Azzurri Clinch Their Fourth: Capping a Satisfying Cup Run

Well, forza Italia! The Azzurri win in what began as an exciting end-to-end match complete with attacking, creative play and then gradually degenerated into a certain battle of attrition with a bizarre twist. The French were clearly more the aggressive and attack-driven team, playing with creative menace in the midfield. Despite their phantom fould penalty kick, they were taking it to the Italian side for most of the match. Of course, Italy often absorbs most of the opposition’s offensive play in favor of lighting quick counterattacks, but this match was a little different as it wore into extra time.

Strangely, for some time the Azzurri held the majority of possession, but they didn’t seem to be playing with the zeal previously seen in the tournament. Instead, most of the match, they played the ball back a lot and just held the ball, rather than driving forward with numbers eager to penetrate the French final third. More than that, their playmaker, Francesco Totti, was virtually invisible during his minutes. As the match progressed, Italy seemed more leaden and negative in their approach. Even after the absolutely disgraceful ending to the international career of Zinedine Zidane, with his ferocious, ram-like head-butt and subsequent red card, the Italians never really siezed the man advantage.

Interestingly enough, in an irony among ironies, Zizou has since been named the player of the World Cup, winning the Golden Ball award. Perhaps this off-field award will mitigate his gross on-field indiscretion, but I have to say that I think his winning is a travesty. For one, being sent off in such a manner should have immediately eliminated him from contention. I am not sure what Materazzi said to him, but it had to be serious, because it was as if his words stopped Zidane dead in his tracks and catapulted the crown of Zizou’s head. Plus, I would even go so far as to say that Zidane may have been justified in nailing Materazzi, but in his iternational curtain call? But beyond that one incident, he served a one game suspension earlier in the first stage, after lackluster performanes, to be sure. Aside from all that, he really had one amazing game, against Brazil. He played well in the semi-final, but it was more of a solid effort against a Portugese team that picked the worst match to struggle. Sure he scored, but it was on a penalty, which is hardly a strike that garners great admiration. It is as if a single game is the reason for his individual recognition,a s opposed to either of the other two Italian candidates that played every minute of every game and never received as much as an admonition from any of the ridiculously overzealous referees. It jst seems like a horrendously wrong message to send, and that comes from a player who was known to get a red card or two in his younger days.

Ultimately, I am glad the Italians won, I just wish they would have done so in a much grander fashion. A final that arrives at penalty kicks is not much to cheer. That statement is even more substantiated by the fact that all anyone could talk about after the game was Zidane’s violent reaction. It was a really disappointing end to tournament that has been heavily criticized for lacking exceptional play. On that point, I don’t completely agree. I think the tournament had wonderful drama and pagentry, with electric performances and exciting games. Emerging nations showed extremely well and althought he goal count was low, most of the matches were far better than the results suggested. There are always bad games and negative play, but that is because the stakes are so high. Plus, the referees weren’t exactly consistent in their approach to the game, causing all kinds of unnecessary problems. As I have said, nothing beats the World Cup for me and a weak final can’t kill the brighter aspects of a decent month of world class soccer.

A Brilliant Sports Weekend

What a sports weekend! The Tour de France rolls, while Wimbledon has reached the men’s and women’s finals, and of course the World Cup wraps. Of course the Tour is only ending the first of many grueling weeks, so the peloton has begun to settle a bit. On the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club, Muaresmo kicked the nerves and hoisted the “Rosewater Dish,” while Roger Federer is on track to go deeper into the history books with a fourth consecutive championship; yet his current nemesis Raphael Nadal is all that stands in the way. Nadal seems like the only player on the tour that ever has a chance of beating the Swiss number one, beating him the last four matches. It has become a rivalry of impressive note. Then, there is the World Cup.

Well, my prediction was flat wrong, as Italy looks dangerously positioned to win it all. The Germans seemed to lose some of the attacking spirit in their last two games, although Italy’s defense is historically world renowned. In a lot of ways, this reminds me of 1990, only in reverse. Then Germany raised the cup in Italy, when the then hosts seemed clearly the team to beat, also with the tourney’s leading scorer, but ended up with a third place finish. The Azzurri are the clear favorites going into tomorrow’s match, but Les Bleus cannot be counted out easily. In Zinedine Zidane’s final game of his incandescent career, the sheer force of his inspirational presence is an enigmatic x-factor (or should that be z-factor?). Moreover, this French squad retains a core of players from their ’98 championship. Still, Italy has improved and grown in their strength and quality of play with each game. Considering that they have yet to allow a goal from the opposition and their goals have come from ten different players, I just don’t see them losing the final, despite the Zizou affect. In fact, I can actually see Italy rising up and running away with a wider margin of victory, like two or three goals. My only hope is that it is an exciting game played with flair and not one of the conservative foul fests that can sometimes infect the final. I now doubt will be pulling for the Azzurri.

