On the night of June 30, 1998, a young English soccer player grew up for good. The venue was St.-Étienne in France and the occasion was the second-round World Cup clash between England and Argentina. The then 18-year-old Michael Owen collected a pass from his more illustrious teammate David Beckham and set off on a mazy run, beating experienced defenders Roberto Ayala and José Chamot with his sheer pace, before Owen found the top corner of the net to put England 2-1 ahead with barely any of the game played. Despite England losing the game on penalties, a star in the form of Owen had been born on the world stage.
On the morning of March 19, 2013, Owen, aged 33, announced that this season would be his last before he hangs up his boots for good. Since making his professional debut for Liverpool back in 1997, Owen has played for some of the world’s biggest sides. After notching 158 goals in 297 appearances for Liverpool, he moved on to Real Madrid in 2004, joining the so-called Galácticos who played for the club during that decade. Despite a slow start, Owen would end up with 13 goals that campaign; he scored the season’s highest ratio of goals to number of minutes played.
A year later, Owen returned to the English Premier League (EPL) by signing with Newcastle United, where he stayed until they were relegated from the EPL in 2009. Due to injuries, he only managed 79 games, but his tally of 30 goals was a respectable return — and it led to a free transfer to Manchester United. Once again injuries took their toll, as Owen could only manage 52 games and 17 goals over three seasons for United, but an injury-time winner in a 4-3 derby win against Manchester City, and a goal in the 2010 League Cup final win versus Aston Villa were memorable moments for the striker. In 2012, he joined Stoke City on a one-year deal, and the Midlands club is where he will end his career. “It is with an immense amount of pride that I am announcing my intention to retire from professional football at the end of this season,” he said in a statement released on Tuesday. “I have been very fortunate in that my career has taken me on a journey that like many young players starting out, I could only have dreamt of.”
And when the soccer stars of the future dream about their potential achievements in the game, they could do worse than have Owen as their template for success. While it’s undeniable that his last years in England’s top flight were blighted by injuries, at the peak of his powers there were few strikers on the planet who were his equal.
But perhaps his greatest ability was to perform in the biggest games. Take 2001 for example. It was little wonder that Owen was awarded the Ballon d’Or for being voted Europe’s footballer of the year. In that year’s FA Cup final, the showpiece domestic cup competition, Liverpool were minutes away from losing to Arsenal when Owen turned the game on its head with two goals in the last eight minutes to complete a dramatic comeback. It was a season in which Liverpool would also win the League Cup and UEFA Cup, another domestic cup competition as well as one played by sides across Europe.
A few months later, while representing his national side, Owen’s contribution to the team’s remarkable win in Germany won’t be easily forgotten. England hadn’t distinguished themselves during the qualifying campaign for the Japan and South Korea World Cup of 2002 and couldn’t afford to slip up against Germany. An early goal for the hosts in Munich made the task even tougher until Owen got to work: he scored a hat trick (three goals), with his Liverpool teammates Steven Gerrard and Emile Heskey also scoring, in a 5-1 win. “He’s cold. He’s a killer,” remarked then England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson.
England ended up qualifying and Owen helped himself to three more goals in the World Cup, including one against Brazil in the quarterfinals, though the game ended 2-1 to the eventual winners of the tournament, who came from behind to knock England out. Owen’s goal-scoring record for his country of 40 goals in 89 games puts him fourth on the all-time scoring list (behind Bobby Charlton, Gary Lineker and Jimmy Greaves) but by suffering fewer injuries, Owen may not only be the record goal scorer for his country but the first man to reach the 50-goal mark. “He’s one of the greatest strikers who has ever put on an England shirt,” Lineker told the BBC. “We could do with someone like that now, a natural goal scorer.”
Of course there have been quibbles. Newcastle fans thought he took the club for a ride while some Liverpool supporters couldn’t forgive him playing for Manchester United. But when it mattered on the pitch, against teams of the might of Argentina, Germany and Brazil, Owen delivered, as he once had the world at his incredibly quick feet.
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