Euphoria 96 for Pearce the brave

England come suddenly to life in sudden death as a penalty victim turns hero and a cool keeper has glory in his hands
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The Independent Online
Wembley Stadium has seen nothing like it since the Live Aid and Nelson Mandela concerts of a decade ago. David Seaman's save from Miguel Angel Nadal's penalty in the shoot-out provoked an instant mass party to the background of the song "Three Lions" that has become an alternative national anthem.

Amid all the celebrations, however, questions will have to be asked about the introduction for the first time in an international of the sudden- death element to extra time, and later, about the precise merit of England's win.

But one question that was emphatically answered was whether Stuart Pearce had the bottle to take part in another international shoot-out. Six years ago, in the sultry heat of Turin, England's World Cup semi-final against West Germany went to penalties, with Stuart Pearce being the first to miss, thereby opening the door to a German triumph.

With Chris Waddle also missing his kick, nobody was very likely to pillory Pearce - who would be brave enough to try? - but public pity can be an equal burden, not to mention whatever demons the full-back had bottled up as a consequence. So it was an act of astonishing bravery for Pearce to accept his coach's nomination for one of the kicks knowing that a second fateful miss would leave a terrible legacy.

In the event, after Alan Shearer and David Platt had comfortably tucked their shots away, and Fernando Hierro had hit the bar for the Spanish, Pearce was less pressurised than he might have been. Even so, there was a potent sense of tension as he placed the ball and then retreated for his run-up, and this time he was rewarded for his courage.

The powerful low shot, hammered by his anvil of a left foot zipped into the bottom corner, clear of any fateful deflection of the sort which German goalkeeper, Bodo Illgner, had produced in Turin. Pearce, usually a stoic celebrator of his goals, this time allowed himself a roar of exultation and a clench-fisted gesture as he rewrote a chapter of his professional career.

What will concern the England coach, Terry Venables, after the raw thrill of victory has subsided, will be how close to the edge his team came in a game which not only carried the natural pressures of cup football, but also the new torture of the prospective sudden-death goal in extra time.

It had seemed from the first half that the two well-matched teams were destined to fall into this experimental phase, almost as rabbits are lured into headlights. Indeed, the knowledge that this novelty was lurking seemed to colour a good deal of the match.

The fluency that England had generated to destroy the Dutch was largely absent, apart from a spell early in the second half, but here even the now-deadly Shearer spurned a close-range chance, as too did Darren Anderton and Teddy Sheringham.

Spain, who competed at every level throughout the game, were denied two goals by offside decisions, the second of which was the very epitome of what they term "hair-line". And they certainly finished the normal period of the game in full cry for another of the late goals which had enabled them to qualify from their group.

Indeed, Spain's performance - penalty-taking apart - gave the lie to all the knockabout stereotypes which some of our tabloids have been peddling in the run-up to this game. One can only imagine that, far from ridiculing the Spanish into timidity, this coverage actually inspired them into giving the most determined of performances yesterday.

England's supporters and their ringmasters may wish to consider the insidious counter-effects of gloating triumphalism if they wish their team to progress to the final next Sunday.

The repetitive playing of "Three Lions", and the exhibitionist displays of its composers, David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, is in danger of overshadowing the efforts of the players, and you fear the worst if England have to entertain their expected visitors, Germany, in the semi-final this Wednesday.

Let us instead hear a little more about the "Five Lions", the four players who strode up in this cauldron to execute their successful penalties - Shearer, Platt, Pearce and Paul Gascoigne - and an extraordinary goalkeeper, David Seaman. It has gone past the stage of considering him to be a lucky goalie, such is the consistency not only of his all-round keeping, but also of his defiant ability to banish the goalkeeper's fear of the penalty. Seaman, in contrast, seems to thrive on them. And, just as Pearce laid his own personal ghost to rest, Seaman will now be able to hear the name Nayim without twitching.

England player-by-player assessment By Norman Fox