If karma has a way of working in the world of football, it certainly chooses its moments. More specifically, crucial fixtures involving England and Germany.
In 1966, England had benefitted from Geoff Hurst’s strike against Germany infamously “crossing” the line on their way to winning the World Cup. But some 34 years later, it was England’s turn to feel aggrieved.
Frank Lampard’s “ghost goal” will forever haunt the Three Lions with the unknown path of what could have been after their heavy 4-1 defeat to Germany in the 2010 World Cup quarter-final.
The former Chelsea midfielder had brilliantly spotted Manuel Neuer off his line from 25 yards out, looping a half-volley over the German stopper, only to watch his effort to bounce down off the underside of the crossbar.
It looked for all the world that his effort had crossed the line and the England players lifted their arms, half in celebration and half in asking for confirmation. It never came.
The match was being broadcast live by the BBC in front of millions of viewers and even commentator Guy Mowbray, usually a calm and composed operator, could not hide the incredulity in his voice.
“It’s surely crossed the line!” He said after reviewing the replay.
“It’s not been given! Surely that was in? Oh it’s in… it’s so far in!”
The post-match reaction was filled with rage and understandably so. German legend Jurgen Klinsmann described the farce as a “disgrace”, while Alan Shearer — the former striker working as a pundit for the game — labelled it a “terrible decision”.
Of course, this was 11 years ago. Football was a different beast then — there was no VAR or goal-line technology and HawkEye was a little-known entity at this point.
Still, it was obvious from the naked eye that the ball had indeed crossed the line. The problem was the assistant referee, Mauricio Espinosa, was tracking the movements of the Germany defenders on the edge of the box and therefore was 15 yards away from the goal line.
The referee, Jorge Larrionda, was distracted by a challenge in front of him seconds before Lampard pulled the trigger and was placed even further away.
Those who had the power to give the goal simply couldn’t do so if they were not 100 per cent certain — and they were not.
In a refreshing interview, Espinosa admitted after the game that it should have been a goal but he had not seen the ball go over the line.
“It was a very fast shot that I did not see properly, even though I was located in the right place,” he told El País.
“We didn’t see a replay in the dressing room at half-time but you could sense what had happened. It was only when we saw the TV that we realised what happened.
“I feel quite sad about it because we had prepared for such a long time for the World Cup. It could have happened to anyone, unfortunately it was us. You just have to accept it. Life goes on.”
Neuer admitted at the time that he had done his best to deceive the officials: “I tried not to react to the referee and just concentrate on what was happening.
“I realised it was over the line and I think the way I carried on so quickly fooled the referee into thinking it was not over.”
It is unfortunate that incidents of this nature were needed to accelerate the use of technology in football.
What rubbed salt in the wound was the subsequent apology from FIFA president Sepp Blatter, accepting it was an error on the officials’ part, while refusing to acknowledge that only four months prior FIFA had voted to “shut the door” on goal-line technology.
With some form of video review, England would have been level at 2-2. While new tech was brought in for the greater good, the result can never be changed.
Hindsight is golden, but the goal-that-never-was came at such a crucial time. The controversial incident had occurred just 53 seconds after Matthew Upson had got a goal back for Fabio Capello’s side. Germany were on the ropes and two goals in the space of minute would have unquestionably swung the momentum in England’s favour.
But guided by the creative brilliance of Mesut Ozil and goals from Miroslav Klose, Lukas Podolski and a double from Thomas Muller, Germany ran riot to seal their place in the semi-finals. England would bow out from South Africa, rife with bitter and anger.
Lampard has since reflected on the goal with a wide scope, reiterating his disappointment that it did not count but conceding that it affected real change for the better in football.
“I don’t think much about it,” said the midfielder at the 2014 World Cup.
“I can’t see much point in having sleepless nights about it.
“It changed the game for the better, so I’m pleased about that. It’s a positive move for the game as a whole with the introduction of goal-line technology.”
But some of his ex-England team-mates couldn’t get past it.
Left-back Stephen Warnock watched events unfold from the England substitutes’ bench that evening at the Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein and the former Liverpool defender recalled the cagey atmosphere in the dressing room after the game.
“There was a silence in the changing room that I’d not heard for a long, long time,” he told Sky Sports News.
“I think the ‘goal’ was still on everyone’s mind and it was frustrating for the players.”
As England prepare to tackle the knockout stages at Euro 2020, football has evolved and similar incidents are near-impossible nowadays thanks to the modern advancement of technology.
But for the England supporters and players there on that day in South Africa 11 years ago, it doesn’t make remembering the “ghost goal” any less painful.