Previously in another article I mentioned how Italy had made it to the World Cup finals every twelve years since 1970, winning it in 1982, losing it in 1994, which would make 2006 their year. Had one been aware of these facts perhaps a wager would have been in order but reality makes a mockery of superstition. Had one wagered on the events that would unfold last night, maybe the bookmakers would have made mockery of it themselves.
Italy played as they always have, in their native blue, as France played in white. Italy started with Gianluigi Buffon, Gianluca Zambrotta, Marco Materazzi, captain Fabio Cannavaro, Fabio Grosso, Mauro Camoranesi, Andrea Pirlo, Gennaro Gattuso, Simone Perotta, Francesco Totti, Luca Toni. France emerged with Fabian Barthez, Willy Sagnol, Lillian Thuram, William Gallas, Eric Abidal, Claude Makelele, Patrick Vieira, captain Zinedine Zidane, Florent Malouda, Franck Ribery, Thierry Henry. Both sides fielded a relative 4-5-1, the game began and then stopped as replays showed Henry had ran into Cannavaro and was stunned by the impact, the Arsenal captain looking concerningly groggy and possibly an early candidate for a substitution. But to his credit Henry regained his full senses and came back onto the field.
France made the breakthrough very early in what was billed as a game of equal standing but on different measures, Italy's youth, France's experience, both sides nonetheless showing continental flair. A throw found the head of Henry who headed the ball on to Malouda that found the Lyon man entering the box, and as he did so he nudged the ball beyond Materazzi, the Inter defender then judged to have made contact with Malouda that resulted in the midfielder going down. At the speed of play, it looked clear cut, in the replays it looked dubious but you see Materazzi go to tackle, pull his left leg at the last moment but still making minimal contact that shouldn't have impeded Malouda. Malouda then knocked his right leg onto his left calf and fell over. Overall, I have no qualms about the decision and in fairness neither did the Italians.
Up stepped Zidane, the captain, the midfield master of play and skill and vision, in his last game, internationally, domestically, in his local park even. As he did against Portugal, he took the penalty that could go on to see him lift the World Cup in glory to end a glowing football career. As Buffon dived to his right, Zidane chipped the ball almost like Peter Crouch against Jamaica, the ball went up and came down off the underside of the crossbar and bounced out. Slight delay in deciding if the ball crossed the line and then the referee, Argentine Horacio Marcelo Elizondo, pointed towards the centre-circle. Zidane had scored, quite fortuitously as I wondered what if he had missed, which was something he may not have bothered about being this was his last match.
And yet Italy made no panic moves, no subs, no change of system, they continued to pursue their control of the game and made their mark twelve minutes later. Camoranesi went to take a corner from the Italian right then left it for Pirlo. Pirlo crossed a deep corner, practically one of the best delivered in the whole tournament and there have been very few of them, and being that Materazzi has jumped up before against the Czech Republic to score, I would have thought he would be marked as he came up. Yet as Vieira was in front of him when the ball came over, the Juventus man jumped weakly as Materazzi towered to head Italy level. From another corner soon after Pirlo delivered an identical ball for Materazzi to drag others away for Toni to head off the crossbar. Italy looked very dangerous with height advantage at set-pieces.
At the other end found Henry in his inquisitive role, where he drifts off to the side and then comes inside to run at the players. Zidane had not been as enthralling as before but nonetheless he made cool, sensible passing and possession when he was on the ball. One ball found Henry through into the box with Cannavaro beside him, the Frenchman striking the ball only to be blocked away by the Italy captain. But there lacked a spark from France that had been there from previous matches, Malouda was a nuisance more to his side than to Italy by dropping to the ground and looking up for a decision often that didn't come his way. Abidal was non-existent in attack, Ribery made a number of excursions in the Italian third but ran out of space or invention. The first half went to Italy.
Come the second half, France had a change of playability. Henry was on 3rd gear, running on the left and hitting at Buffon, bustling through on the right and being denied by Cannavaro, Malouda broke into the box on the left and denied by Zambrotta, the French were now in the ascendancy. Italy had a goal disallowed after a Pirlo freekick found the head for a neat finish but Toni was one of three offside participants. The game turned to the mandatory with Vieira clutching his left thigh after a little sprint, meaning a possible hamstring problem and coming off for Len's Alou Diarra, a straight swap. Marcello Lippi made a double change soon after, Vincenzo Iaquinta and Daniele de Rossi for Totti and Perotta, and with four minutes of normal time remaining brought on Alessandro del Piero for Camoranesi.
The game eventually ended after 90mins level with France the better side, and as a number of players receive treatment for cramp, tired muscles, the constant engines of Makelele, Zidane, Henry, Ribery, Gattuso, Pirlo, Grosso, Zambrotta still remained. France had yet to use two substitutes. Ribery went on to break into the Italy box and shoot for the ball to go agonisingly wide. Zidane found Thuram, Thuram to Sagnol, Sagnol crossed as he has done on many occasion, and there was Zidane, unwatched, a firm header that Buffon had to touch over, the Juve keeper hailing immediately at his players to sharpen up, because while Italy held back, France continued to press in the first half of extra time. Now Raymond Domenech, the France coach, made another change, Ribery coming off for David Trezeguet, he who scored the winner in the Euro2000 final against Italy, and he who plays for Juventus. An omen, perhaps, but quite simply, France were threatening to take the final all the way with Italy looking less interested. The referee blew for half time.
