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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Well, it's over, and we have a winner. Italy cops its fourth title. In a fitting pair of reversals, they 1) won the second Final decided on PK's, having lost the first; 2) defeated France on PK's, having lost to them the same way in 1998. Tifosi all over the world are celebrating, and no one can begrudge them their joy. But there remains an unpleasant truth: Italy did not deserve to win this Final.
After the first 45 minutes you would have said the exact opposite. After a highly dubious PK call that handed France the opener, Italy had equalized with authority and taken control. In a dry first half, they were the better in midfield and the more threatening in attack. Given their brave and brilliant finish against Germany in the semifinal, you expected them to come out of the locker room strong and commanding.
But they didn't. In fact, they didn't come out of the locker room at all. The simply set up in their own end and let France come at them. It wasn't exactly cynical; there were few dives or unnecessary fouls. It was just passive, as if somehow they had lost the desire or courage to attack. Eventually Marcello Lippi threw on Iaquinta and del Piero, as against Germany, but they were as uninspired as the rest. In extra time the side showed little more--even in the final minutes, 11 on 10, they let France make the running.
Now of course we're going to hear about Italy's great defense and goalkeeping, which kept an aggressive France at bay. Buffon, the best keeper in the world, was in fact superb. And although Fabio Cannavaro, the player of the tournament, was slightly short of his best, the defense played well.
But here's the second unpleasant truth: France didn't deserve to win the game either. Oh yes, Franck Ribery was his usual mad self, getting every ounce out of his not-quite-star quality. And Florent Malouda, when he wasn't diving shamelessly or throwing elbows, had his best game of the tournament, attacking incisively up the left. Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry had their moments as well.
The problem, though, is that you can't score if you don't get men in the box. And all night France were one short. Raymond Domenech's tactics meant that Henry was on his own. Ribery, Malouda, and Zidane are more creators than scorers, and they rarely got into striking positions. David Trezeguet, a prototype centerforward, was again left on the bench. He got in eventually, when Ribery tired, but it wasn't until extra time that France had two strikers in the lineup. Italy's defense held, but against those tactics so would Angola's.
Ultimately, not only did no one deserve to win the Final, no one deserved to win the tournament. No team showed both the talent and ambition to merit the title of World Champion. Argentina had the class, but lost their courage against Germany. Germany kept the courage, but were beaten by a more talented Italy. Italy, apparently so worthy of the prize, disappeared against France. And France, with the tournament for the taking, were afraid to win it.
Indeed, if anything may be said to characterize this World Cup, it was timidity. There was a fair amount of attacking football, but more than half the teams played more than half their games with only one striker. One striker! Even Brazil went out that way. Back in 1966, England were criticized for a conservative 4-3-3. In 2018, we may be lucky to get a 4-6-0.
Of course the most famous moment of the Final, and of the entire World Cup, will be Zidane's Glasgow kiss. The great midfield master, in his final marvelous hurrah, sent off for an impossibly stupid act of aggression, crippling his team's chances both in extra time and the penalty shootout. The stories write themselves.
But the main reason the headbutt will endure is that there was nothing sufficiently positive to surpass it. This World Cup produced its share of greatness, drama, and beauty: Germany's irrepressible attacking verve, Australia's stunning comeback against Japan, Argentina's two wonder goals, Ghana's all-out assault on Brazil, Zidane's occasional magic, Italy's spectacular victory in the semifinal. But as the weeks went on, memorable moments grew rarer, and when the tournament begged for a fitting climax, no one was willing or able to provide it.
The World Cup is at low ebb. This was by no means the worst of tournaments, but it was the most ominous. The trends are all negative. Goals in the knockout games have dropped alarmingly, formations have grown more conservative than ever, cheating has reached record levels. It's far too easy to idealize the past; the "good old days" were never as good as they seem. But as a greybeard in good standing, with 40 years of World Cups behind me, I can't ever recall the tournament at such an impasse. The World Cup is still a great event--the greatest of events--but it badly needs a rethink. There's another tournament in four years, and once again the world will live and die with every bounce of the ball. But unless FIFA, the coaches, and the players all commit themselves to better football, we'll just get a rerun of 2006. And that's not good enough. For the final unpleasant truth is this: Italy may have won the trophy, but the cup is perilously close to empty.
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