The best of the 2006 World Cup
Just one more weekend and we can start trying to get our lives back in order.
Perhaps there are a few relationships with spouses, kids and bosses that need mending. I know that in my house just hours after England had been cruelly eliminated on penalties (again), and while Zidane was putting on perhaps the most masterful individual display of our generation against the Brazilians, the sensitive subject came up of the amount of TV watching that has been going on in our house since my triumphant return to these shores.
The result was a Fourth of July afternoon spent watching the Italy-Germany match at the Tap Room with a full house of enthusiastic partisans. My friend Stefan, who was born in Berlin, was devastated by the Italian late show but I’m sure that was countered by Jeff Leonardo and Bob Bandoni’s ecstasy. All over the world, similar groups gathered to share these moments of drama, jubilation and pain.
The tournament has produced some great moments to remember, debate and discuss for the next four years. The host country was magnificent. The people were welcoming, the street celebrations wild, but in control (barely), the hotels and transportation facilities excellent, the stadiums amazing and the fans magnificent.
Some of my votes for the best of the 2006 World Cup:
” Venue: Kaiserslauten, the smallest of the host cities was full of atmosphere for every game and the streets were packed with revelers. Even the hike up the hill from town to the stadium provided for funny moments of anticipation before the match and reflection afterwards.
” Stadium: Dortmund for me, but I didn’t actually get inside Munich or Berlin. The rafters were shaking the night of Germany-Poland.
n Biggest surprise: Australia, 32 years since it last qualified for Germany ’74. The Socceroos put on a great show with late theatrics (down 1-0 to Japan with seven minutes remaining, they won, 3-1) and determined displays against quality teams like Brazil and Italy. They were many fans’ second-favorite team.
” Biggest Flop: England (it has to be said). Loaded with talent they were almost unwatchable and featured in two of the worst games against Paraguay and Ecuador.
n Toughest performance: U.S. versus Italy, 1-1. This was an incredible battle with the U.S. players hanging on for a result with just nine players ” 4-3-1 anyone? The result now looks pretty good with Italy in the final, but that night most of us thought the U.S. was the better team. Nonetheless, the Battle of K-Town featured great fans and incredible drama on the pitch.
” Best coach: Jurgen Klinnsman not only overcame the skeptics, but changed his nation’s style of play and, in many ways, its whole demeanor. This was an attacking and exciting German team going forward at every opportunity and throwing caution to the wind. He bucked the trend of playing with one forward by pairing the young Lukas Podolski with Miroslav Klose and Oliver Neuville, off the bench, to score goals and electrify a nation. His California looks and demeanor eventually won over a nation which showed itself to be enthusiastic, hospitable and warm throughout the month. They even forgave his loss in the semifinals with headlines like, “We cry with you Klinsi!!!” Will he be the next U.S. coach?
” Coaching gaffe: Lars Lagerback from Sweden’s decision to make a substitution while Henrik Larsson stood waiting to take a penalty that would have put his team right back in their game against Germany reminded me of a basketball coach calling a timeout to “freeze” a player on the free throw line, except that it was his own coach doing it. Perhaps the player was a specialist at scoring off of rebounds from missed PK’s, but Larsson fired it over anyway. Game over.
” Fans: The Germans’ continual singing of “Berlin, Berlin, we’re going to Berlin.” I guess Stuttgart for the third-place game doesn’t have the same ring. Everyone else tied for a close second.
” Best Goal: The 24-pass sequence for Argentina ending in a back heel and a goal by Cambiasso has become legendary. One Argentine sports writer said that he was glad that his lifetime coincided with that goal. Maxi Rodriguez’s volley in extra time to put Mexico out was another legendary goal.
” Best keeper: Buffon from Italy only allowed one goal heading into the final and that was to the Mighty Yanks (scored by his own guy). His spectacular save against Germany gave the Italians the platform to win the game. My vote for second would be Shaka Hislop’s heroics for Trinidad against Sweden to earn his team its only point in a scoreless draw.
” Best defender: Cannavaro kept the Italians calm when all hell was breaking out on the field with red cards and close games and at home with a match-fixing trial.
n Best midfielder: Zinedine has capped off a legendary career with Obi-Wan Kenobi like performances in the knockout stages. The best player of his generation showed Ronaldinho and the rest that it takes more than cool commercials to succeed at this level.
” Best forward: Miroslav Klose became the first player to score five or more goals in successive World Cups. This time he did with more than just his head as he mentored Podolski and led the German team to the semifinals, where the best keeper and defender were able to hold him at bay.
” Best rule change: If you leave the field injured, you must stay off for five minutes or return with a card. Too much diving ruins some of these games.
n Best quote: From the Wall Street Journal, by Konstantin Richter, “Is it OK for us to be this happy?” The new patriotism abounds.
The tournament is long and requires pacing to succeed. Reaching the heights in the group stage earns only accolades. Better to withstand the criticism early, improve steadily and be the last ones standing at the end as the Italians and French did.
When the old guard of French players were being criticized early on, after draws against the Swiss and Koreans, I remember thinking that it was a bit disloyal. These players had won a World Cup (1998) and a European Championship (2000) for their country and were entitled to play on past their “sell-by” date.
As it turns out, they were just pacing themselves for the games that really mattered. Look at France since those games, a 2-0 win against Togo (the minimum score needed to advance), easily dispatching Spain (best team of first round?), a masterful display against Brazil, and scraping by a good Portugal side to reach the final ” all without allowing a goal.
Now I have to eat some crow. I already apologized to all of the Italian supporters I know for harshly criticizing their team in print. This should help me avoid the cement shoes (gratuitous Mafia reference).
The Italians have had plenty of reason to want to remain in Germany with the prospects of relegation (possibly Juventus and other clubs) or testifying in court as the match-fixing trial unfolds awaiting them at home. They have yet to allow a goal scored by their opponent and have shown great poise and determination with their bend-but -don’t-break style.
Skeptics abounded after their route to the semifinal took them through Australia and Ukraine, but the two late goals against Germany were of the highest quality and now they are in the final. The group games serve merely as a way to build drama for the Italians in each World Cup.
They suffered through a slow start in 1982 before Paulo Rossi caught fire and won the cup. He was returning from a suspension for match fixing (what else?). I also remember in 1994 when the keeper Pagliuca was red-carded against Norway and the coach decided to withdraw Baggio, of all people, in order to replace him and the fans at the Meadowlands called for the coach’s head.
I was reminded of that as DeRossi was given his marching orders against the U.S. and Totti was taken off by the coach and replaced by Gattuso, the combative central midfield player. Both times I was wrong and it worked and both times they reached the final.
I’ll be cheering for Henry, Makalele and Vieria and the great Zidane but I will begrudgingly admire these Italians, especially if it doesn’t end in penalties.
By the way, there was a great article in Thursday’s USA Today about South Africa. Turns out the key to surviving all of those years in prison on Robben Island was setting up a football competition.
One prisoner is alleged to have told the guards that one day the prisoners would run the country and they would host the World Cup. Perhaps its worth checking out in 2010.
Anyone else in?
David Cope is the soccer coach at Battle Mountain High School and was in Germany for most of June. We’re betting that he’s already booking his tickets for South Africa 2010.