More on the World Cup – The Semifinals Approach

Who could have predicted the all European semi-finals? How the mighty South American’s fell from the tournament on European soil. In a gritty quarterfinal opening, the hosts were able to stay close for the entire game, clawing a matching goal to draw even and pushing Argentina to the dreaded penalty kick lottery. In the end, Coach Klinsmann’s keeper choice, guessing the direction of all four Albiceleste shooters he faced, courtesy of a now infamous note, stoning two key players so that the fifth wasn’t even necessary. While not the greatest of contests it did have its dramatic moments, most of which seemed to adversely effect the South American side, including an injured goal keeper that cost a key substitution. As good as the Argentineans were in the tournament, I have to admit that I was definitely happy that the Nationalmannschaft prevailed.

Photo: Spain's Roberto Abbondanzieri Leaves Match

Photo: Germany's Jens Lehmann Saves

As expected, the Italians made easy work of the Ukrainians. It took them a little while to get started, but, once things got rolling, the Azzurri looked their most impressive to date in the tournament, which is a dangerous sign as they prepare to square off with the hosts today. Hopefully, this will be the kind of match that goes down in the lore of this cup.

Photo: Italy's Luca Toni Scores

In a match that made almost every attempt to kill any excitement, Portugal bested England. The most notable event in their tilt was hothead Wayne Rooney’s getting sent off for rucking a the groin of a Portuguese opponent, then subsequently shoving Man.U teammate, Cristiano Ronaldo, when he arrived on the scene to appeal the case of the cleat castrated Carvalho (see below). Mind you, all of this was done with the referee less than two yards from the evolving spectacle. It was a less than shining moment for the player that was widely considered England’s golden boy. Now he, like another previous “golden boy,” David Beckham, becomes two of the three Queen’s men ever to be sent off in a World Cup, a rather inauspicious dis-honor, to say the least.

Photo: England's Rooney Clipping Carvalho

Finally, in the stunner of the round of eight, the boys from Brazil make an earlier than expected exit. Having not last a World Cup match since the last clash with France, the match sized up to be one of the more intriguing of the entire tournament. France, still fielding a handful of the key players from their championship run, seemed to have Brazil’s number. From the whistle France jumped on the South Americans, taking the game directly to them and sending them reeling for answers. Although, it would seem that even before the match France had penetrated the Brazilian psyche, as Carlos Alberto Parreira benched striker Adriano, in favor of a fifth midfielder, Juninho, in an effort to tame Les Bleus. Yet, nothing seemed capable of slowing a rejuvenated Zinedine Zidane, who was positively brilliant in nearly every facet of the game. Also a former two-time footballer of the year, the wily veteran who had gotten off to such a faltering start, managed his side and the game with mesmerizing grace and grit, leaving anyone who watched with nothing but questions about current world footballer of the year Ronaldinho. It would seem as though age and treachery were no match for the youth and exuberance. Even Kaka, the brightest of the Brazilians during the tournament, seemed without answers. By the end Brazil seemed to unravel in haste and panic as they attempted to level the score.

Photo: France's Zinedine Zidane

So now the semi-finals are an all Euro affair. My picks are Germany and France to meet with a not so quiet Western Front. Even though Portugal’s golden generation have survived, it seems as though France has found their stride and are simply insanely inspired by Zidane’s inevitable curtain call. Yet, Deutschland uber alles! As Sean Wisely recently put it in National Geographic magazine’s feature on the World Cup, “There’s a weird power in home-team advantage. Hosts find a level of success disproportionate to their talents on paper, triumphing over stronger teams, as if exerting a gravitational pull on the game, causing it to be played the way they want to play it, as if, to carry this metaphor to its inevitable conclusion, God were on their side.” I only wish I had written that!

Note: All World Cup photos seen in this post can be found at the FIFA World Cup official site. In fact, clicking any of the photos will take you the the Photo Zone.

Finally, happy Independence Day!