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Michael Owen: I Miss The Pressure and Purpose of Soccer

It was never my ambition just to be a professional football player, it was my ambition to be the best player in the world.

Everybody has one tournament that left an impression on them and the 1990 World Cup was the one for me. I was 10 or 11 at the time and it was just so exciting—all the color, all the music and all the great players. It made me realize: This is football, this is what it's about.

Now that I've retired from football, I realize that to do what I did so young, I did have this mentality of relentless positivity. Looking back, I could miss 100 chances in a game and pick up the paper the next day and see people saying, "Oh, Michael Owen played rubbish" and think: Not one player in the world could have done what I did in that match. I could turn what people thought was a negative into a huge positive for some reason. It was bordering on delusion in many ways!

But in the '98 World Cup I felt like I was a youngster coming into a really experienced team. When you're 18, you want to get across that white line and score some goals.

If I was playing alongside Alan Shearer, that was brilliant because he's great. If Paul Scholes and David Beckham were behind me, that was great too.

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Michael Owen of England celebrates with team mate David Beckham after scoring in the World Cup group G game against Romania at the Stade Municipal in Toulouse, France on June 22, 1998. Ben Radford /Allsport

But if I'm honest, I found my first World Cup appearance for England a little frustrating. Most people would be excited they simply played in a World Cup, but that wasn't the bar I set myself.

I wanted to be the best, and I wanted to be scoring goals, I didn't want to be coming on as a sub in our opening match against Tunisia at 2-0 when I couldn't influence the game.

To me, my World Cup didn't start until our second match, against Romania. We were losing 1-0 and needed to get back in the game, so it was an obvious choice to put a striker onto the pitch. So I came on and scored, tying the game, and that cemented my place in the team for the next game.

An Iconic World Cup Goal

But I never thought about scoring a goal in the Argentina match in the round of 16 stage—the goal that put England ahead 2-1—until David Beckham passed me the ball. I was thinking of controlling it and bringing my teammates into play, because we were defending at the time. It was only at the last second when the ball was five yards away from me that I saw an Argentinian shirt out of the corner of my eye.

This guy was taking a risk and I thought that if I took a good touch past him, he was too close and I was too quick for him. It was just one of those split seconds that's instinctive. Instead of taking a touch back towards our goal and passing it to one of our players, I just thought: Sod it. You have to take risks to score goals.

It was only when I took the ball past this midfielder and lifted my head up and saw Argentinian defender Roberto Ayala really deep that I thought: goal. That's when my eyes lit up. He was only that deep because I'd run at him and won a penalty five minutes earlier. He wasn't going to let me get behind him this time.

It's one thing being fast and it's one thing having a good touch, but the almost impossible thing is to marry those two together. The key was not to go too tight to him and get tackled and not to go too wide. I could have easily got past him, but I would have killed my angle on the goal. I had to get the angle right, and I did, and managed to slot it in.

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BT Sport's Michael Owen talks to camera prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Everton and Sunderland at Goodison Park on May 9, 2015 in Liverpool, England. Alex Livesey/Getty

There's nothing like scoring a goal and the adrenalin rush. Because that was my life. I did everything I possibly could, every minute of every single day to maximize my chances of scoring. Everything I ate, every time I trained and every time I went to bed at 10 p.m., I was thinking about being an athlete. My whole life was designed around results and putting the ball in the back of the net was proof of all the work. Scoring is part relief and it's part ecstatic joy. It's what you're built for.

I think in football in general, people see you on the pitch for 90 minutes and an interview afterwards, but bear in mind that 90 minutes is a fraction of what you're doing. In a World Cup, people don't see you in your down time; around the hotel, preparing for games and analyzing the other teams.

If you're in the army you live away for years and years, and I'm not saying to pity footballers. But I wasn't used to going away for six weeks and not seeing my family and friends. Going back to '98, we weren't allowed to have papers or a phone. Every meal was boiled chicken, boiled rice and boiled potato. You'd go from being so bored, to all of a sudden having to erupt into life and play the game of your life. The highs and the lows, that's what people don't see.

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A Life-Changing Experience

Lots of footballers have good careers, but I am privileged that I certainly have one or two goals that were moments in time in the biggest games of all, in World Cups and in games against England's arch rivals, like Germany. Everyone I talk to of a certain age knows where they were when I scored that goal against Argentina. That's a real honor because I know that I made a nation happy for a period of time.

So when somebody told me they were going to make an NFT out of that goal, I was just assuming it would be a video or a clip of my goal. Then I saw this red and white twirly artwork that was created from the trajectory of my goal. It's a great piece of art and it was auctioned off by Visa, who I partner with for the World Cup, to support the charity Street Child United. When people ask me what are my best moments ever, three stand out above everything else, and that Argentina goal is definitely one of them.

I remember when I scored it all my teammates came up to me and said my life was going to change forever. And it was my total life changer. Everything was different from then.

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Michael Owen. Tony Woollis Croft Photography

But I came back from the World Cup petrified. I remember vividly thinking: I can't have everybody thinking that's a flash in the pan. Liverpool, who I was signed to, then played Southampton away in our first game and I scored, and shortly after we played Newcastle away and I scored three goals. It was only then, when the whole Newcastle stadium applauded me afterwards, that I thought that I was at my peak. That year, I went on to win my second Golden Boot, given to the Premier League's leading goalscorer.

I was massively driven, but obviously my body let me down later on in life and I had a few injuries that slowed me down. That's why it was such mental torture for me at the end of my career, because I hated being average.

It's great to have the memories, it's great to be able to talk to people about it, but there's nothing quite like doing it. I miss the pressure, I miss the feeling that the nation relied on you to score goals. It's a weird thing, but I miss that purpose.

Being a World Cup Legend

People looking at me as a legend of the game is lovely, I wouldn't swap it for anything. I've got a shiny golden ball called the Ballon d'Or that I was awarded in 2001, it means you're the best player in the world at one particular time. I wanted to be the best and I've got a trophy to prove that I was. There are probably 30 living people on this planet that have got that.

Two of those people are among the greatest players of all time, possibly playing in their last major tournament at the 2022 World Cup, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

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Liverpool's Michael Owen (C) tries to take the ball past Fulham's Martin Djetou (L) during the Premier League match at Loftus Road in west London November 23, 2002. Fulham won the match 3-2. Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty

Obviously the romantic in me wants to see England win, but another romantic part of me wants to see Argentina or Portugal come out on top, so one of those two great players can cap off what has been an extraordinary career.

Looking back, I'm very grateful for everything I did. And I certainly live a life now where I'm happy with my lot. I spring out of bed every day. But the best years were certainly playing in these tournaments and World Cups when I was young and fearless. It was just: How many am I going to score? That type of attitude and feeling, and I do miss having that. I'm old and wise enough not to wallow, but they were the best days.

Michael Owen is a former professional soccer player for Liverpool, Real Madrid and Manchester United, as well as the England national team. He has partnered with Visa on their Master's of Movement project creating NFT art from iconic World Cup goals, which are auctioned off on crypto.com. You can follow Michael on Instagram @themichaelowen.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Newsweek senior editor Jenny Haward.

This My Turn essay features in the latest issue of Newsweek, on stands November 25.

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