Sun, Jun 27, 2004 - Page 24 News List

A stunned England wonders how it all suddenly went sour

AP , LISBON, PORTUGAL

The referee? Penalty shootouts? A curse of foot injuries? Bad luck? Or just not good enough.

England headed home from another international soccer tournament on Friday failing to meet the expectation of a country which invented the game and hosts arguably the most popular club competition in the world.

A penalty shootout loss to host Portugal in the quarterfinal of the European Championship -- after a thrilling 2-2 extra time draw -- was a heartbreaking elimination for an England side with key players at their peak.

For the fourth time in a major championship, England lost a big game on penalties, which included captain David Beckham kicking his spot kick over the bar.

It happened against the Germans in the semifinal of World Cup 1990 in Italy and against Germany again in the semifinal of Euro' 96 at Wembley. England lost another shootout to Argentina in the second round of the 1998 World Cup in France.

To rub salt into already sore wounds, the loss was after 18-year-old striker Wayne Rooney had limped off the pitch at the Stadium of Light in Lisbon with a brokem foot, the same kind injury that David Beckham sustained before the 2002 World Cup and which also ruled Gary Neville out of it.

British newspapers blamed referee Urs Meier for disallowing a Sol Campbell goal in the final minutes of normal time against Portugal, the injury to Rooney and the lackluster form of Beckham who also had a penalty saved against France.

"Of course we could have kept the ball better, we could have attacked more," Beckham said.

``What's to say what could have happened? We could have defended well and got a bit of luck and won 1-0. That's football.''

Beckham angrily defended his role as captain.

"Do you think I can inspire the team as I did in the past? I am England captain," Beckham said. "I will not be resigning my position. I am proud to be England captain. I love to be playing football and I am England captain."

England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson also said he wouldn't step down.

"If it is the wish of the English people and the Football Association, who are my bosses, then I will leave," Eriksson said. "If I got it wrong then I don't know what I got wrong."

Ironically, England played at its best during its two defeats in Portugal. In its opening match against France, England led 1-0 until 91 minutes, before Zinedine Zidane snatched victory for France with a free kick and a penalty.

England rebounded with a 3-0 win over Switzerland in Coimbra, a uninspiring match apart from two goals from Rooney. They made him the youngest scorer in European Championship history -- until the slightly younger Johann Vonlanthen scored for the Swiss four days later.

The superlatives didn't stop for the stocky Everton striker when he netted twice again in a 4-2 win over Croatia. Compared to Pele by Eriksson and the talk of the tournament, Rooney was tipped to shine again against Portugal.

Limping off the field after his ankle had been stepped on by Portuguese defender Jorge Andrade, Rooney was replaced midway through the first half by Darius Vassell. Sadly for the Aston Villa striker, his shootout penalty was saved by Portugal goalkeeper Ricardo who then converted the winning spot kick.

"It was a sad end to an amazing few games and an amazing few goals," Beckham said of Rooney. "We are very proud of him. We are very lucky to have him as an England player."

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