Second half of extra time, 15mins more remaining of open play of the 2006 World Cup final. Two minutes into the half, Henry was withdrawn for the introduction of Sylvain Wiltord, he who scored the equaliser in that Euro final. I wondered if either Wiltord or Trezeguet would become a thorn once again, but significantly France were down two experienced penalty takers were the game to come to that, in Henry and Vieira, with Zidane a main spot-kick contributor on the field. But with ten minutes of normal time in extra time remaining, Del Piero was attacking down the Italy left and tumbled over from a challenge and there was a mention by BBC1's commentator John Motson of an off-the-ball incident that occurred within the Italy defence and a camera shot turned to show Materazzi on the ground, Trezeguet debating with Italy players and a sheepish Zidane fiddling with his armband. Buffon had come out of his goal to remonstrate to the nearest linesman, the referee trying to calm players down to establish what had happened and tend to the medical requirement of the Inter defender.
Then replays depicted what had actually happened. Moments before, France were on the attack and Italy got the ball away, Materazzi had hold of Zidane slightly and then let go. Zidane turned to Materazzi and made comments with a smile, Materazzi replied without any, and there were a few exchanges with Zidane trotting off and then, turning back to look directly at Materazzi, stepping up to him and aiming a head-butt onto the centre of Materazzi's chest. At 6ft 4in and the strength put into his display thus far, you would have thought a battering ram would struggle against Materazzi, much less a human head. It took a couple of minutes for some order to appear but eventually the referee sought advice briefly from the linesman and then jogged over to Zidane, reaching to open his back pocket, where the red card was kept. Zidane was sent off in his last football game, his last international since his debut in August 1994, in the World Cup final which France were not favourites to reach but did, and for those efforts to go in vain, those efforts to make it for France, for Zidane to leave the football scene in fitting glory of lifting the World Cup.
As Zidane debates with his team-mates to the referee, the inevitable was he was coming off in disgrace. Bad enough to have committed the act, it was worse for him to debate its sanction. As the France captain trudged off the pitch, he left a headache for Domenech, who had carefully held off making substitutions until extra-time to see who can carry the fight and who could not for France, who to strategically pull here, there, and now the France coach had not only 10mins remaining to maintain France's stability, but also he was another solid penalty-taker down, and worse of all it was his captain, the talismanic Zidane. Zidane trudged on further, past Domenech, past the France bench, towards the exit, and ironically past the World Cup trophy on its stand, gleaming in gold, being so near and yet to remain eternally far away from the grip of the France man as captain.
France made no bones of their disadvantage, they still came forward, Malouda swapped to the right, Wiltord on the left but there was no way through for France as penalties beckoned again, this time for the second time in a World Cup final since 1994 that also involved Italy. Italy looked tired and I thought this would play on their kicks. After a while, up stepped Pirlo to score, followed by Wiltord who scored as well. Materazzi stepped up and I felt he would miss but he deposited the ball past Barthez, and he was followed by Trezeguet, whose effort came off the crossbar and down, the Juve striker against his club keeper waiting to see if the ball went over the line, but this time he was not so lucky. Next was de Rossi, again someone I felt would miss but he too scored well, and he was followed by Abidal, who surprised me with his successful spot-kick. If the following Italy kick is converted, then the next France kick would be crucial. Next was del Piero, who was ruthless in execution, meaning Sagnol had to score to keep up France's hopes, and he did with a cheer towards the France bench.
This now meant that the next kick would put Italy into history as the 2006 World Champions, if it was scored, albeit France had one kick left. That responsibility went to Grosso, he who went over and gained the penalty against Australia in the dying moments of the 2nd round clash, he who curled the first against Germany in a tight semi-final late in extra-time. Grosso stepped up, glanced at the ball and briefly at the goal, then took aim and fired.Italy were crowned the 2006 FIFA World Champions.
And cue the expected jubilant, ecstatic Italian celebrations. France were equal in their devastation, mostly Sagnol and Thuram, the latter stepping down from international football alongside Zidane. It has been described as an average World Cup, and I would agree with that, the Germany v Italy semi final and this final made for entertaining viewing, for a World Cup emanating more for its goals than its performances.
Considering that Buffon had conceded two goals, one an own goal that not even the respected defender knew about, the other a penalty, neither of which Buffon had a chance at, otherwise he had maintained sheer dominance of his goal throughout. Considering Buffon was aided by an Italian die-hard defence, on occasion breached to no avail, on others it was stalwart, harnessed and marshalled. Would have been a game to see with Italy facing Brazil to add another test to that defence. Considering the much better partnership of Gattuso and Pirlo, better than their AC Milan show against Barcelona, where I felt they had not been good enough, how these two made a great advert for energy, passing in confined spaces, running, and getting back under attack. Considering the attacks by their full-backs, Zambrotta and Grosso, with telling contributions. And considering players of four major clubs in Italian domestic football played 24hrs before a decision that could start a tremor of immense magnitude through their careers. Italy were worthy champions.
Talk has been said that the better team had lost but what is your possession and chances counting for if you fail to convert anything into goals? All the penalties were excellently taken other than the missed one, the better team is not per se the team that will win, it's the one who scores one more than the other who emerges victorious.
Word has come through that it was the fourth official who witnessed the Zidane incident and therefore the referee was aided with that information and not video replays. Perhaps the fourth official informed the linesman and the linesman then advised the referee, because I didn't see the fourth official come into the moment at all. And if it was video replays used to reach the decision, then it should have been available for when Figo head-butted Marc Van Bommel. Also, as I type, Zidane has been named as the winner of the Golden Ball award, as voted by journalists at half time per FIFA's instructions. How can you vote for the best player in the tournament at half time of its final? Zidane is Zidane, but there have been more worthy players even if Zidane had not committed his head-butt. It's a farce, yet again under FIFA, I do not agree with it at all and it's one people will notice and then cast aside.RedsMan.