Thinking back to my childhood, it now seems wildly incongruous that one of my first heroes in football was David Seaman. In stark contrast to the cultivated cool of club teammates Robert Pires, Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry, this was a man who looked like a hybrid of one of the Three Musketeers and Ron Jeremy in his prime, a guy who was basically a mind-boggling cross between Johnny Depp in Chocolat and Mark Addy in The Full Monty. Cheerful, straightforward and possessing a no-nonsense attitude characteristic of his native Rotherham, Seaman was 'Safe Hands', the dependable goalkeeper the nation could rely on. With his ponytail rippling in the wind, his moustache bristling in the light of the sun, Seaman stood imposingly between the posts for Arsenal and England, his outlandish grooming choices and porno rental store aesthetic entirely lost on me, a carefree and admiring child.
It's possible that it was Seaman's singular steadfastness which most appealed to my juvenile mind. He looked like a man who, were he not leaping about between the sticks for England, could have gathered me up laughing in his enormous arms and never once threatened to drop me from his grasp, a jovial male role model for an innocent age. That would have been weird, of course – really fucking weird – seeing as Seaman was a complete stranger and mainly existed on television, but such considerations were far from the thoughts of a starry-eyed child of the early nineties. Similarly, it's possible that Seaman stood out as an almost cartoonish figure for his lacquered hair and hirsute features, capturing the collective imagination like South Yorkshire's answer to a comic-book superhero. The truth is that it is too long ago to remember exactly what made Seaman an object of such hero worship. Either way, he was an ever-present for England all through the nineties and idolised by a generation of kids, including myself.
Sadly, there had to come a time when Seaman's legend was diminished. As it turned out, the bell would toll for 'Safe Hands' at the 2002 World Cup hosted in South Korea and Japan. Seaman was 38 years old at this point and – despite having won the double with Arsenal come the end of the 2001-02 season – there were questions over his form ahead of a tournament in which England were touted as serious contenders, on these shores at least. He had suffered several injuries over the course of the domestic campaign with Stuart Taylor and Richard Wright deputising for Arsenal in his absence, but with limited competition at international level from David James and Nigel Martyn he was still by far the best goalkeeper available. Sven-Goran Eriksson duly put his trust in the man who had been first choice long before he arrived in the UK, and the Three Lions went into the World Cup with Seaman in goal.
During the group stage and the Round of 16, it looked like Seaman would dispel the doubts about his form and fitness. Though he conceded in England's first game of the World Cup, a cagey 1-1 stalemate with Sweden, he went on to keep clean sheets in a draw against Nigeria and a famous win over Argentina, the latter of which gave the fans hope that England might be capable of actually winning the competition. Though Seaman was operating behind a formidable back four of Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole and, well, Danny Mills, he was still called upon to make numerous saves, with a magnificent low stop from a header by Mauricio Pochettino the pick of the bunch from the group games. Seaman kept another clean sheet as England beat Denmark 3-0 in the first knockout round, though he had relatively little to do in that game.
When it began to sink in that England would face the might of Brazil in the quarter-finals, the excitement and anxiety hung in the air like a fog in pubs and living rooms across the country. While England had done much to raise expectations even further, their next opponents boasted the effervescent talents of Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Cafu and Roberto Carlos, to name but a few. There was also the small matter of Ronaldinho, who even before his heydey with Barcelona was recognised as one of the most exultant and irrepressible midfielders on the planet. In the end, it was the man with the curly black locks and the toothy grin who would get the better of David Seaman, and so bring our hero's time as England goalkeeper to a close.
We all know how that game at the Shizuoka Stadium turned out. Michael Owen sent the fans wild after capitalising on a mistake from Lucio in the 23rd minute, before Rivaldo equalised just before half-time after Ronaldinho had set him away in the box. Then, early on in the second half, Brazil won a free kick out on the right, just on the edge of England's final third. Ronaldinho stood over the ball and, with everyone expecting him to send a cross into the grappling melee of defenders and attackers, he floated a near-impossible shot over a despairing Seaman and into the top corner, charging off to celebrate as the ball rippled down the back of the net and onto the turf.
The score remained the same come the final whistle, and England had gone out of the World Cup once more. There were many who questioned whether the goal had happened as Ronaldinho intended – "I knew David Seaman came off his line quite a lot, and I knew if I put the ball where I did that it could cause him problems. I meant it. It was not luck," Ronaldinho was quoted as saying by The Guardian afterwards – but ultimately the result was not up for debate. Seaman was distraught in the knowledge that his final chance to lift the Jules Rimet had slipped by, apologising to his teammates and breaking down in tears after the final whistle. He even said sorry to supporters as he departed the stadium, not that many fans would have faulted his service to the England team over the years.
Watching Ronaldinho's goal back, it is hard not to feel a pang of sorrow for Seaman. What is often forgotten is that he was clattered while attempting to collect a high ball in the first half, seeming limited in his mobility from that moment on. While this doesn't necessarily excuse his momentary positional lapse – he had previous after all, as Arsenal and Real Zaragoza fans could attest – there are few goalkeepers in the history of world football who would have been able to counteract Ronaldinho's ludicrous vision and ambition. Seaman's desperate, inadequate leap towards the ball says it all: this was a goal for the ages, one which was destined to write Ronaldinho's name in the stars at the same time as Seaman's hurtled back to earth, much like the effort which won the game for Brazil.
It was a tragic end for Seaman, who would only make a handful more appearances for England before losing his position to David James. To a generation of kids, it felt as if the skies had fallen in, not only because England had gone out of the World Cup but also because a hero had been humbled and brought low. While our admiration for Seaman would remain into adulthood, our childlike innocence had been shattered by his error. No longer could we count on 'Safe Hands' not to drop us, having glimpsed the fallible nature of man the moment he was lobbed by Ronaldinho.