15 years ago today, it was the World Cup in Japan and South Korea and predictably unjustified hype surrounded an England national team containing such footballing icons as Danny Mills and Trevor Sinclair, increasing with every round as they escaped the Group of Death and convincingly beat Denmark 3-0 to make the quarter-finals, partnering up with tournament favourites Brazil.
The Three Lions were on course to upset the odds as a heyday Michael Owen netted in the 23rd minute. But as is often the case with the England national team at major tournaments, matters quickly went sour. Some slick, typically Selecao attacking play saw Ronaldinho unleash Rivaldo for a vital leveller just before half time and after Sven-Goran Eriksson’s boys returned from the interval one mild-mannered team-talk later, the fateful moment came.
Paul Scholes committed an archetypal Paul Scholes foul to concede a needless free kick just inside England’s half. England’s defence awaited in the box to hoof the ball as far away as possible in the most English way possible, but Ronaldinho had other ideas.
The attacking midfielder was gaining a reputation as a special player and had already began to use the 2002 World Cup as the platform to further establish it, serving as the third member of Brazil’s vibrant attack alongside Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, but this was the moment that truly moved him to the forefront of the world stage. Rather tellingly, he signed for Barcelona a year later.
The likes of Sol Campbell and Rio Ferdinand awaited a deep cross, as did goalkeeper David Seaman – much to his own detriment – stepping a few yards off his goal line. What came next is infamous on these shores; a dazzling free kick from 42 yards that was part shot and part cross, that thunderously dipped as quickly as it rose and, fatefully for England, that crept into the slightest of gaps Seaman had left between himself and the far post. He crawled backwards anxiously, flinging his arm behind his head, but was inevitably helpless as the ball fizzed into the top left bin.
We have a bizarre obsession with making scapegoats here in England. At Euro 1996 it was Gareth Southgate, at the 1998 World Cup it was David Beckham, at Euro 2000 it was Phil Neville and for a tournament that England only ever had half a chance of winning at best, inevitable elimination was, of course, the fault of one of the best goalkeepers of his generation and one of the best to ever represent the Three Lions.
The revisionist view is understandably a lot more sympathetic. After all, defending a cross was the logical assumption in that set piece scenario and even then, Seaman had only stepped a few yards from his line. Likewise, Ronaldinho’s strike was one of the most unique you’ll ever see, to the point some are still convinced it was a complete fluke. It rose, span, dipped and travelled nearly half the pitch to sneak in under the crossbar. How many goals like that have you seen in your life time? You can probably count them on both hands, and the number that were intentional on one.
Although Seaman didn’t quite receive the same vicious treatment as some of his scapegoat predecessors, the prevailing narrative was one of a declining great well past his best, staggering his way back to his goal-line as fast as his ageing legs could carry him – crucially, not fast enough to stop Ronaldinho’s shot.
That was the tag that hung around Seaman’s neck for the vast majority of the subsequent season, even spending some of it playing second fiddle to the wholly insignificant Stuart Taylor, until a moment in April 2003 that had equal say as the Ronaldinho lob in defining the latter stages of his affluent career.
Arsenal faced Sheffield United in the semi-final of the FA Cup and surprisingly found themselves being outplayed and outmuscled by Neil Warnock’s Division One side, who cried foul play when Graham Poll refused to stop the game for an injury and inadvertently blocked a defender from making a crucial challenge as Freddie Ljungburg put the Gunners 1-0 up. The Blades continued to pepper the Arsenal goal at Old Trafford, the pressure swirling with a succession of set pieces – including a now famous corner.
Michael Tonge whipped it in, captain Robert Page knocked it down into the mixer and Carl Asaba fired an acrobatic shot whilst swivelling in the air. It span wildly but into the direction of substitute Paul Peschisolido standing unmarked in the six yard box, leaving him free to nervously redirect the ball towards essentially an open goal from point-blank range.
Just like in Japan’s Shizuoka Stadium, Seaman was in the wrong place at the wrong time; he’d flung his arms towards Asaba’s effort, leaving him wrong-footed a yard off the line and Pescisolido with two thirds of the goal to hook the ball into. But then came Seaman’s redemption, the moment that silenced everybody who dared to label him as past it; defying physics, human athletic ability and most important age, Seaman hooked his body backwards, his arm even further and his fingers even further than that, scooping the ball as it hung in the air, just millimetres from crossing the line, and vitally away to safety. In this day and age, commentators would have exploded with the added excitement of goal-line technology.
The save left almost the entirety of Old Trafford speechless, including Seaman who stared into the distance, eyes glazed over, as Arsenal team-mates rushed to congratulate him with the same ferociousness and joy as if he’d scored a last-minute winner. It may have come at the other end of the pitch, but that’s exactly what Seaman’s save was – a last-minute effort that won the game. Sheffield United fans, meanwhile, stood bemused, hands on heads, trying to come to terms with how the ball hadn’t gone in. Peter Schmeichel later described it as the ‘best save he’d ever seen’.
Seaman had won Arsenal’s place in the FA Cup final and later that season he captained the Gunners to a 1-0 win over Southampton at the Millennium Stadium, lifting the trophy at the end of what turned out to be his last Arsenal appearance, after over a decade in north London. It seemed Arsene Wenger had come to the same conclusion as many of Seaman’s critics the year previous – Seaman had surpassed his goalkeeping peak and was well along the path of decline.
Perhaps that was the case after all; Seaman enjoyed a one-year swansong at Manchester City before calling it a day. Yet, if his final campaign with England and Arsenal proved anything, it’s that even the very best are capable of mistakes but, unlike the rest, their class is always permanent. Aged 39, playing his fifth-last game for the club where he’d become a hero and written off by everybody for his role in a once-in-a-lifetime free kick, Seaman gave everybody a last, great glimpse of his. Redemption, clawed back with just millimetres to spare.