I was traveling earlier today, and so I unfortunately didn't get to watch the finals of the FIFA 2006 World Cup, which pitted a resurgent French team, les Bleus, against the top survivor of the "Group of Death," Italy's sharp Azzurri ("Sky Blues") squad. Italy had won three previous World Cups, in 1934, 1938 and 1986, while France had won at home in 1998, but neither team, from the raft of pre-Cup predictions, was expected to beat out Brazil and reach the finals. What it took for a France squad that was frequently described as aging and composed of unretired former stars was scrappling into the second round after a lackluster start, then systematically defeating many of the best teams in the tournament, including Spain's talented 11, os Brasileiros and a lively Portugal lineup. For Italy's team, which was dogged by a series of corruption scandals that plagued Italian soccer, it required toppling a surprising Australia, the wholly unexpected Ukrainians, and the high-scoring host team, Germany.
Bernie did watch the game and records his impressions here. I won't rehash what I didn't see, except to note that from the score and the various accounts I've read, the French team more than held their own, though they failed to convert a number of chances. But they were surely sunk by the outrageous incident involving the matches only two scorers: soccer superstar and captain Zinédine Zidane, who'd been the French hero in 1998, headbutted Italian defender Marco Materazzi in the 109th or so minute, leading to a red card and expulsion at 110' and thus depriving France of its best penalty kicker. (One blogger supposes that Materazzi might have twisted Zidane's nipple, which was followed by trashtalking, but surely the French captain should have known to keep his cool with everything on the line.) As it turned out, the game came down to penalty kicks after the 1-1 tie held, and though Italy had been fearing this very outcome, with Zidane carded, France had to turn to sub starlet David Trézéguet, whose shot hit the crossbar but didn't bounce in. Italy converted all of its shots, and that was it. A fourth World Cup Rimet Trophy for the Azzurri, who now go home to enthusiastic fans, as well as a climate of tremendous legal scrutiny for the game, while France wonders what could have been, and Zidane ends his career on a sour note, the 2006 Golden Ball Winner award notwithstanding.
I've been posting some of my impressions of the tournament over the last few weeks, and here are just a few more. I was disappointed that only one of the African teams advanced to the second round; every tournament at least one African side seems like it could be the breakout squad only to fizzle out against the top squads. This year Ghana got to the Round of 16, but had the bad luck to face a middling but still dangerous Brazilian team. The other teams were washouts. With the tournament going to South Africa in 2010, I hope that nearly all of the best African teams--such as Egypt, Ghana, Tunisia, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Senegal, qualify and come ready to play. I was also disappointed by the Brazilians, though the pre-match hype might have had a negative effect, as several of the players, and particularly Ronaldinho, were being described in almost superhuman terms. What I saw was a team with extraordinary ballhandling gifts that failed to gel as a coherent attacking squad against its best opponents. There were some bright spots for Brazil's future: Kaká, Robinho, Adriano, and Fred are all young (under 25), and will be seasoned for the next World Cup, and Ronaldinho will be 30. Ronaldo, who set the all-time scoring record, will be close to 34, but he showed that unless he submits to a strict training regimen, his international career may be over. Brazil won several of its matches by only a hair (or goal), and its middle defense was weak throughout. Neither Japan nor Korea matched their 2002 successes; were those just ephemeral homefield advantage wins not to be repeated anytime soon, or was this go-round the fluke? Little Trinidad & Tobago's tenacity was charming, but their advancement was a longshot. Will a Caribbean A number of the European teams looked poised to exceed their recent mediocre showings, but were taken down by the powerhouses. Will Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, or Ukraine return in 2010? Can they do as well if not better then? Will the Netherlands finally win its first tourney, or will it be a perpetual best man? Then there was the much ballyhooed England side. While I am a fan of English Premier League soccer (go Arsenal!), I was really getting tired of hearing about all the drama surrounding this team, its yearning for another 1966, its out-of-control fans, and Wayne Rooney, who finally did play and ended up serving up a cold plate of boorishness; at least the endlessly heralded Becks actually set up and scored some goals.
As for the American team, well.... They have a loooooonnnnnnng way to go. For the long term, the US Soccer Federation must begin scouting for the best younger soccer players and outstanding athletes who've had little exposure to soccer but who might be persuaded to try the sport, bring in top-level foreign coaches to train junior players, and then aim for a decent showing by 2014 or 2018. Suburban private school fields--though some excellent players have come from the most competitive urban and suburban private and parochial schools--are not the route to a Rimet Trophy. A new coach, preferably one with international experience, is the first order. The squad will have some very good returning players, like DaMarcus Beasley, Josh Wolff, Tim Howard, and Eddie Johnson, who should be even better equipped to face foreign teams' strategems. It's preparing for 2010 that'll be the most difficult challenge. I just don't see the US team getting it together in four years, unless play in the Major Soccer League improves dramatically or, conversely, more of the top US college stars and best American MSL players can be signed by European leagues, which would diminish play in the MSL. FIFA thankfully wouldn't permit what would be the most American approach, having a private corporation recruit and pay the best immigrants to play.
One final point: many commentators have repeatedly noted how unpopular the World Cup is among Americans. Even though 17 million American households watched the matches on CBS, the ESPN channels, and Univision, and the World Cup final's share was about 17.0+, which was close to the final game of last year's World Series between the Chicago White Sox (yea!) and the Houston Astros, and supposedly higher than viewership for the NBA final game and far higher than the Stanley Cup final, US soccer fans have to hear this continual dismissal of the sports popularity. But I say fine. Who cares about its popularity in the US; many sports that are regularly broadcast and hyped, like golf, ice hockey and tennis, draw smaller viewerships than the major professional American sports, and some sports that I enjoy, like track and field, draw even fewer viewers and fans. What is wrong with that? Soccer is truly a global game. It's played by people in the majority of countries on every continent, and this year's contest came about as close to a truly international contest, with every continent except Antarctica represented. A billion people around the world were tuning in, and if the United States has to be the exception, so what? It wouldn't be the first time.
Zidane headbutting Materazzi (Folha de São Paulo/Efe)
The victorious Italian team (Folha de São Paulo/Luca Bruno-AP)
Italian coach Lippi and captain Fabio Cannavaro at right with his trophy (Folha de São Paulo/Ettore Ferrari-Efe)
The French team posing with President Chirac, bottom right (Folha de São Paulo/François Mori-AP)
France's Thierry Henry consoles teammate David Trézéguet on the balcony of the Crillon Hotel (Folha de São Paulo/Pascal Rossignol-Reuters)