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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History Will Out
My favorite World Cup stat involves participants and results in the semifinals. It’s been mentioned a few times before in this space, but in case you missed it, here’s the updated version. In World Cup history, there have been 16 semifinals (including the de facto semifinals of 1974) which matched a team that had been to the Final before against a team that had yet to reach its first Final. How many of those games have the pedigreed teams won? Answer: 14. The only two exceptions: 1958, where Sweden, playing at home, beat West Germany, and 1974, where Holland beat Brazil. All the others, 14 out of 16, were won by the team that had been to a Final before.
The most recent example was last night, where France, with history on their side, beat Portugal. To be honest, there was little else to separate the teams. Compared to Germany-Italy, this was like a playoff for a second promotion place, with the league leader some 20 points ahead. Portugal again showed ability but little cutting edge; France, with Thierry Henry again as lone ranger, not much more. Both teams were trying to score (in the first half, anyway), but seemed unlikely to do so. France got a soft but legitimate penalty, then turned it over to Vieira, Makelele, and Thuram. We waited all night for the inevitable Fabian Barthez gaffe, and it was a beauty: a caber toss that may very well get him named an honorary Scotsman. But Figo headed over the bar, and France were in the Final.
It was a disappointing finish for Portugal. Over six games they were never less than lively, but their failures in attack did them in. Cristiano Ronaldo has plenty of flash, but he’s really a solo act, who seems lost when he actually has to combine with players wearing the same colors. Figo has the team concept down, but no longer has the skills. As for Pauleta, he might as well have taken the tournament off. Overall Scolari did a good job: past Portugal sides would never have survived the cauldron against the Netherlands. They showed a bit more steel than we’ve seen before. Unfortunately, their petulance was as disagreeable as ever. Against France, Cristiano Ronaldo’s swan dive was a classic, but the most characteristic moment came when Pauleta, expecting a return pass from Miguel, turned, saw him on the ground, and went bananas over a supposed foul that he could not possibly have seen. Fittingly, the replay showed that Miguel had gone down without contact.
As for France, they have to be one of the most surprising finalists ever. They have only one top-class player in his prime, Thierry Henry, and he’s largely wasted by Domenech’s tactics. But after a dreadful group stage, somehow the oldsters and journeymen raised their game. Spain, Brazil, and Portugal are by any standard a formidable set of opponents, and France beat them all legitimately.
The big story is, of course, Zinedine Zidane. The famous number 10 is in his best form in ages, intelligent, smooth, a true leader. And although against Portugal he didn’t create much from open play, he was the one who stepped to the spot against Ricardo, and he was the one who put it where the keeper couldn’t get it. Penalty kicks rarely get the acclaim, but that was a magnificent specimen, well worthy to send a team to the Final.
If we’re talking history, France’s progress is most reminiscent of Italy 1982, who managed three lifeless draws in the group stage before sweeping all before them. But it’s hard to see this team defeating the 2006 azzurri. Look at Franck Ribery: he’s always working, always on the verge of doing something remarkable, but doesn’t quite have the talent to pull it off. Then there’s the old Zidane-Henry chemistry problem: two great talents who just don’t fit together. At one point in the first half Zidane had the ball and Henry was back to goal; each man was visibly waiting for the other to do something. Right now, Italy have more quality and better tactical coordination.
But if we look at the past instead, the signs are much more promising. This France side is surprisingly similar to that of 1998. They don’t have much striking power, but they’re excellent in defense and have a quality playmaker. They’re also the underdogs in the Final, against a team with superior World Cup pedigree. We know what happened in 1998: two goals from Zidane, a comprehensive victory, a title. I admit I’ll be shocked if France win it again in 2006. But if somehow they raise the trophy on Sunday, blame it on history, which in the World Cup as elsewhere, inevitably will out.
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