Owen has class to bear
weight of England hopes
It sounds almost absurd for a 22-year-old, but Michael Owen has already achieved the one thing denied to other talented British athletes -- longevity.
The England striker burst on to the international scene aged 18 at France '98 with a stunning goal against Argentina that underscored his nickname as "Boy Wonder".
But instead of fizzling out or wasting his talent, the Liverpool striker has lived up to his promise and carries a burden of expectation with him again as England seek success at this year's World Cup finals.
"So many people you see coming on to the scene, not only in football but in tennis, golf, cricket and everyone builds them up," Owen told reporters.
"Not many of them can live up to the expectations. But I'm still in the England team so I think I've done all right.
"I didn't want to be just remembered for that goal against Argentina and thankfully with Liverpool I've managed to do a few extra things, as well as enjoying some good memories with England.
"The last few years have gone very well. A lot of people expected me to dip after the World Cup and that was going to be inevitable really.
"You can't play well in every game. Since then, I've had ups and downs with injuries and whatever but I'd have settled then for where I am now. I think that I've made progress.
"I'm an all-round better player than I was against Argentina (four years ago) -- better in the air and with my left foot. There's none of the fear that I had then, either."
Argentina, as well as Sweden and Nigeria, beckon again for Owen in group F at the South Korea and Japan finals, which begin on May 31.
Owen, whose hat-trick in the 5-1 defeat of Germany last year helped England qualify for the finals, is a certainty to be named in coach Sven-Goran Eriksson's starting side.
Injuries have robbed Eriksson of Steven Gerrard and Gary Neville, but Owen says the young England squad, if they cannot win the tournament, are determined to display the sort of promise that current world champions France had.
"Whatever happens in this World Cup -- and we'll be trying to win it -- then I think everyone should realise we have a very young side," Owen said.
"France started where we are now and look what they've gone and done. I certainly think we have the potential to do that as well."
He admitted that people might view England as better prospects for success at the 2006 World Cup, but he added: "We are one of about eight teams that have a very good chance of winning it this year.
"Obviously France and Argentina probably stand out ahead of us but if we play them in a one-off game then we wouldn't be scared of it."
England fans are praying Owen can also stay free of the sort of hamstring injuries that have plagued his career.
"You can't help getting injured," he said. "It's not as if you can go half-pace at a World Cup.
"You have to go flat out as you're playing against world-class players. If something did happen, it would be a bitter disappointment for me but I can't see that happening."
Owen knows the challenge for him at this year's finals will be to have the same impact even though defenders are now well aware of the dangers he poses.
"You go to your first World Cup and have the advantage of no-one knowing you," he said.
"Maybe the disadvantage now is that people know you, but I'm a much more experienced player with 34 caps and I've played against world-class players. That's an advantage for me...this is the next step in my development."