Peter Goldstein is a professor at Juniata College in Pennsylvania in the USA. He has been
World Cup crazy since 1966. He will share his views about the past, present and future of
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Italy have always been the greatest of football enigmas. Their game is both graceful and violent, both brilliant and cynical. They produce great club teams from a sink of corruption. Their national team freezes in fear and glows in self-belief. They're most comfortable when the world is arrayed against them. No team ever disappoints so hopelessly, or excels so far beyond anticipation.
The enigma has been on full display at the 2006 World Cup. Against Ghana, confronted with unexpected resistance, they showed their class. Against the USA, again confronted with unexpected resistance, they showed their brutality. Against the Czech Republic they were passive, against Ukraine aggressive. Against Australia, in one of the most sterile games of the tournament, they cheated their way to victory. And against Germany, in one of the most stirring semifinals in World Cup history, they won deservedly, on a magnificent goal scored by the same man who had cheated Australia.
Tonight's game was a parable of Italian football. They were technically superior to the Germans, more comfortable in possession. And yet, for most of the first 90 minutes, they were less aggressive. Gennaro Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo sat in front of the back four and kept the pace moderate; Germany, primarily through their wide men, pushed forward more quickly. Italy contented themselves with simple through balls, where Germany tried complex attacking combinations.
Oh, and Italy whined and rolled around, where Germany played honest and fair. The grand opera stuff was nowhere near as bad as in prior games, but that was only because Benito Archundia (who deserves a medal for his performance) wasn't buying any of it. Watch the tape over and see how many times an Italian player stays down after a foul, and how many times a German. Then try to imagine the same thing with teams reversed. You can't.
But you also can't imagine Germany, not even Klinsmann's Germany, winning quite the way Italy did. Look at the sweet sidestep and delicate no-look pass from Pirlo to Fabio Grosso; look at the elegant bend of Grosso's shot, as it moves from outside in, just past Lehmann, just inside the post. Then watch Alberto Gilardino's exquisite through ball to Alessandro del Piero, again no-look, and del Piero's majestic first-time finish, moving to his left, scoring with the inside of his right foot. By God, that's beautiful football.
Could Germany have done what Italy did, defeat the other on the other's home soil? I don't think so. The last time the World Cup was played in Italy, Germany won--but the teams didn't meet. And it was lucky for Germany they didn't. Germany have won the tournament 3 times, made the finals 7 times, the semifinals 10 times, the quarterfinals 14 times. And yet they have never beaten Italy at a World Cup. They've won more European Championships than any other nation--and yet they've never beaten Italy at a European Championship either. Germany have never beaten Italy in a competitive match, ever.
Iron can't stop mercury. German football is forthright, unswerving, the same day in and day out. Klinsmann may have changed the style, but his teams were as consistent as any of Franz Beckbauer's, or Helmut Schön's. But Italy is protean; they can't be held or predicted. Tonight Germany substituted three times position-for-position: Schweinsteiger for Borowski, Odonkor for Schneider, Neuville for Klose. But Italy twice replaced midfielders with strikers: Iaquinta for Camoranesi, del Piero for Perotta. And they unleashed the attack they had so far held in reserve. Yet even so, with only 2 minutes left out of 120, penalty kicks seemed inevitable, German-inevitable. But when Italy plays, nothing ever is. And once more Germany couldn't cope.
Italy will now play in the Final. Maybe they'll play the beautiful game, maybe the nasty one. Maybe they'll attack, maybe counterattack. Maybe all of the above. When it's all over, they'll win or they'll lose. And we'll be no nearer to solving the enigma. Or to explaining the strangest Italy fact of all: this most unpredictable of teams reaches the World Cup Final with the regularity of a metronome. 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006: every twelve years, and Italy are there. But which Italy?
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