For years Michael Owen has lived the ultimate English schoolboy dream. Only Harry Potter has had a more magical ride: In 1998, at 18, Owen became the youngest player in the 20th century to play for England, then the youngest to score for England, then the youngest Englishman to play in a World Cup. BOY WONDER, the tabloids dubbed him. It seemed just another perfectly plotted chapter when he stepped in for the injured David Beckham in April to become, at 22, the youngest national-team captain since the legendary Bobby Moore, who in 1966 led England to its only World Cup championship. The Times of London cheered Owen's ascension in an editorial. Three minutes into his first game wearing the captain's armband—a friendly against Paraguay in England's farewell to the home fans before leaving for the 2002 World Cup—Owen smacked a header into the net and England went on to win by four goals. Bobby Moore, indeed!
On Sunday night, at a sparkling new stadium in Saitama, Japan, packed with England fans, Owen's golden glide became something else entirely. He's still 22, still one of the world's great strikers, but when the sore-footed Beckham—back in the lineup for the first time in seven weeks—handed the armband back to Owen and walked gingerly off the pitch with 63 minutes gone in England's opening World Cup match against Sweden, all the pressure, all the history, all the nationwide yearning that comes with being England's soccer hero bore down squarely on Owen's back for the first time. At that instant his World Cup career became a matter of performance, not promise. On this night he didn't perform. There were no spectacular goals, no breathtaking runs. Caught in a thicket of Swedish defenders, with his defense falling apart and his goalkeeper under siege, Owen spent much of the game shuffling his tiny feet, spitting curses into the air.
In London, that's the cue for tabloid panic. England tied Sweden 1-1 but could easily have lost the game by two or three goals. For much of the second half an English band kept playing the theme from The Great Escape. It has been 34 years since the English beat Sweden, and if they couldn't rectify that bit of history—with a Swedish coach, no less—one could only imagine how they would do in this Friday's showdown against Argentina. Forget the national obsession with regaining the soccer throne; it's revenge time again. Great Britain may have won the Falkland Islands war in 1982, but Argentina has made the English pay for it ever since. First came Diego Maradona's Hand of God goal in the 1986 World Cup. Then, four years ago, Beckham became a victim of Argentine trickery: After being fouled by Diego Simeone, he brain-locked and lightly kicked the downed Simeone, who reacted as if he'd been grievously wounded by the blow. Beckham was sent packing. England lost again.
Beckham has long since redeemed himself as England's captain and Manchester United's keystone, but all that bad karma came flooding back during an April game between Man U and Deportivo La Coruna when Argentine midfielder Aldo Pedro Duscher broke a metatarsal bone in Beckham's left foot with a brutal tackle. ARGIE DID IT!!! one tabloid screamed. On Sunday, Beck ham returned to lash a gorgeous first-half corner kick that set up England's lone goal, a header by Sol Campbell. But midway through the second half Beckham's lack of conditioning and renewed pain in his foot forced him out of the game. Asked if he would play against Argentina, Beckham offered only, "I hope so."
Which, of course, ratchets up the pressure on Owen, who may be the only Englishman looking forward to the game. After all, his finest hour came against the Argentines. In the '98 World Cup loss that saw Beckham so thoroughly suckered, Owen produced a goal for the ages: Blowing by three defenders, moving like mercury and striking like lightning, he rocketed the ball past keeper Carlos Roa with such authority that, for England fans, it made the loss almost palatable. That night a friend rang Owen's mobile phone on the team bus and declared, "Your life is never going to be the same."
It wasn't, because Owen was unlike any other English player in years. With unparalleled acceleration and a nose for the net, he's what D.C. United coach and ESPN guest analyst Ray Hudson calls a "fantasy player," one of those rare talents churned out by the dozen in Brazil but rarely in England. Seemingly unburdened by a national soccer history that had devolved from that lone World Cup championship to hooliganism, boring play and a parade of players never good enough when it mattered most, Owen promised greatness. Even while battling severe hamstring injuries, he led a resurgent Liverpool to an unheard-of five titles in 2001, including the championship of the FA Cup, and was named European Player of the Year.
"Nobody knows how fast he is until they play against him," says U.S. goalkeeper Brad Friedel, a former Liverpool teammate. "When he's in a 30-yard race, somebody can get a 10-yard head start and he'll beat the player to the ball by 10 yards. When the defenders are running one way and then have to stop and go the other way to catch him—you simply do not do it. He has games when everything he touches turns to gold."
With 16 goals in 37 games for the national team—capped by a stunning hat trick in a 5-1 win over Germany last September-Owen has made coach Seven-G�ran Eriksson look like a genius. "He's a born goal scorer, a killer," says Eriksson. "A clean killer."
It's an odd and potent combination. Owen is invariably polite, never pops off in the press and says he doesn't drink beer, tea or coffee. It is, he insists, no act. "I want to be a topflight football player, so I lead the life that enables me to be that type of player," Owen says. "I prefer to be seen in a decent light rather than an indecent one. But I don't try to be a clean-cut person. It's other people who see me as that."
Were it otherwise, the English tabloids would no doubt stir up a frenzy. The tawdry doings of contemporaries like Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate of Leeds United filled papers for the last year, but John Terry and three Chelsea teammates hit a new low on the night of Sept. 11 when they ended a drunken night at a hotel near Heathrow Airport by flashing guests, breaking bottles and otherwise bothering the people stuck there because their flights to the U.S. had been canceled. Those players all had a good shot at making the national team, but Eriksson felt they weren't worth the gamble. Owen, in the meantime, spent $1.2 million in 2001 for three houses for his family; he lives nearby with his childhood sweetheart, Louise Bonsall. Even his one vice—playing the horses—comes wrapped in family values; the name of one of Owen's racehorses, Talk To Mojo, contains the initials of sisters Lesley and Karen, brothers Andrew and Terry and his parents, Terry and Janette.