If you've paid attention to this year's World Cup tournament, even for 10 seconds, you've probably absorbed the conventional wisdom that the United States' national soccer team was a huge disappointment. On one level, this is fair enough. The Americans lost two games and tied one, scoring just two goals and giving up six. They weren't among the 16 teams who went on to the second round and clearly didn't deserve to be.
There is another side to the story. Italy will play France in Sunday's championship game in Berlin (2 p.m. Eastern time on ABC) and will be favored by most observers to hoist the World Cup for the fourth time. Always known for their relentless defense and their "cynical" tactical play, the Azzurri are among the most difficult teams in the world to score against. In fact, they have surrendered just one goal in the entire tournament. That goal was scored by, yes, the United States, on June 17. Admittedly, it was an own-goal, plonked into his own net by Italian defender Cristian Zaccardo. But it happened because the speedy, athletic Americans were attacking with ferocity, rattling the Italians' confidence; the United States dominated much of that game and the 1-1 result was fair to both teams.
In many countries in the world, a draw with Italy in the World Cup would be cause for dancing in the streets and lighting other people's property on fire. In the States this year, it's nothing more than a footnote to a story of failure. That alone tells you how much this sport has become an accepted part of American life. It's sweet that we played even-up with perhaps the best team in the world, but dammit, when are we gonna win something?
That's a complicated question, and the short answer is: Don't hold your breath. It's worth pointing out that fans in 29 other eliminated nations (along with dozens of others who didn't even qualify this year) are asking themselves the same thing. The sense that soccer is an unforgiving mistress, that our team could and should have done better, that our own lads' failings, combined with bad luck and some inscrutable acts of God, doomed us to unfair defeat -- that's an emotion shared in the last two weeks by, among others, the Argentines, Dutch, English, Spanish, Portuguese and Germans.
We don't have space or time for a dissertation on the American team's problems, but my friend and colleague King Kaufman (an admitted soccer neophyte) recently pointed to one issue so obvious and glaring it doesn't get talked about enough: Millions of American kids play soccer, but, speaking generally, the very best American teenage athletes do not. Some infuriated readers thought King was suggesting that 7-foot, 330-pound NBA centers should be imported into the U.S. soccer program, but he said no such thing. (Euro-soccer snobs displaying their immense ignorance of American sports can be every bit as amusing as Yank soccer-haters displaying theirs about the world game.)
I don't know about King's idea that, for example, Udonis Haslem of the Miami Heat (who is 6-8 and weighs 235 pounds) might make a dominating soccer player. But I also don't know that he wouldn't; Haslem is a superbly conditioned athlete, not a lumbering genetic anomaly of basketball stereotype. Size is only an absolute advantage at certain positions in soccer (goalkeeper, central defender and striker), but it doesn't inherently make players worse. British, Italian, German, Scandinavian and Eastern European players have gradually gotten bigger over the past couple of generations, and being taller than 6 feet is no longer seen as strange.
I can tell you this: If we could take the best high school athletes at the skill positions in the major American sports (let's say center fielder, point guard and wide receiver), roll them all back six or eight years and get them started in soccer, we'd have a dramatically improved U.S. national team pool. U.S. soccer boosters say this kind of improvement is happening anyway, but progress looks pretty slow. As King observed, Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, the enigmatic stars of the American team, both underperformed in this year's tournament. Now America's tiny coterie of core fans must chew endlessly on Donovan's refusal to play professionally in Europe (and thereby improve), and Beasley's apparent inability to improve (despite playing professionally in Europe). If -- I'm just making this up here -- Torii Hunter and Stephon Marbury and Deion Branch were in the mix and competing for those spots, Donovan and Beasley's idiosyncratic career paths might not matter much.
Winning the World Cup requires a better team than the United States will have for the foreseeable future. It also requires less tangible things: consistently improving your level of play and your concentration, catching some lucky breaks, and avoiding bonehead plays, injuries and bad calls by referees. That's true of all major sporting events, I suppose, but the closely contested nature of international soccer -- in which most games are decided by one key play -- often assigns a fatal significance to fluke events.
It's one's understanding of those fluke events, I think, that separates those who grew up with the sport and respond to it almost instinctively from those outsiders who find it alternately dull, bizarre and mystifying. Was the dubious penalty kick awarded at the end of the Italy-Australia match on June 26, which gave the Italians a gift goal and saved them from playing a 30-minute overtime while down a man, a fundamentally unfair way to resolve that game?
