I was in a crowded bar in Corsica, France. Glenn Hoddle's England, gleaming in white, were up against a gnarled Argentina team cast as their would-be executioners. The fatalist English among us knew heartbreak was coming, but for a brief moment, a teenager named Michael Owen suspended our disbelief.
For six blistering seconds, England were a fearless vision armed to conquer the world.
It was David Beckham's clipped pass that found him. Owen collected in stride with an instinctive back-heel, before shrugging off the challenge of Jose Chamot, then veering sharply to his right like a cheetah towards his prey. The 18-year-old burned past Roberto Ayala and struck a shot back across himself and into the top corner.
Beer spilled; bodies converged; the place erupted into chaos.
For the tortured English souls gathered together that day, it was a moment of pure release as heady as any we'd felt before it. You could only call it cathartic—it was as if Owen's explosion in Saint-Etienne had cleansed the combined agonies of 1986, 1990 and 1996 in a streak of brilliant white.
Thirty-two years of hurt—blown away in a single act by a precocious talent who felt none of our fear.
In the vision of a teenaged Owen pillaging Argentina's defence, hope sprung eternal. Hoddle's England had already found a star in Beckham that World Cup; now they had found another in Owen. We sat back down in dazed euphoria and with renewed belief. Argentina could be beaten and England could find a way back to 1966.
Of course, it didn't work out that way. Beckham was sent off early in the second half, and England would go on to lose—oh so predictably and oh so painfully—in a penalty shootout for the third time in three successive major tournament appearances. Nothing would take away from the beauty of Owen's goal, but for long-suffering England fans, it has come to represent the folly of hope.
We dared to dream; we only heightened our disappointment.
With Owen announcing his retirement at the end of this season (via his official site) on Tuesday, many will be asking whether the same sense of anticlimax should be leveled at his career from that moment on. The 18-year-old who burned himself into football consciousness in the summer of 1998 was among the brightest stars of his generation. But he'll leave the game a 33-year-old who hasn't played for England since 2008 and has arguably been in a slow decline since leaving Liverpool in 2004.
michael owen @themichaelowen
Big day today. I have decided that this will be my last season as a professional footballer. Full statement here: http://t.co/FkH8Vjkm0G3/19/2013, 9:31:08 AM
Injuries are almost exclusively to blame. Owen has struggled with hamstring problems for much of his career and was forced to undergo knee surgery after collapsing during the group stages of World Cup 2006. By then a Newcastle United player via Real Madrid, he was already on the wane.
Owen would go from Newcastle to Manchester United, where he fulfilled the role of squad player for Sir Alex Ferguson. There were the occasional highlights—a winner against Manchester City and a Champions League hat-trick among them—but Owen never threatened a regular starting spot.
By the time he left Old Trafford, it had become difficult to imagine a suitor who would trust in him. Owen wanted a big club, but big clubs hadn't seen his best for nearly a decade. A pay-per-play deal at Stoke was the best he could find, and Owen chose to take it. At least he remained in the Premier League.
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, still we flirted with the notion Owen might enjoy a renaissance. It's testament to how devastating a talent Owen was between 1998 and 2004 at Liverpool that we still even cared. Some England fans may even have envisaged a fairytale return to national duty—perhaps a final goodbye at the 2014 World Cup.
In truth, hope had long been extinguished. Owen's numbers tell the story of a prolific England career that boasted 40 goals in 89 games, but we all know he should have achieved more in both columns based on the talent he brought to our attention in 1998. He should have achieved more in the club game, too.
It's not Owen's fault he fell prey to injuries. But that doesn't mean we can't reflect on a career that was already on a downturn by his mid-20s. Like the England teams he starred in, Owen will leave us wanting more.