after an hour. It wasn’t thrilling.

Yet the first half saw chances aplenty. Daniele De Rossi struck the post, before Danny Welbeck inexplicably sent a good chance wide and Glen Johnson, just as inexplicably, appeared in the box. After half-time, De Rossi, Mario Balotelli, Riccardo Montolivo and Antonio Nocerino all made a hash of shots from eight yards, and Alessandro Diamanti clipped the woodwork in extra time.

Justice was eventually done. A ragged England lost the shootout, with Ashleys Young and Cole missing and Andrea Pirlo Panenka-ing a strutting Hart. We’ll meet again...

England 1-2 Italy (World Cup 2014, Group D)

...and we’ll lose again. Still, with a teenage Raheem Sterling to the fore, England were unfortunate to trail to a well-worked corner routine. They equalised through Daniel Sturridge, assisted by Rooney, playing wide-left in his favoured position of ‘starting’. Celebration-related injury meant physio Gary Lewin missed the rest of the World Cup; i.e. a few days.

Hodgson’s men were better in this game, and the next, than posterity recalls. Even so, Balotelli’s winner came after he’d had a shot headed off the line and Candreva had hit the post. Pirlo later bamboozled Hart again, clattering the crossbar with a swerving free-kick.

England 1-2 Uruguay (World Cup 2014, Group D)

Critics who label Hodgson defensive should remember this: an attacking England line-up scored a genuinely brilliant goal. Unfortunately they were already losing. Hodgson’s brave/cowardly decision to let 34-year-old Gerrard play in defensive midfield backfired as Uruguay broke and scored through Luis Suarez.

Several times Rooney went close but not close enough – although he was close enough when he contrived to hit the crossbar from virtually underneath it – before he finished England’s sublime team effort, which saw seven players touch the ball in a quick back-to-front move.

Then a long ball evaded Gerrard again, Suarez was in again, Uruguay led again, and England went home again.

Euro 2016 saw England embrace the cunning strategy of avoiding a traditional major powerhouse altogether by losing 2-1 to Iceland. But still, World Cup 2018 will be different... Right?

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