Aussie fans will lament that call forever, of course. But for most soccer fans around the world, its rightness or wrongness was almost secondary. (For the record, I saw it as a legitimate foul, albeit packaged and sold by Fabio Grosso's histrionics.) Playing 10 vs. 11 against a determined, fearless but technically inferior team (defender Marco Materazzi had been red-carded), the Italians had to find a way to win, and they did. If that play hadn't worked, the fatalist fan's thinking goes, something else would have: The Australian goalkeeper would have muffed an easy one, a ball would have caromed into a goal off the referee's butt, a whistle blown in the stands would have distracted a defender at the wrong moment.
Still, alongside that fatalism -- the sense that every miraculous goal, questionable penalty kick and undeserved red card has already been carved on a great score sheet in the sky -- the World Cup also provides unexpected surprises, and this year's late plot twists have been more unexpected than most. No one, and certainly not anyone in the French and Italian media, expected the two finalists we will see on Sunday. They were widely seen as fading soccer powers of Old Europe: The French were a charming collection of yesterday's stars, unlikely to survive the first round; and the Italians were egotistical prima donnas, stuck in an overly defensive style and paralyzed by the corruption scandal afflicting their country's professional league.
Well, Old Europe has looked pretty sprightly these past couple of weeks; international as the game has become, the old maxim that national teams excel in their home continent seems as true as ever. (Six of the eight quarterfinalists, and all four semifinalists, were European sides.) In defense of my own spotty pre-tournament projections, I will only say that I was right about the United States (an easy call) and right that somebody would beat Brazil. I didn't have the right somebody, and for that I'm grateful. I expected to see Germany facing either England or Brazil in the final, but this should be a much better match.
France and Italy have been easily the most fun and interesting teams to watch throughout the tournament. In the final, after a few cautious opening minutes, we should see a fluid back-and-forth game. As neighboring countries with a long soccer history, they know and respect each other, which should keep the diving, theatrical displays, appeals for divine intercession and egregious fouling to a minimum.
Despite the recent history between these teams (which has been dominated by France), I'll go with the consensus that the Italians will win. They've got superior players at most positions, and this is a more spirited, more unified and less bitchy team, playing a vastly more attractive style, than any Italian side since 1982 (their last Cup victory). But don't count out the French. They've got the Z factor: One of the greatest players in soccer history, playing the last game of his storied career. If the Italians give Zinédine Zidane the chance to win the World Cup one more time, he'll take it.
Here are the key matchups, as I see them:
An enormous edge for Italy. Both on his club peformance for Juventus of Turin and his play in this tournament, Gianluigi Buffon has earned his reputation as finest 'keeper in the world. (By the lamentable standards of past Italian goalkeepers, he also has excellent hair.) He has catlike instincts and a tremendous feeling for the game, plays low to the ground but, at 6 feet 3 inches, has a basketball player's reach, and rarely makes mistakes.
On the other side, the bald, goateed French 'keeper Fabien Barthez is best described as exciting. A former starter for Monaco and Manchester United, Barthez is on his last legs as an international player and has a reputation for mysterious lapses in judgment and eccentric forays into the field. That said, he has intangibles on his side: He's won championships at every stage of his career, including the '93 European club championship (with Olympique Marseille), the '98 World Cup for France and two English championships with ManU.
Nobody gets to the World Cup final without outstanding defense. In the six quarterfinal and semifinal games, a grand total of nine goals were scored; for better or worse, not allowing your opponent to score has become the prime directive in soccer over the past 30 years or so. (Let me play devil's advocate for a moment and point out that good defense alone is not sufficient. Switzerland allowed zero goals in this entire tournament -- and was eliminated in the second round, in a penalty-kick shootout against Ukraine.) The Italian and French defenses feature some of the world's finest players but on age and overall skill, I'll give a tiny edge to Italy.
Fabio Cannavaro and Marco Materazzi are as tough a pair of pure defenders as you'll find anywhere, but even including Materazzi's red-card foul against Australia, they've played rigorous and, by Italian standards, non-dirty football. One of the startling aspects of this year's Italian side is the extent to which defenders Gianluca Zambrotta and, especially, Fabio Grosso have come forward on attack. It was Grosso who won that controversial foul against Australia and who scored that thrilling goal in the 119th minute of Italy's semifinal victory over Germany, one of the greatest games in recent World Cup history.
France's defense is marked by tremendous experience and professionalism. Lilian Thuram, a hero of the '98 Cup-winning side, came out of retirement to join his mates for one last run. He plays professionally in Italy, so he knows the opposing players especially well. William Gallas, of the English champions Chelsea, and Willy Sagnol, who plays for German powerhouse Bayern Munich, are shrewd, no-nonsense performers who always seem to be in the right place. Surprisingly, the inexperienced Eric Abidal has been starting at left back ahead of veteran Mikael Silvestre. Abidal has made no gruesome mistakes, but Italy's attackers will clearly go after him.
