Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Italy def. France

What happened?  This game is going to be seared in the memories of many people world wide.  But perhaps that’s going to be for the wrong reasons.  The best soccer team in the world has been crowned and Italy sits alone on the throne.

If you were watching and you care, you have many reasons to dislike the result.  One is that it was low scoring and went to penalty kicks.  I hate penalty kick situations, but only because it rewards teams who bottle up games and don’t have the flair to score.  It often can punish the team who played better in the match.  It’s even worse in a final game, because even though someone has to win, it won’t necessarily reward the better team.

For instance, in 1994, Italy was rewarded with a heartbreaking loss after the greatest player in the world at the time, Roberto Baggio, missed his penalty at the end of the game, handing a horribly lackluster Brazilian side their 4th World Cup trophy.

So call it poetic justice, or call it what you will.  Italy played fate and earned their 4th Cup trophy in the same manner.  I think they played better throughout the cup than Brazil did in 1994, had to face and overcome some tough opposition (Czechs, Germans) and definitely had the best defense in the tournament and the world.  However, the French outplayed them for much of the game and definitely had more creative flair.  Their downfall might have resulted from the other bad taste in my mouth from this game.

That would be Zidane head-butting Marco Materazzi late in overtime.  In one of those unexplained freak moments in sports, one of the greatest players to ever walk out on the pitch, the hero of the 1998 World Cup and France’s captain, sent Materazzi to the ground by thrusting his head into the Italian defender’s chest.  That kind of thing, if the ref sees it, will get you thrown out of the game and probably the next game after that.  But for Zidane there will be no more games.  He was planning on retiring after the Cup, so add that to the list of reasons why Zidane should have held back and ignored the verbal abuse.  Here’s a non-exhaustive list:

1.You are the team captain, lead by example.
2.This is the last game of your storied career.  Don’t go out on a bad note.
3.You’ve been one of the best players in the tournament.  Your team needs you in the most important game in the last 8 years for your country.

4.You are the best penalty taker on the pitch and it looks like it might go that far.
I could go on.  Reports are coming in now that right before the incident, Materazzi held Zidane’s shirt, tweaked his nipple and said a couple of things.  Zidane responded in a haughty kind of way, and then Materazzi said something that apparently made Zidane lose it completely.  Players accept a certain amount of mouthing off on the field, but there is considerable argument right now that the statement was racial, and FIFA might come back and penalize Materazzi over the incident.  Zidane is known for seeing red and over-reacting, but so is Materazzi, so it wouldn’t be unheard of.

Despite that, Zidane won the Golden Ball award, declaring him the best player of the tournament.  Which, before that ugly moment in the final, I think he deserved.

But that’s beside the point.  Italy have the Cup. 
I’ll tell you a funny (funny=tragic) story.  There are, in fact, a few things more important to me than soccer.  The main one here is God, and on Sunday morning, while the game was airing live here on the west coast of North America, I was attending church.  I had a friend TVO the game, but even if I couldn’t I wouldn’t have skipped church.

However, I got the DVD from them, and planned to watch the game later that night after having dinner with my parents.  My parents brought a friend over, whom I hadn’t seen in a while, so it was great to chat with her over the meal.  At some point in the meal we got to talking about this Italian friend of hers, and she dropped the bomb.  Boy, he’s sure got to be happy right now that they’ve won the World Cup, or something like that.

My humble response was something like this:  “NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!! AAAAAAAAARRRRRGGGGG!!!”
So I go into this game knowing the eventual victor, I was determined to enjoy the play anyway.  Which I did.  The Italians played their game and did it brilliantly in the first half.  They marked the Frenchmen close and didn’t give them room to move.  Their attacks were quick and responsive off of their defensive takeaways.  The goal off the corner kick was brilliant and well deserved.

The French turned it around and played their game to the hilt in the second half and it was beautiful.  Zidane directed many dangerous attacks on the Italian goal and Patrick Viera, Makalele and Thuram were impenetrable.  The fact that neither team could get a goal in the run of play wasn’t really a detractor.

For those of you who thought that Malouda dove in the box to get that penalty kick that resulted in the Zidane goal for France: yes, it’s arguable that France didn’t deserve that kick.  However, they did deserve one about 20 minutes later when Malouda was obviously taken down inside the area.  Big no-call by the ref, but perhaps he was making up for the first one.

All this to say, bit congratulations to the Italians.  They get bragging rights for the next 4 years, and the pressure is off them for a while.  Say what you want about Italian football (physical, conservative, defensive, scandalous), they own it right now.

So a trend continues and one ends.  The trend of European teams winning in Europe and losing elsewhere stomps on.  It’s only been broken once, and that was when Brazil won the Cup in Sweden.  Next cup is set to be played in South Africa (or somewhere in Africa), so Argentina or Brazil anyone?

The other trend that was broken was that either Brazil or Germany has been present in the final game in all but one of the World Cups since 1950 (in 1950 there was no final, instead there was a final “group” that Uruguay came out on top of.  Brazil, however, was in the group).  The one cup final was 1978, when Argentina won their first title by defeating Holland.

Brazil has 5 titles, and Italy now has 4.  Germany has 3 and Argentina and Uruguay have 2 each.  England and France have one.  On to 2010!

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