- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 11, 2006

FRANKFURT, Germany — David Beckham didn’t get enough touches, gangly Peter Crouch was battered all over the field and England generally wilted under the hot German sun. But in the end, England — an outside favorite to win the World Cup — managed to scrap a vital 1-0 win over Paraguay in its Cup opener in front of 48,000.

“The most important thing is we got the three points,” England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson said. “I know it was not a good game today, but the most important thing is we won, and with a win in our next game against Trinidad and Tobago [Thursday] we can go through.”

After Friday’s exhilarating World Cup opener between Germany and Costa Rica in Munich, yesterday’s game lacked cohesion and class. With so many world-class players, England looked ordinary and was lucky to get the win.

The only goal in the match came just four minutes into the game when Paraguay’s veteran captain Carlos Gamarra, 35, inadvertently headed a curling free kick from Beckham into his own goal — the first time in World Cup history that the only goal scored in a game was an own-goal.

Four minutes later, Paraguay goalie Justo Villar was injured in a collision and replaced by Aldo Bobadilla — the fastest goalie substitution in World Cup history. Villar left the field in tears.

Bobadilla almost immediately found trouble, when he held the ball for more than the allotted six seconds, giving England a rare indirect-free kick just inside the box.

Frank Lampard took the shot, but it was blocked.

“We were happy in the first half, but we sat back a little in the second half, mainly because of the heat,” Lampard said. “I’m sure Paraguay is more used to this than us.”

While England maintained possession most of the game, it failed to thread its passes or create chances and in no way looks like a World Cup champion yet.

But based on the team’s previous opening games in recent major tournaments, this was a vast improvement, Eriksson said. At the 2004 European Championship in Portugal, England lost its opener in a bizarre game to France, and at the 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan, the team tied Sweden in its first game.

“It’s never easy at a World Cup,” Eriksson said. “Costa Rica was still in the game against Germany for 85 minutes, and people expected Poland to win [over Ecuador].”

No doubt Eriksson will be pleased with Trinidad and Tobago’s stunning tie with Sweden in Group B at Dortmund, although he is a fellow Swede. That game was the first shocker of the tournament and leaves England on top of the group with three points, while the other two teams share a point. Former Howard University goalie Shaka Hislop frustrated the favored Swedes all night with a brilliant performance for the 700-1 underdogs from the Caribbean.

Throughout the England game, the 6-foot-7 Crouch had difficulty fighting off his marker and struggled to set up plays for striker Michael Owen, who was replaced by Stewart Downing early in the second half. Owen has only recently recovered from a broken foot and Eriksson said he pulled him off for “safety reasons.”

Paraguay was in no way out of the game and could have drawn even just before halftime, when Nelson Valdez’s excellent effort went wide of the post.

In the 72nd minute the English fans, who dominated the stadium in a sea of red and white, began to chant for star forward Wayne Rooney, who was on the bench after recovering from a broken foot in April. It’s possible that Rooney could see some action in the third group game against Sweden, but more likely in second-round action if England advances.

Notes — The tall Crouch was a long shot to be starting in the World Cup a year ago.

“Playing for England! You wouldn’t have believed he would be playing for Liverpool!” former World Soccer Magazine editor Keir Radnedge said. “He’s been quite a surprise. He’s actually not that good in the air, but he’s a good foil for Michael Owen.”

Crouch started next to Owen because of Rooney’s injury and towered over Paraguay’s two central defenders, Gamarra and Julio Cesar Caeres, by a good six inches. But Crouch looked frustrated throughout the game and picked up a yellow card.

The 6-foot-7 Crouch is joined in the tournament by two other players of the same height — Jan Koller of the Czech Republic and Nikola Zigic (listed as the tallest by a centimeter) of Serbia-Montenegro.

Tall soccer players are often useful because they can head the ball first, but Crouch has a surprisingly deft foot.

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