KARACHI: It was at the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France when Michael Owen announced himself to the world.
Then just an 18-year-old, on as a substitute in England’s second World Cup group game against Romania — in a game his side would eventually go on to lose — he became his country’s youngest goal-scorer at a World Cup; a record that stands to this day.
It was against Argentina though, in a round-of-16 match that England would also go on to lose, where he showed the full repertoire of his skills — pace, acceleration and lethal finishing.
Owen took in his stride a through ball from David Beckham — whose red card later on would ultimately decide the contest in Saint Etienne — and left Jose Antonio Chamot trailing in his wake before going past Roberto Ayala and planting a perfect finish.
Inevitably, there were comparisons to a player who was the best at that time: Brazilian phenomenon Ronaldo, the star of that World Cup and three years his senior.
Ronaldo also suffered heartbreak at that World Cup as Brazil lost the final to France, although he would eventually get redemption four years later by lifting the Selecao’s fifth world title.
That title eluded Owen but both his and Ronaldo’s careers followed a similar trajectory; peaking early on, winning the Ballon d’Or in their early twenties, before injuries slowed them down.
They played together too, for a season at Real Madrid.
And now both are behind FIFA’s plan to change the scheduling of the tournament that defined their careers.
Owen and Ronaldo were part of the FIFA Legends panel which held meetings with FIFA’s global football development director Arsene Wenger in Qatar earlier this month, where consultations were held about making the World Cup a biennial event despite widespread uproar that it would not only devalue the standing of the tournament but also have an impact on the club game.
Ronaldo said after that meeting that a World Cup every two years “would be a great opportunity to engage the youth that may be going into different areas.”
Owen, though, is of the view that the plan is about inclusivity, about seeing newer countries qualify.
“A 100 percent,” the former Liverpool and Manchester United striker told Dawn when asked whether the plan would actually help develop the game globally during a Zoom interview on Friday morning after he was named the brand ambassador for the upcoming Pakistan Football League, a six-team franchise event set to be launched by the end of the year.
“The main point on the agenda, the reasoning for having a World Cup every two years is to have more inclusion, more involvement from so many more countries,” he added. “It seems the same countries are playing every four years. Football is a game for all the people all over the world.”
FIFA has already expanded the World Cup to 48 teams from 32, increasing slots for each continent starting from the 2026 edition. The long-drawn qualifying for the World Cup sees participation from almost every country in the world but Owen believes that actually playing at the tournament makes the difference.
“FIFA is really trying to push for other countries to be able to be included and just compete at that much higher level on a frequent basis so it will certainly improve the level of football around the world,” he said. “So that’s a definite positive from that point of view. It will also see more meaningful matches.”
Owen said a possible change in World Cup scheduling, along with the launch of the PFL, gives Pakistan football something to look forward too.
Pakistan has never won a World Cup qualifier in its history and football remains mired in crisis with the country currently suspended by FIFA.
The PFL is being launched after Global Soccer Ventures signed an agreement with the court-elected Pakistan Football Federation, which is not recognised by the game’s global body, to develop Pakistan football.
“It will be a natural progression, a natural improvement just because football is out there and that it’s being played,” said Owen. “There will be children watching this. It’s going to increase the popularity so quite inevitably there will be improvement in the standard.
“We’re not naive to think it will happen overnight. We have seen so many leagues over the world which enhance the [playing] standard [of a country] if they’re done well and done sustainably. There is no reason why in a country of Pakistan’s power and numbers the standard of football cannot improve rapidly.”
Following his exploits at the World Cup in France, Owen came back from a dreadful hamstring injury to win the Ballon d’Or in 2001 after helping Liverpool to five trophies that year including the treble of the UEFA Cup, FA Cup and the League Cup.
Further injuries, though, meant Owen was unable to achieve greater heights, although he did win the Premier League with Manchester United in 2011 as a bit-part player.
“You look behind and you see the Ballon d’Or,” said Owen, sitting in front of his trophy cabinet during the interview, “and obviously that means you were at the top of the tree at one specific point. I know if I hadn’t had injuries in my career, I would’ve had a bigger trophy cabinet.
“Injuries affected Ronaldo too,” he added of the Brazilian who came back from a horrific knee injury to win the World Cup in 2002. “As a player growing up, I was looking at him and admiring him so to play alongside later on in my career was very special.”
The injuries that affected both Ronaldo and Owen meant they both had to alter their similar playing styles. The tearing pace and the searing acceleration that made them so special were gone when they played together at Real.
“Of course you cant’t help if you have injuries and you try to come fitter and stronger than when you left the field in the first place,” Owen said.
“Of course you have regrets. I burst onto the scene very quickly. I achieved a lot very quickly in the first four or five years of my career.
“I got goals, broke records. The only sad thing from my point of view was that I couldn’t sustain that for the second half of my career. But it’s also a [matter of] pride that I was playing at the same level and despite all those injuries and managed to sustain and almost change my game to be a different type of player.”
As soon as Owen’s interview ended, the European Club Association released a statement slamming FIFA for trying to “railroad through plans for biennial World Cups”, adding that the approach to the reforms of the international match calendar were in “direct and unilateral breach of certain legal obligations”, as it joined European football’s governing body UEFA in opposing the proposals.
On Friday evening, FIFA released a video of former France striker David Trezeguet, a World Cup winner with France in 1998, reiterating Owen’s view that changing the way World Cups are held will eliminate matches of lower of importance and that the quality and global competitiveness will grow.
The former players have said that more World Cups will ensure future stars of the game get greater chances to win the game’s biggest prize.
But even that stirs quite a debate.
Ronaldo won it twice in four appearances, after being an unused substitute in Brazil’s 1994 title-winning campaign. Trezeguet won it once in three tournaments.
Owen played in three tournaments but never got close. That is precisely what makes the World Cup in its current format so special.
Published in Dawn, September 25th, 2021