Michael Owen Admits Diving to Win World Cup Penalty against Argentina

Owen, now a Stoke City player, in Seattle last yearPhoto: Ron Lamb

Owen, now a Stoke City player, in Seattle last year
Photo: Ron Lamb

Every football fan remembers where they were when Diego Maradona raised his arm to attempt to handle the ball in the infamous World Cup match against England.

That match took place in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico and Argentina eventually won it 2-1 to eliminate England.

It was the countries’ first meeting since the Falklands War and the clash was fraught with political tensions and overtones.

Maradona later invited more ridicule by claiming it was the “Hand of God” that guided the ball past a furious Peter Shilton in the England goal.

Who knew that there was even greater drama to come from the Maradona odyssey in years to follow?

What also followed were years of understandable brooding and self-pity in England at the way they had been cheated out of the World Cup. This is not unusual for the English tabloid media but this time there was serious justification.

The sides met again in the World Cup twelve years later in St. Étienne, France.

Memories of the “Hand of God” incident pervaded the build-up. Not surprisingly there was once again a major controversy. A floored David Beckham kicked out in retaliation at Diego Simeone. He was red carded leaving England to hang on for a half and extra time to an eventual 2-2 draw with ten men. England lost the subsequent penalty shoot out.

In the aftermath, Beckham was cruelly vilified by the English press and to a certain extent fans of other clubs when he returned to the EPL for Manchester United. When not pillorying him, there was the traditional media lambasting of the Argentinian theatrics that littered their play.

Lost in all that were the dubious theatrics involved in a penalty awarded to England. Argentina were leading 1-0 due to a penalty of their own after just six minutes. Michael Owen took possession of the ball four minutes later and ran at Argentina defender Roberto Ayala.

There was definitely contact and Owen fell to the ground. Danish referee Kim Nielsen, a very good and very experienced referee, awarded the penalty.

(See the incident at 2.30 in the video below)

Alan Shearer scored it to bring the match back to 1-1.

Six minutes later Owen scored England’s second with few Argentinians willing to tackle him. Javier Zanetti equalised for Argentina on the stroke of half time leaving a breathless world with a four goal first half to talk about. Minutes after the restart came the Beckham sending off and the manner of Owen’s penalty was lost in the flurry of other incidents.

Owen is far from alone in being a player who will use a soft contact as a catalyst for hurling himself to the ground.

Simulation is perhaps too harsh a criticism for the actions of a player who does feel contact. Embellishment is the perfect word however. Owen admitted at the conference that 75% of players who go down could have stayed on their feet.

Four years later in Sapporo Japan, Owen repeated the dose against Argentina with the unlucky defender being Mauricio Pochettino although that looked to be a clearer penalty and the correct decision. (see second video below)

England won that game 1-0 as a result of the penalty awarded, ironically converted by Beckham, and finally progressed past Argentina in the World Cup.

Today Owen spoke at the at the Leaders in Football conference being held at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge on the subject of simulation and admitted he had contributed to persuading the referee on both occasions.

‘I have been guilty as well. I played at the 1998 World Cup against Argentina and I was running flat out, got a nudge, went down. Could I have stayed up? Probably.

‘Then four years later (referee Pierluigi Collina) gave me a penalty again against Argentina. Again, I could have stayed on my feet – the defender caught me and I did have a decent gash down my shin from it but I could have stayed up.”

The revelations will not come as a surprise to anybody who watched either game.

Given Maradona’s more blatant cheating in 1986, nobody could really begrudge England the benefit of a dodgy decision or two against Argentina. 

One may hope that Owen’s admission means that this bizarre series of make-up calls spread over two decades will alleviate some of the pain and outrage in England over the 1986 handball fiasco.

In fessing up, he may have performed an accidental service in healing the diplomatic wounds between England and Argentina which are still pretty raw as a result of continual sparring over dominion over the Falkland Islands aided and abetted by the perceived injustices on the football field.

And he has provided what will surely become an obligatory epilogue to the Maradona “Hand of God” story.


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