My favourite World Cup moment: Owen Hargreaves' lung-busting show in 2006
Midfielder's all-action display as England were reduced to 10 men endeared him to previously hostile fans. He was also that rarity among Englishmen that day and actually converted a penalty
Few things in life match the thrill of watching a World Cup match live. The frisson of excitement that courses through my body upon the first glimpse of the stadium is the same today as it was the first time I first laid eyes on White Hart Lane, home of the team I support, Tottenham Hotspur. Magical.
The same feeling struck me as the bus transporting us from one of the fanzones approached the quite splendid Gelsenkirchen Stadium – one of Europe's most underrated – in the North Rhine-Westphalia state of Germany for a 2006 World Cup quarter-final between England and Portugal. It was where I would see the greatest individual performance by an Englishman at a World Cup since Alan Ball ran the show as England triumphed on home soil to lift the Jules Rimet trophy 40 years earlier.
The day was unbelievably hot, the AC on the bus had decided it was going home with Spain in the last 16 and talk of how Qatar would ever host a World Cup in a Middle East summer wouldn't even be on the agenda for another four years.
And while temperatures on that bus soared with both perspiration and excitement, it was nothing compared to the amount of heat the inclusion of one player in England's line-up generated.
Much of the debate of the supposed "Golden generation" centred around the composite of its midfield. More specifically, how to accommodate Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes in the same team.
Many square pegs were hammered furiously into round holes in trying to accommodate all three into a cohesive working unit that would utilise the goal-scoring threat of Lampard, the drive of Gerrard and the artistry of Scholes while also offering balance and a screen to the defence. Scholes – undoubtedly the most gifted of the three – always seemed, not unreasonably, the least enthusiastic to play out of position when asked.
So when Scholes announced his international retirement after crashing out of Euro 2004 to Portugal, the 2006 incarnation of England's midfield to face the same opponents featured a player who many fans didn't believe even warranted a place in the 23-man squad.
Owen Hargreaves didn't have to travel far to meet up with Sven Goran-Eriksson's squad. He arrived in Baden Baden a Bundesliga champion with Bayern Munich, one of four won as a central pivot at Germany's premier club between 2000 and 2006.
Hargreaves had starred for Bayern as they lifted a first European Cup in 25 years with a shoot-out victory over Valencia in 2001. Such was Hargreaves' emergence on the scene, Stefan Effenberg, the poster boy of German midfield mavericks, was slowly phased out of the first team to allow Hargreaves to flourish.
But while loved in Bavaria, Hargreaves was largely loathed at home. Was it the accent that counted against him? Born in Canada to a Welsh mother and an English father, Hargreaves was eligible to play international football for all three, eventually plumping for England despite representing Wales at Under 19 level. Maybe it was the fact he played in a league not widely available for consumption by England fans. It seems the biggest mistake he made in the eyes of the fans was choosing the world-renown finishing school of Bayern over one in the Premier League, a division that had picked up a reputation for stifling young English talent rather than fermenting it, when leaving Calgary Foothills FC in 1997.
By the end of 120 minutes plus penalties of another gut-wrenching elimination from another major tournament though, Hargreaves would make the transition from zero to hero.
As a shield in front of the back four, Hargreaves' all-action display against a Portugal boasting one bona fide superstar in Luis Figo and one in the making in Cristiano Ronaldo felt supernatural: the blood and thunder England fans demand from anyone with three lions on their chest, clarity of thought under pressure, assurance on the ball and a will to take the game to the opposition. The calories burnt up covering extra ground following Wayne Rooney's red card on 62 minutes must have touched four digits.
One mazy dribble left Ronaldo – the king of the stepover – flat on his backside. When Ronaldo tried to do the same to Hargreaves minutes later, the Englishman simply stood his ground and emerged with the ball to set off up the field again.
Attacks were cut off at the source; possession – that priceless commodity that has eluded England teams both past and present – was retained principally by England's No 16. A lung-bursting run down the left-hand side from his own half carried Hargreaves close to Portugal's penalty area, the whistle of referee Horacio Elizondo to signal the end of 120 gruelling minutes succeeding where a trail of Portuguese players had failed in halting the midfield terrier.
My favourite World Cup moments:
Part 1: Gazza's tears at Italia 90
Part 2: The Ronaldo mystery at France 98
Part 3: Roberto Baggio's magic at USA 94
In the shoot-out Hargreaves would prove that rarity among Englishmen and successfully convert his penalty. His was the only one from four attempts as Lampard, Gerrard and Jamie Carragher, the Liverpool centre-back introduced as a 119th-minute substitute primarily because he had shown promise from 12 yards in training sessions, fluffed their lines.
England were out. Hargreaves would never scale those heights again for his country, winning the last of his 42 caps in 2008.
The pitch at Gelsenkirchen must have had multiple re-lays since that titanic display in 2006, but the indelible footprints of Hargeaves will forever remain a part of it.
Steve Luckings is Deputy Sports Editor at The National
Updated: June 11, 2018 02:43 PM