Saint-Étienne 1998: The perfect night of England pain which spawned two decades of distance

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
June 28, 2018

Published in association with Classic Football Shirts

Nobody would have known it then but, for England, 1998 would be the last time anything was the same. The 1998 last-sixteen game with Argentina in Saint-Étienne was the quintessential English performance of the time. It pulsed between triumph and disaster for 120 minutes, with two teams lurching between the iconic moments which would preserve the fixture’s life in perpetuity.

To this day, those who watched it can remember how they felt at the time. There were crushing lows and soaring highs and, really, the more time passes, the more the game seems to have lasted for days rather than hours. It was a passion play, not a football match.

The events themselves don’t need revisiting; we know what they are and they don’t require any further description. The epilogue hardly needs retelling, either. Glenn Hoddle’s World Cup diary torched his bridges and, with the Football Association looking for an excuse, that notorious airing of his personal beliefs gave them the opportunity they had been waiting for. England would fall into the uncertain hands of Kevin Keegan, lurch unconvincingly into (and ultimately out of) Euro 2000, and the country’s relationship with the national team changed.

It would be easy to describe that as a reaction to form. The group stage exit two years on from Saint-Étienne provoked little in the native soul. Even the press were barely bothered, making only a very half-hearted attempt to villify Phil Neville. By the time the side journeyed to Japan and South Korea in 2002, with more talent and a more accomplished manager, the optimism had returned but the attachment still wasn’t quite the same.

History records 2002 as a failure for England. Rightly so, because a quarter-final exit with the team they fielded was a meagre return. Tellingly though, their participation didn’t come with the same peaks and troughs as it had four years earlier. Even the cathartic win over Argentina, although still recalled in that forced way, was more just a relief than a true life experience. When defeat was finally delivered by Brazil, the nation just blinked in the early morning sun, ate its breakfast, and got on with its work. It was a disappointment rather than a trauma.

You wonder, all these years later and with the benefit of hindsight, whether some sort of emotional fatigue had taken hold. Teams often rise and fall in cycles and maybe that’s true of fandom also – perhaps emotional investment can only survive so long before being vented out into the ether. There’s an obvious caveat here, in that England promised more in the 1990s and teased success to a greater degree, but that in itself doesn’t explain the distance which had so quickly grown between the players and their public.

2004 was much the same, 2006 also. Both campaigns ended in the same way and at the hands of the same opponent. The nation felt the sting of penalties once more, but the emotional legacy of those defeats was regret rather than actual hurt. When Andreas Moller had rammed his penalty into the Wembley net ten years previously, it had felt as if the sky had fallen. When Carlos Roa beat away David Batty’s tame penalty in 1998, injustice had raged from one end of a crestfallen country to the other.

What came next was quite mild. Tournaments appeared and vanished, and the premature eliminations were taken in stride. Certainly there was sulking and retaliation, and occasional threats to stone the players at Heathrow, but it was a very half-hearted sort of misery.

The most obvious explanation for why lies in the results. Certainly in the nature of them. England had specialised in a particularly heroic brand of failure during the previous decade, but the new millennium saw them rarely raise the pulse. Defeats could be seen coming a mile away and they were never particularly cruel. Frank Lampard’s phantom goal was more footnote than cause, Wayne Rooney’s red card more excuse than contributing factor. They weren’t the kind of grievances to fester.

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The appeal of those later squads was also – notoriously – receding by the year. In fact, the entire sport was changing at great pace. Cash wasn’t exactly new to football, but its effects were metastasising at great pace. Previous England players had been rich and enviable, but they’d manage to acquire those privileges without trading their humanity for them. Their members were yet to fence themselves off from the public, figuratively or literally, and they possessed the sort of real-world fallibility which made them three-dimensional.

Their successors inhabited a different world. That was the book-deals-and-bullshit generation, there was nothing golden about it. It would be unoriginal to claim them as arrogant, in some instances completely wrong, but they represented the country at a time when the team and the nation were separate. They wore their wives and girlfriends likes gaudy jewellery and their successes and failures belonged to them exclusively; they won and lost on their own, inside a private members’ bubble.

It was also something unwittingly encouraged by the respective managers. Sven-Göran Eriksson may have possessed a certain off-field charm, but he was very much a coach of his time. He was detached and dispassionate, someone who was both utterly ubiquitous and still completely unknown. With Fabio Capello, there was no great texture either. His phrasebook English made him emotionally unreachable, but it was really his demeanour which created the real distance. He made managing the country’s football team look like a terrible chore, like a teacher forced to take a remedial class as punishment for some unknown indiscretion. He didn’t want to be there, we didn’t want to listen.

The men they followed weren’t visionaries, neither were they particularly successful or universally well-liked. Instead, the difference lay in the picture: they coveted the position in an affecting way and craved success for their nation with the eagerness of a fan. Like the players under their control, they were all flawed and each had their own weaknesses, but that cornerstone relatability was essential – even more so when it was gone.

It’s a difficult situation to properly describe, yet most will understand the point being made. Those times are remembered for under-performance, but were also characterised by this great distance. At a moment in history when the sport and its public were on diverging paths anyway, England adopted a personality which accentuated that gap. For a team to feel truly representative, it must never snap its ideological moorings. England did. From being the unwelcome, slightly underestimated guest at Italia ’90, they mutated into a swaggering mess of celebrity within the space of twenty years.

It’s a cliche, but it’s still nonetheless true: English teams are supposed to rage against the dying of the light, to enforce their will and native style on the opposition, and – if they must – go out on their shields. And they needed to do all of that with those terrible haircuts and that awful dress-sense. They needed to cry like Gascoigne, dance like Waddle and Butcher, and yet what they became was airbrushed cool – well-drawn holograms from bottom to top. That eroded the emotional resonance which had mattered more than the winning or losing – or, at least, had made the winning and losing stir something beyond just vague interest or irritation.

It’s been too easy to see England lose. Too easy for people to distance themselves from the result, walk away and reason that they didn’t care much for the players anyway. That’s so wrong. It’s such an ugly situation to be in.

It’s too premature to talk of reconciliation. Gareth Southgate has calmed the mood and, at the time of writing, his likeable team are playing well in Russia. Good, but that’s all it is for now. It’s better than it was, nothing more yet. Beating Tunisia and hammering Panama has certainly piqued the native interest, but it wouldn’t take more than a disappointing exit for the public to recoil again. It requires something more substantial and certainly something more sustained.

Until that arrives, then, we’re left with the memory of twenty years ago. Diego Simeone’s sly kick, that Spartan resistance against Ortega, Batistuta and Daniel Passerella’s army of flair, and a defeat which was so brutally destructive as to be almost beautiful.

Funny as it sounds, that was really as good as it got. It was raw and devastating in a way which it hasn’t been since.

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