Off the ball: The final it deserved

10th July 2006, Comments 0 comments

In the last edition of his irreverent World Cup column Off the Ball, Andy Goldberg describes how the tournament has restored his faith in humanity.

So in the end the World Cup, sadly but inevitably, got the final it deserved.

69,000 people in Berlin's Olympic Stadium and who knows how many around the world - 1 billion, 1.5 billion? - saw a sterile game dominated by defensive teams who kept chances to a minimum, decided by debatable refereeing decisions and remembered chiefly for a moment of madness that blighted the career of one of the greatest players of all time.

In other words the final game's key points all reflected trends that for better or for worse defined what was meant to be the world's greatest sporting spectacle.

The first goal came from a dubious penalty, the second goal came from a corner kick. And then the sides rarely managed to break into dangerous areas for the duration of the game. No goal was scored from open play, and the flowing, attacking moves and spectacular strikes that capture the beauty of the game would have to wait for four more years to make an appearance on football's greatest stage.

And then in extra time, just as France had gained the upper hand and were pressuring Italy from every angle, the ageing veteran Zinedine Zidane, whose revival had made him the player of the tournament, strode majestically into the Italian box to power a header that looked certain to score until goalie Buffon pulled off the save of the World Cup to deny him.

Then the 34-year-old veteran, who had previously named the final as the last game of his career, proceeded to use the head that had so nearly scored to butt Italian defender Marco Materazzi in the chest.

How to explain it? Some theorise that Materazzi tweaked his nipple, or that he hurled a racial slur at the player considered the greatest of his generation, who will now be known as a football felon as much as a soccer saint.

Whatever the provocation, it resulted in a red card for the player, to bring the total sendings-off in the tournament to a record 28. The previous mark was 22 at the 1998 tournament in France, where Zidane was shown a red for stamping on a Saudi Arabian.

The rest is well known. The ice-cool Italians blasted home all five of their penalties to France's four, to win a game in which they had often been outplayed, but as has been the case since the start of the tournament, never looked like being beaten.

They also never looked like a great team - the one quality that this tournament lacked above all else.

But the Italian victory also represented the culmination of an unimaginable drama. They triumphed in the World Cup even as Italian domestic soccer is embroiled in a corruption scandal that is likely to send many of the victorious players down to the Italian third division as punishment.

The view from high

Dominated as it was by defensive formations, it may not have been a final or a tournament for football dilettantes.

But every game had its incidents and dramas, and besides exceptionally dull affairs like Ukraine's 0-0 with Switzerland, the fans in the stadiums and in the public viewing areas rarely went home bored.

Luckily that Ukraine-Switzerland slog was the one game that I missed. But as I sat up high in the Berlin stadium Sunday night, hours after the final whistle had blown, when all the fans were gone and the stewards were busy cleaning the bright green pitch of the piles of silver streamers and confetti, I realised that I would have been willing to sit through ten snorers like that game to experience the magic of the World Cup.

I was lucky enough to be one of the 69,000 people in the stadium for the biggest sporting event on the planet, but even more than I will remember that victory, or the head butt, or the penalties, I will remember the fans who, far more than the players or the coaches or the officials, made the month of football fever such a wonderful occasion.

You may scoff, snigger or snort, and dismiss me as hopeless softie. But more than it reinforced my faith in football, this tournament renewed my belief in humanity.

As it turns out we aren't predisposed to conflict, violence or hunger, and happiness is relatively easy to achieve. All we need is a ball, some coloured jerseys, pretty girls to watch and be watched (or boys if you're so inclined) and plenty of cold beer.

10 July 2006

Copyright DPA with Expatica

Subject: German news, World Cup 2006

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