"He's the future, and he's a good ambassador," Eriksson said, when he announced Owen would step in as captain for Beckham. "He's English football. If you don't know Michael Owen, and you see a picture of him, he seems to be very clean. Am I wrong?"
The surprise decision won raves, with the Times calling Eriksson's choice "yet another indication that he intends to leave these dark days of English football behind him" and a big reason why "Eriksson has already turned England's football team into a metaphor for all that modern Britain should be. Now all he has to do is win the World Cup."
England wouldn't have a chance at that if it weren't for the other half of Owen's nature. Mr. Clean may endorse Pepsi and potato chips, but it's the killer who pays Owen's bills. His father played for Liverpool archrival Everton and had Michael playing soccer at six. Always smaller and younger than the other players, Owen had scouts hovering by the time he was 11. He scored 92 goals in a season to break the schoolboy record of Liverpool legend Ian Rush, and at 14 he won a spot at the Football Association's School of Excellence. Told that only two in his class could be expected to make the pros, Owen thought, I wonder who the other one will be?
He has never gone in for false modesty. He'll casually say he wants to average a goal for every two international games he plays. Or, if he scores one goal, that he should have had two or three. Knowing he was holding down the captaincy until Beckham recovered, Owen still admitted to designs on keeping it longer. "As a greedy person," he said, "you want a bit more." The inevitable criticism? Another challenge.
"You always come back down to earth with a thump at some stage," Owen says. "Life has its ups and downs; the acid test is how you handle the downs. It's easy when everything's going well and everyone's patting you on the back. But when you play poorly and you get slaughtered for it, that's probably the hardest bit."
It will only make him work harder. "He's so driven to improve, always looking for advice," says Liverpool teammate Dieter Hamann, who's German. "That's not common among English players. He continues working even though so many things come easy to him. Sometimes when you're too good too young, it's hard to find the motivation to improve. Michael isn't like that."
Early in his career Owen relied on his speed and right foot. Since 1999, though, he has worked with Liverpool coach Gerard Houllier on expanding his range, drilling endlessly. In last year's FA Cup final against Arsenal, Owen scored two goals in the closing eight minutes to give his hometown the tide—one on a volley, the other with his left foot. "He has developed so much," Houllier says. "He doesn't just score goals; he scores vital goals, important goals."
Now, though, Owen has to come even further, and fast. Injuries have left the English midfield a shambles. Beckham is, as the Brits say, a bit dodgy. England sits in the middle of this World Cup's Group of Death, and it's going to need some serious wizardry to push through to the second round. "I'll be much better for the Argentina game," Owen promised on Sunday. He has no choice. Nobody in the World Cup stays young for long.