Mike Gibbons is an aspiring young journalist
from the UK who has followed the World Cup with passion from an early age. He will share his views about the past, present and future of
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Europe set to equalise in a Franco-Italian final
So France and Italy will contest their second major championship final in six years. Emerging victorious from the all-European semi-finals these old rivals will cross swords in Berlin on Sunday in the biggest game of football on the planet. Whoever wins, the World Cup will definitely be making its eight-yearly return to the old continent.
We call it the ‘World’ Cup but the tournament in reality is a four-yearly contest for bragging rights between Europe and South America. No other continent gets a look in. The USA made a token appearance in the semi-finals for North America in the first World Cup in 1930, but it took another seventy-two years for a team outside the Europe/South America axis to make it to that stage again, and South Korea required home advantage and all that it entails to make it that far on behalf of Asia. The quarter-finals are the insurmountable barrier. Thanks for coming, but Europe and South America will take it from here.
This dominance was in evidence again this year, and brutally so. A combined eighteen teams from Europe and South America were present at this World Cup and thirteen of them advanced into the last sixteen. The three outsiders that made it into the knockout rounds were summarily dismissed by three of the established order. Italy saw off Oceania’s Australia, Argentina beat North American Mexico and Brazil made short work of Africa’s Ghana. It was a disaster of a tournament for Asia, with South Korea finishing third in their group and Iran, Saudi Arabia and Japan all at the foot of theirs, making something of a mockery of their inflated allocation.
The rivalry between the two began with Uruguay winning on home soil in 1930, a tournament which only four European teams entered. The Uruguayans were so piqued by this they refused to send their champions back to Europe in 1934 and 1938, where Italy triumphed, but re-entered in 1950 and won again. West Germany’s shock win over Hungary in Switzerland in 1954 put the score at 3-2 to Europe, and with the 1958 tournament held in Sweden they looked set to go further ahead.
Then Garrincha, Didi, Pele and friends upset the applecart. Claiming their first World Cup win in Stockholm they also scored so far the only victory on the away continent by either side. They levelled at three-all and then forged ahead when Brazil retained their title in Chile in 1962. Ever since Europe has only been able to draw level when the tournament returned to the continent every eight years, despite having a presence in every final elsewhere.
With Germany, Italy, Portugal and France confirmed in the semi-finals Europe were guaranteed to draw level with their arch South American rivals at nine wins each, but whether they can actually retake the lead for the first time in half a century is open to question. The next World Cup is in South Africa and whenever the tournament forays outside of Europe and South America, as in 1970, 1986, 1994 and 2002, it is gobbled up by either Argentina or usually Brazil. Beyond that the 2014 World Cup will be going to South America, with Brazil the only viable candidate to host it. The score may get very lopsided in the favour of the South Americans. Europe will need to break the mould and produce a winner away from the sanctuary of her own continent.
That however is for another day. On Tuesday night Italy booked their place in the final with their most impressive display yet against the host nation. Two years ago both nations were eliminated in the first round of Euro 2004, their playing styles looking out of synch with the modern era. What a difference two years and a new pair of attack minded coaches can make. The young, vibrant Germany of this Klinsmann era has been the revelation of the tournament, but ultimately they were picked off by a classy Italian team. Their domestic game might be an absolute shambles, riddled with corruption and bribery, but that is traditional. What isn’t traditional is the way Lippi has them playing. He made three attacking substitutions and clearly told his players to go for it in extra-time, where other teams in this tournament have shirked adventure and played for penalties. The two goals at the end of extra-time were sublimely crafted by Gilardino and firstly Pirlo. That the left-back Grosso decided to stay in the opposition area for a scoring chance with two minutes left sums up the new Italian mentality. His dispatch and celebration revived briefly the memories of Tardelli in 1982.
Germany however can take great credit from the way they have hosted the tournament and more importantly how their team have played. They never really looked to have the talent to take them all the way to the final but with a great team spirit and fantastic crowd behind them they came tantalisingly close.
France will be there to face Italy after winning the other semi-final with a Zinedine Zidane penalty, just as they did in Euro 2000. Many people, particularly in England, would have wanted Portugal to lose after their gamesmanship on Saturday, although last night they were undone by a dive from Thierry Henry. Carvalho’s ‘tackle’ did not have the power to knock over a one-year old child but with the very slightest of contact Henry collapsed like a deflated balloon. Justice you may think, but when did two wrongs make a right? It is all further helping to turn football into basketball, a non-contact affair where hulks of physical perfection draw fouls off each other and throw themselves to the ground as if they were in the midst of an air raid.
This of course comes on the back of the mock anguish Henry used to elicit a crucial and ultimately game-winning free-kick against Spain. After the Champions League final, in which he made ludicrous and unpunished claims that the referee let Barcelona dive all over the place, he stated ‘Next time I’ll learn to dive maybe, but I’m not a woman’. It doesn’t look like it from here ‘Theresa’ Henry. Great player he may be but equally if not more nauseating than the whole Portuguese squad.
Thankfully he has classier team-mates. Zidane was excellent again and has now set up the World Cup Final as his last game of football. Can he do it again? Will his final act in professional football be to lift the World Cup for the second time? It is almost too perfect a script. To do so he will need to unlock an Italian defence that has not conceded in over eight hours of football, a solitary own goal by Cristian Zaccardo that seems like a footballing lifetime ago being the only thing that has gone past Buffon this last month. With France having only scored eight in six games, the last two from set-pieces in tight one-nil wins, we shouldn’t really expect a classic. A match like their quarter-final in 1998 – low on chances, a stalemate ultimately decided on penalties – is more likely.
This is not French creativity and flair against the padlock Italian defence as history may expect. Italy has looked the better attacking team in this tournament whereas France has relied heavily on a solid back four to get through. A curious reversal of roles, but despite their commitment to attack Italy still possess the meanest defence in the tournament and this I think will win them the game on Sunday.
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