The Last Time We Played Chile...

...it was the start of Michael Owen's England career...but only because Andy Cole withdrew with a niggle. Could anything similarly significant happen this time round?

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Do we only play Chile in the cold? The South Americans' last game against England was at the old Wembley, 16 years ago this February, again a World Cup warm-up for both sides against plunging thermometers. If tonight's match will be played in fridge-like conditions, for the 2-0 away win in 1998 it was more like being in a freezer.

England had qualified the previous October, evading the play-offs with a goalless draw in Rome after Italy's defensiveness against lesser opposition threw away the advantage they had gained by winning at Wembley in February 1997. Glenn Hoddle was England's young, bright manager, looking to get the most of the playing talents at his disposal only a few years after his career had ended with a feeling that predecessors had squandered his potential.

Looking back at the highlights on YouTube, among the Sky Sports pundits that night was an urbane Englishman who had managed at the previous World Cup despite his homeland not qualifying. The word 'urbane' ruling out the Republic of Ireland's Jack Charlton, that can only mean Roy Hodgson, no longer of Switzerland but instead at Blackburn.

Both Chile's goals came from Marcelo Salas, along with Ivan Zamorano part of a feared strikeforce that would help the team out of their group in the World Cup but sadly straight into a collision with Brazil. The home focus was also on the forwards, in unusual circumstances.

Hoddle's first-choice striker was the Euro 96 top scorer, now TV's Alan Shearer, but he had ruptured ligaments in a pre-season friendly for Newcastle against Everton and was taking his first steps back towards action as the Chile game approached. The good news was that Hoddle had plenty of goalscoring options. Ian Wright had played in Rome alongside Teddy Sheringham; Chris Sutton, still banging them in for Blackburn two seasons after Shearer's departure, had featured against Cameroon in the November friendly; there was Les Ferdinand, Shearer's Newcastle team-mate; Robbie Fowler had been around for ages but was not 23 until April; and the mercurial Matt Le Tissier had been Hoddle's choice in the home game against Italy, while Paul Scholes was emerging as a threat from deeper too.

There was one striker who had been crying out for an opportunity, though: Sheringham's Manchester United team-mate Andy Cole. He had made his debut for Terry Venables against Uruguay in 1995 but had to wait two years for a chance under Hoddle, in a summer tournament game against Italy that was sandwiched by 1997's qualifiers. Now he was inked in for a first start.

On the eve of the game, though, Cole had a niggle, prompting Hoddle to turn to an improbably youthful figure. To get a sense of how unusual it was that Michael Owen would play for England two months after his 18th birthday, consider that the baby of the 1990 World Cup squad had been a 23-year-old Paul Gascoigne. Surely it was asking too much of the Liverpool teenager to make the step up?

The current debate over head injuries brought Owen to mind, because when he scored his first international goal in his fourth game, against Morocco in a pre-finals tournament, it was only after refusing to go off after a mild concussion, sustained attempting to limbo dance under an opponent's outstretched leg. In light of what would subsequently happen, it may seem inevitable that Owen would go to France, but had Cole not pulled out injured against Chile - had he played and scored - then who knows how events would have played out.

Cole would not play again for England before the World Cup - or ever for Hoddle. The stumbling start to Euro 2000 qualification and the furore over disabled people and karma cost the manager his job, so Cole's third cap came against France in February 1999, under the caretakership of Howard Wilkinson. Not until Kevin Keegan became the fourth different manager to cap him in four games - perhaps a world, and certainly English, record - did Cole start, against Poland in March 1999. He did not finally score a goal until two years later, against Albania for Sven-Goran Eriksson - by which time a booking meant he would be suspended for the next qualifier, the beginning of the end for Cole. His international retirement followed his still-private omission from Eriksson's 2002 World Cup squad, the Blackburn Evening Telegraph website getting the scoop.

Owen's journey ended in limp disappointment under Fabio Capello, never truly recovering from the injury that ruined his build-up to the 2006 World Cup and the one that ended his tournament prematurely. Still, Shearer's sofa sidekick can look back on some fine moments in the senior national team shirt, beginning on that night against Chile as he impressed in defeat, in Andy Cole's place.

Tonight's match may not be the beginning of anything significant, but anyone seeking to make a name for themselves - whether Fraser Forster in goal or Adam Lallana further forward - can look back on that previous debutant against Chile and wonder what may be.

Philip Cornwall

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