Captain David Beckham led by example as he curled home a last-gasp free kick to book England’s place in the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, on this day in 2001.
England were facing the prospect of a tricky two-legged play-off against Ukraine before Manchester United midfielder Beckham struck three minutes into stoppage time to salvage a crucial 2-2 draw with Greece at Old Trafford.
Little more than a month after their unforgettable 5-1 win in Munich, the unconvincing point was sufficient for Sven-Goran Eriksson’s relieved side to top their qualifying group ahead of Germany on goal difference.
Man of the match Beckham, who had failed with a host of previous long-range free kick attempts before the sensational climax, said: “One had to go in.
“It wasn’t the prettiest of games but we kept fighting back. The character of the team is unbelievable.”
After Teddy Sheringham was nudged in the back more than 30 yards from goal, Beckham unleashed an unstoppable right-foot effort into the top left corner at the Stretford End.
The goal came just as news filtered through that Group 9 rivals Germany had been held to a 0-0 draw at home to Finland.
Greece, who won only two of their eight qualifiers, twice led – through Angelos Charisteas and Demis Nikolaidis – with substitute Sheringham claiming the hosts’ first equaliser, 10 seconds after replacing Robbie Fowler.
Three Lions manager Eriksson said of Beckham: “You could see he wanted really hard to win this and he showed again he is a really great captain.”
England went on to reach the World Cup quarter-finals in the Far East before being beaten 2-1 by eventual champions Brazil, while Rudi Voller’s Germany were runners-up after losing the final 2-0 in Yokohama.
Beckham later described the free-kick as “without doubt” the greatest moment of his England career, which featured 17 goals in 115 appearances between 1996 and 2009.
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