On This Day: England Secure Greatest Friendly Win As Three Lions Stun Argentina

16 years ago, Michael Owen pulled it out of the bag against the old enemy
08:05, 12 Nov 2021

Friendlies are derided in the modern game and although the Nations League and plethora of qualifiers mean they are now almost non-existent, over a decade ago they were a pillar of our footballing calendar. And England in 2005, thrilled us all with a spectacular showing against Argentina. 

On neutral territory in Switzerland, the two old enemies resumed a sporting rivalry that was arguably at its peak during this time. At the 1998 World Cup, David Beckham's kick out at Diego Simeone earned him a red card and although the Three Lions battled on bravely, they were ultimately eliminated on penalties in the last 16. Four years later Beckham got his revenge from the penalty spot as Sven Goran-Eriksson’s England secured a crucial 1-0 win in the group stage. 

So when these two met again on this day in 2005, the world sat up and took notice. With another World Cup on the horizon, this was a match-up of the big guns that would act as a litmus test for the tournament in Germany the following summer. Unlike friendlies these days, both teams played their first choice starting XI and there were only three substitutions for each team. Football how it should be. 

The greatest testament to this classic is that it felt like the final instalment of the World Cup trilogy. Live on the BBC, Eriksson lined his side up in a 4-4-2 with Ledley King in midfield, Steven Gerrard on the left and Wayne Rooney, at his international peak, partnering Michael Owen up top. 

Meanwhile the Argentina team was packed full of names that you would have been delighted to put in your Panini sticker album at any point in the early 2000s. Javier Zanetti, Walter Samuel, Esteban Cambiasso, Riquelme and Hernan Crespo all started that day for a side that lost two consecutive Copa America finals in 2004 and 2007.

In true England fashion, they had a goal disallowed as Owen was ruled offside before Crespo had his close range effort chalked off for a foul. Eventually, England did go 1-0 down as Chelsea man Crespo tapped home a deflected Maxi Rodriguez pull-back. Another thing this match had which is so sorely missed for England internationals now is John Motson’s excited tones lighting up the action on the pitch, on what was a dark November night. 

Just before the break, the Three Lions levelled the scores through their own number nine, Wayne Rooney. The teenage striker, having burst onto the scene at Euro 2004, was so exciting to watch back then and it felt like with him up front, this Golden Generation could achieve absolutely anything. In 2005, the fearlessness of youth was sure to carry England to World Cup glory and this was a player who didn’t care about the failures of the past. 

His finish from Beckham’s knockdown (no, seriously) sent the fans behind the goal wild but Argentina were back ahead after the break as Walter Samuel headed home a clever set piece and it looked like England would fall short against elite opposition once again. They almost never beat elite level opposition in the knockout stages of a major tournament and their defensive failings were on show once more here. 

Then Sven changed things up again. Gerrard moved to right-back, Rooney dropped into an attacking midfield role, Joe Cole played on the left and Peter Crouch came on up front. With all of that attacking talent, when Gerrard whipped a ball into the box with just four minutes remaining, he may have been surprised that it was Owen that headed the ball in at the back post, rather than his 6ft 7in Liverpool teammate. But the scores were level and the atmosphere was electric.

Forget a friendly, for those of us watching on, this was just as important as a World Cup match and the bench erupted with joy as that ball hit the back of the net. As the clock ticked over into injury time, one of the best international matches we have witnessed had the most thrilling ending. 

Firstly, as England poured forward, Beckham saw his close range header remarkably saved by Roberto Abbondanzieri and from there, Argentina broke away. Javier Saviola played a through ball to Julio Ricardo Cruz and he was taken down in the box by Gerrard, but no penalty was given. Just like a basketball match, then it was England’s turn to attack and this time they made it count. 

Rooney fed Cole and he swung a cross into the box which was met by the best header of Owen’s career. He rose like a salmon to nod it home and although it wasn’t quite as iconic as his goal against the same opposition in 1998, it gave us the perfect ending to one of the best international matches of my lifetime. Friendly? Far from it. 

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