Looking at these two teams before the tournament began, you'd have called their midfield players -- the guys who run the most, control or lose the ball, and set the game's tempo -- roughly even, or given a slight advantage to Italy. That was before the 2006 World Cup became Zinédine Zidane's official farewell tour. Judging from his dominating play against Spain and Brazil in France's pair of delightful upset victories, Zidane is not merely the best player in this tournament but the best player most of us have ever seen. (This was less true in the brutal semifinal against Portugal, but the Z-man still did what he needed to.)
So France has a clear edge here, and you just have to hope that the Italians don't revert to their traditional form, sending a hard-man enforcer like Gennaro Gattuso (who has played tremendously in this tournament) out to hack down Zidane every time he touches the ball. I agree with the general view that the referees in this tournament have gone nuts with the yellow and red cards, but one of the central questions in this match is how closely Argentine referee Horacio Elizondo calls the action in midfield. (It was Elizondo who sent off hothead English striker Wayne Rooney for stomping on a Portuguese opponent's "groin area," and even the British media hasn't complained much about that one.)
Mind you, the Italian midfield has been nothing short of terrific, with Andrea Pirlo's brilliant pinpoint passing, Mauro Camoranesi's blitzkrieg sideline runs (we won't discuss the hair), Simone Perrotta's occasionally dangerous long-range shots and Francesco Totti's ball-control skills (although he's nowhere close to 100 percent after a severe leg injury). Alongside Zidane, though, the French have veteran Patrick Vieira and the electrifying youngster Franck Ribéry, with Claude Makelele behind them as a defensive rock. Vieira and Zidane have at last begun to play well off each other and will want to leave a legacy in their final game together. If France is to break down the Italian defense, it will be Zidane, Vieira and Ribéry who do it.
A coin-toss in terms of quality, but the Italians have more depth. The Italian lineup is less certain than the French one, but both teams could decide to begin the match with single strikers up top: Fiorentina forward Luca Toni (who has only two goals) for Italy and the lightning-fast Thierry Henry, of London's Arsenal (who has three), for France. Italy could conceivably open with two forwards, the other being Alberto Gilardino, the youthful star from A.C. Milan, but given the importance of clogging up Zidane and Henry in the midfield, I doubt it.
Toni and Henry will each get a couple of chances to change the game, and of course they're both capable of doing so. But they're going to have defenders hanging off them like half a dozen cheap damp suits. If one of them scores, it'll be because somebody else, somewhere else on the field, has made either an incredibly good or an incredibly bad play. That's how strikers make a living.
This has been Italy's not-so-secret weapon throughout its drive toward the Cup. Alessandro Del Piero, Vincenzo Iaquinta and Filippo Inzaghi are legitimate stars, starters on almost any other national team. They've all scored as substitutes in this tournament, and the French have no weapons in reserve anywhere near that lethal. If he needs a late goal, French coach Raymond Domenech will put Louis Saha, David Trézéguet or Sylvain Wiltord on the field and pray, but none has excelled in international play. Possible defensive replacements are adequate on both teams.
Domenech and Italian boss Marcello Lippi are already heroes at home for getting their teams into a final few of their countrymen believed they could reach. Which one of them can provide a last nudge of motivation? And how much does coaching matter at this stage anyway? I have no idea. Both had a huge mountain to climb. Domenech had to persuade an aging, underachieving team to believe in itself despite all available evidence; Lippi had to persuade the fractious Italians to play well together and tune out some considerable distractions. Call this dead even.
There's a world of motivation on both sides. As discussed, Zidane carried the French to spectacular upset victories over Spain and Brazil with amazing performances, delaying his retirement by a game every time. This year's edition of Les Bleus makes a remarkable Cinderella story, but my gut tells me that beating Brazil was, in effect, Zidane's last championship. Losing this game, if that happens, won't tarnish his magnificent legacy in the slightest, and the crowds in the Champs-Elysées will still rejoice, flavored with a distinctly Gallic sadness.
For the Italians, nothing less than national pride is at stake. The nation's top professional league, Serie A, is embroiled in a widening match-fixing scandal that could see several elite teams banished at least temporarily to lower divisions. It's as if the Yankees, Red Sox, Cardinals and Dodgers were discovered to have been bribing umpires and were all about to be stripped of their zillion-dollar budgets and exiled to the minor leagues. Many on the Italian roster play for the disgraced teams and could go home next week to find themselves abruptly unemployed. Yet they've set all that aside and played brilliantly, winning a difficult group in the first stage and vanquishing not just a terrific German team but 65,000 German fans in a thrilling semifinal. I believe they're determined to win it all.
Reason dictates that the game will be decided by one crucial play, and the most plausible score line is 1-0 or 2-0. But why not imagine a little sunshine in this sometimes cynical and pessimistic sport? Italy 3, France 2, in overtime. One of the greatest games ever played.