In case you haven’t caught on by now, this is still a football column. But for the last month, I’ve been talking about that other football. The kind you play with your feet.
This last week saw the pinnacle event of international sport, the World Cup Semifinals, and Finals. With defending champs Brazil eliminated in the quarterfinals, it was certain a new champion would be crowned, and it was certain that champion would come from Europe, continental Europe.
Who would emerge victorious was truly anybody’s guess though. The slight favorite seemed to be the host country, Germany, whose team had surpassed all expectations, and hoped to become the second host team to win the trophy in the last 3 World Cups.
Lurking not far behind was the 1998 Champs, France. Seen by many as a team whose glory days were behind them, and who did nothing to dispel that notion in the Group Stage of the tournament, the French found the fountain of youth once the knockout round began, disposing of a strong Spanish team, then shocking the world by eliminating the heavily favored Brazilians.
Rounding out the final 4 was Italy, who had allowed but one goal the entire tournament, an own goal at that, and Portugal, who had been efficiently grinding out low scoring victories the entire tournament.
So who brought home the world’s ultimate trophy? Read on, and find out.
FRANCE 1, PORTUGAL 0
Well, advancing thanks to a bullshit penalty kick is one way to do it, I guess.
In an otherwise unremarkable match, France advanced to the finals courtesy of a questionable penalty call in the 33rd minute. Thierry Henry was fouled in the box by Chelsea defender Ricardo Carvalho, I guess. In reality, it was a foul, and should have been called a foul if it was anywhere on the pitch but in the penalty box. But in a World Cup semifinal, when you know the game will likely be decided by awarding a penalty kick, you don’t make that call. That was the story of this entire tournament, the ticky tacky refereeing. Never had so many yellow or red cards been handed out in a World Cup tournament. And when Zinedine Zidane buried the PK to give France the 1-0 advantage, it was seen to that the referee would have a big hand in deciding one of the teams that advanced to the finals.
Portugal had its big chance to equalize in the 78th minute, when France keeper Fabien Barthez inexplicably performed what can only be described as a volleyball set right in front of his goal after a Cristiano Renaldo free kick. I’m not sure how you say “What the f*ck are you doing?” in French, but I’m pretty sure that phrase was being screamed all across Gaul as beret wearing organ grinders everywhere did a spit take with their glass of wine. Luckily for France, and especially lucky for Barthez, Inter Milan forward Luis Figo’s header off the gift turnover sailed over the crossbar. Portugal never truly threatened again, and France, despite being outperformed on virtually every other measure but the scoresheet, was one game away from bringing home its second World Cup in 3 tries.
Henry and Zidane: Reign of Terror
ITALY 2, GERMANY 0
If Italy was going to advance to the final, they would have to earn it, by beating the host country in front of an eardrum shattering partisan crowd.
They earned it.
The Azzurri broke open a match that was seemingly destined to be decided on PK’s late in overtime. In the 119th minute of the match, AC Milan midfielder and Steve Nash doppelganger Andrea Pirlo looked even more like Steve Nash when he threaded a beautiful pass through the box to Palermo defender Fabio Grosso, who pinched up to deliver the Sicilian Slice into the corner of the opposing goal. The German crowd was stunned, and with a little over a minute remaining, Italy had a 1-0 lead.
Germany, in desperation, tried to equalize in the games dying moments, but that only led to a second Italian goal, which brought on the referee’s final whistle. Italy had bested the hosts 2-0, and were advancing to the finals.
For the Germans, it had been a successful run. They weren’t expected to get as far as they did. Still, the flip side to that is they did get as far as they did. And with Brazil, Argentina, and England all eliminated, the Germans had as good a chance as any of the remaining countries to claim the Cup, maybe even a better chance as the hosts. It can’t be seen as a disappointment that they got to the semifinals, but maybe it can be that they didn’t go any farther once they had made their improbable run.
The Hosts Bow Out
THIRD PLACE MATCH
GERMANY 3, PORTUGAL 1
Third place games, David Hasselhoff, Jerry Lewis, and Kraftwerk might be fine and dandy for you Euros, but here in Amerka, we don’t believe them. In fact, we think that the fact that you even have one makes you evildoers, and gay.
Still, Germany got to end their feel-good World Cup run on a feel-good note thanks to a pair of goals from Bayern Munich midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, who probably should look into getting an easier to articulate Brazilian type single name, like “Kaka II” or something like that.
German coach Jurgen Klinsmann finally relented and allowed 2002 hero and Lex Luger lookalike Oliver Kahn to play keeper in this meaningless game, after assigning the former German captain to riding the pine for the 06 tournament.
Oliver Kahn Torture Racked the Portugese
ITALY 1, FRANCE 1 (ITALY WINS ON PK’S 5-3)
In my mind, this World Cup tournament came very close to producing a breakout star that even we here in America could appreciate. That man that came very close to denting the impenetrable faÃƒÂ§ade of our sports psyche was France star Zinedine Zidane.
Maybe this was all in my mind, but to use a wrestling term, it looked to me as the tournament went on that Zidane was “getting over” with the American sports media. Meaning, ESPN treated the mention of his name on SportsCenter like they would any other well-known athlete, like “We know who he is, and you probably do too, he’s a star.” He was the face of the tournament. Aging but still at the top of his game, rugged and skilled, handsome but not pretty, a unique but instantly recognizable name, truly an international man of mystery.
Yes, he was that close to becoming a part of our sports landscape. Instead, he’s Bonk.
It looked early in this game like he would add to his mystique. In the seventh minute, he blooped home a penalty kick off the crossbar to give France something no other team had managed to get in this tournament, a lead against Italy.
The lead didn’t last long though, as in the 17th minute Italy equalized on a basic corner/header set piece, with Inter Milan defender Marco Materazzi providing the header that tied the score at 1.
Italy came very close to striking again on an identical play shortly before half, but this time, the header skidded off the top of the crossbar.
The game went to extra time, and in the 104th minute, France came agonizingly close to reclaiming the lead. Zidane headed a free kick, and the ball was seemingly headed for the top of the net. Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon saved the day for Italy though, stretching every fiber of his lanky frame to execute a leaping, one handed punch that sent the ball over the goal.
Then, in the 110th minute, came the moment this game will be remembered for. Away from the play, Zidane and Materazzi were walking up the pitch jawing at one another. Then, Zidane stopped, turned and faced Zidane, and launched his bald skull into Materazzi’s chest cavity, sending Materazzi flying backwards like Homer Simpson in that episode where he stops cannonballs with his stomach. Zidane received a red card, and France, who had been in control for all of extra time, was reduced to having to play to send the game to the crapshoot that is PK’s.
The game went to penalty kicks, and every shot found the net. Except one. Juventus forward David Trezeguet’s shot clanked off the crossbar and landed in front of the goal line, and that ended up being the difference between France winning the World Cup, and going home with second place.
Campione Del Mondo
The World Cup was a lot of fun, and I’m sorry to see it end. They should do this every June. Soccer is far from being a perfect game. Yes, it can get boring at times. Yes, it is stupid that the game’s greatest prize can be decided on something as arbitrary as penalty kicks. But for pageantry and passion, there’s nothing like it.
Now, however, it’s back to the football played with an oblong ball, by men wearing plastic samurai suits. Training camps open in a couple of weeks. I’m on hiatus until then, but when I come back, it’s on. Check in every week during the preseason, and twice a week during the regular season as I do what I do, providing a chronicle of the 2006 NFL season that I think you’ll enjoy. Until then, have a great July!