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Monday, May 31, 2010
Updated: June 12, 12:41 PM ET
God save the team

By Ravi Ubha

Missed opportunities: In the 1990 World Cup, England's Chris Waddle fires his penalty over the bar past the diving goalkeeper in the shoot-out, eliminating England from the tournament.

It's as if England made a deal with the devil in 1966.

Something like, "You get this one, but you'll pay for it for the next half century."

Since winning its only World Cup, at home, in 1966, England has suffered one heartache after another on the sport's biggest stage. We're not talking about losing in routine fashion. In three of their last four World Cups, including the 1990 semifinals, the Three Lions failed to roar from the penalty spot, making for the most agonizing exits.

But at least they were there.

When the U.S. hosted the World Cup in 1994, England failed to qualify, causing much embarrassment for a nation that's believed to have invented soccer. England was a no-show in 1974 and 1978, too.

So desperate was England to turn things around that in 2001, the Football Association did the unthinkable and appointed a non-Brit as manager, Sweden's Sven-Goran Eriksson. That ended up doing more harm than good, with "the fake sheikh" tabloid controversy and affair leading to more red faces.

Injuries to high-profile players surfaced at the worst possible time, as well.

It's Sod's law. Something always happens.

The (missed) penalties -- 1990, 1998, 2006

If only England had Matt Le Tissier, who played for Southampton, around for all those penalty shootouts. Although he never quite made it at the international level despite his dazzling ability, Le Tissier was virtually unstoppable from 12 yards -- a remarkable 48-for-49 at the top flight of English football.

"There has to be no doubt in your mind whatsoever that you are going to score," Le Tissier was quoted as saying in the Express last week. "You cannot show fear. You have to walk up and be confident, arrogant. Stand up there and think, 'It's 12 yards, if I can't score from here, when am I ever going to score?'"

Chris Waddle and Stuart Pearce seemed to have doubts. At Italia 1990, after outplaying the mighty Germans for much of the encounter under the stewardship of revered manager Bobby Robson, Pearce's weak effort was saved. Waddle needed to score to prolong the shootout, but his attempt sailed way wide.

There it began.

Eight years later, in France, few could question England's heart. Reduced to 10 men early in the second half when Beckham was dismissed for petulantly kicking a theatrical Diego Simeone, the Three Lions forced extra time, then penalties against Argentina.

Some thought it was destiny -- hanging on for more than 70 minutes deserved reward, didn't it? Nope.

This time David Batty was the villain in the Round of 16, with Paul Ince not far behind.

England headed into the 2006 World Cup in Germany with heightened expectations. Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Michael Owen, along with a rock-solid defense, were in their prime. Many considered this a Golden Generation.

Alas, just like in 1998, England saw red. A blossoming, yet still raw, Wayne Rooney was sent off for a stamp in the 62nd minute of the quarterfinal against Portugal. Again, the back four held firm for almost an hour, leading to the dreaded climax.

After Lampard and Gerrard failed to deliver, defender Jamie Carragher, like Pearce, Ince and Batty, a fearless character, had his twice-taken penalty stopped by Portugal's pint-sized goalkeeper, Ricardo.

Did we mention England departed Euro 1996 and Euro 2004 on penalties as well?

"We got off to a bad start in shootouts in 1990 and all of a sudden our players think we are not very good," Le Tissier said.

Diego's Hand of God -- 1986

Before Thierry Henry's Hands of God, there was the original in 1986. Diego Maradona managed to score perhaps the most infamous and famous World Cup goals three minutes apart against England in the quarterfinals. England neutralized Argentina in the first half at the Azteca, entering the interval scoreless, so the first goal was always going to be pivotal.

Maradona took advantage of a poor clearance by midfielder Steve Hodge to push the ball past Peter Shilton with his hand in the 51st minute, breaking the deadlock and immediately sparking debate around the world. Tunisian referee Ali Bennaceur had no doubts and awarded the goal.

Three minutes later, England still stunned, Maradona's mesmeric run made it 2-0. Argentina advanced and went on to win the title.

Maradona's failure to admit his indiscretion awaiting a routine drug test after the game infuriated England defender Terry Butcher.

He was still upset more than 30 years later.

"I gestured to him about whether he had used his head or his hand for the first goal and he gestured that it had been his head, but that might have been because there were three not very happy Englishmen in there," Butcher said two years ago. "And that irritated me even more, because if he had come in and said, 'Well, you know, it was my hand and I apologize,' I'd probably have hit him four or five times instead of 20."

Goalkeeping howlers -- 1970, 2002

One blunder by the goalkeeper is all it takes to undo a team's hard work.

Favored to repeat in 1970 in Mexico, England confronted West Germany in the quarterfinals. The Germans had revenge on their minds, beaten in the 1966 finale at Wembley.

The lead up to the tournament didn't go well for England. Captain Bobby Moore was arrested, suspected of stealing jewelry. Although later cleared, the damage was done.

David Seaman
David Seaman looks back as the ball goes into the goal on a shot from Brazil's Ronaldinho during the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals.

What's more, prior to the quarterfinal, Gordon Banks, considered one of greatest keepers of all time, succumbed to food poisoning, unleashing all sorts of conspiracy theories. In came Chelsea legend Peter Bonetti.

England cruised through the hour, up 2-0. In the 68th minute, Bonetti allowed Franz Beckenbauer's tame shot to squirm past him. He didn't do much better on Uwe Seeler's equalizer in the 76th minute, stranded in no-man's-land. West Germany bossed extra time and prevailed 3-2.

Fast forward to 2002, when "Safe Hands" David Seaman crumbled in Asia.

This was England's chance against Brazil, having taken a 1-0 lead in the quarterfinal thanks to Owen. A slick finish by Rivaldo following a mazy run by Ronaldinho made it 1-1 at halftime. In the 50th minute, Ronaldinho lined up to take a free kick from roughly 40 yards.

Not much danger, right?

Well, the toothy one caught Seaman off guard. Expecting a cross, Seaman moved away from goal, and Ronaldinho sent the ball into the top corner. England, playing with an extra man for the final 33 minutes, wilted.

Seaman was disconsolate and subsequently apologized to England's fans.

"If anyone makes a scapegoat out of David Seaman after that, it will be an absolute disgrace," Beckham, then captain, said.

David Seaman
England captain David Beckham, left, consoles Seaman after their 2-1 loss to Brazil in 2002.

The injury curse -- 2002, 2006

A ruptured Achilles ended Beckham's South African dream. The impact on England is a fraction more than minimal, since at this stage in his career, he's a bench player. But in 2002, it was different.

Beckham sustained a broken bone in his foot about two months before the showpiece in Japan/South Korea, and although he recovered in time to play in all five of England's matches, Beckham was mostly ineffective. He did exorcise his demons, converting a penalty, the winner, against Argentina in the group stage.

Gary Neville, the starting right back, was ruled out of the same edition due to a broken foot.

And the curse of the metatarsal struck again in late April 2006, afflicting Rooney. He started one group game prior to his sending off in the quarters. The woes up front were exacerbated by Owen's serious knee injury against Sweden in the final group game.

So what happens next? More untimely injuries? Shambolic goalkeeping? Another penalty shootout debacle? A nation waits -- and worries.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for