Monday, July 10, 2006

The Cup Runneth Over

The collective hangover that has most of us back to the dull grind of midseason baseball and previews of NFL training camp (if this rings true, do yourself a favor and give the MLS a serious shot) undoubtedly has similarly kept a few Frenchmen in bed today. Their unlikely collapse and unfortunate luck on penalties cost them the World Cup, but it's difficult to argue that Italy weren't deserving winners.

The term "purist" is often used to describe a soccer fan who values the "beautiful game" played by the Brazil of 1982, the Dutch teams of the 70s, and, most recently, the remarkable display Argentina gave us in their 6-0 demolition of Serbia and Montenegro in this World Cup. But, lest we forget, all those teams went down as "unfortunate losers", falling to more pragmatic but equally qualified teams. So I'll submit that the "purist" can describe those of us that take real joy in watching a back four play with the skill and composure we saw from Italy in this tournament. World Cups can be funny things -- take 2002, where Korea and Turkey were semifinalists and France didn't score a goal -- but one thing is generally true: the best team over the course of the tournament usually comes home with the trophy.

Argentina looked the best, Brazil had the most talent, Germany had the raw enthusiasm and energy, France seemed to have fate, but Italy had the most composure, the best defense, maybe the best midfield, and certainly the best luck. Consider how many Italian players could reasonably be in the best eleven. Cannavarro, Buffon, Zambrotta, Gattusso, and Pirlo are probably no brainers, but Grosso, Totti, and even Toni deserve a look. And for sheer value, two goals, a fine penalty in the final shootout, and getting Zidane ejected probably gets Materazzi in. As for luck, they looked to be in a whole heap of trouble down to ten men heading into overtime against Australia, but somehow conjured a penalty out of nothing. They lucked into the easiest draw of the knockout rounds, and they were certainly lucky to see France's fortune run short on Trezeguet's penalty that had Buffon well beaten.

So congratulations to the Italians. For the French, it's probably time to scrap the drawing board altogether and instead draw up a digital spreadsheet or something. I would like to see Viera back to captain the team next time around, in a Zidane-like role, and Henry should have another tournament in him as well. Barthez, however, will not be missed. Zidane's contributions to the world game are undeniable. But in truth, the 98 Final, the stunning Champions League final volley for Real Madrid, the overall mastery against Brazil this year will all be forgotten. When our generation tells the story of this World Cup, it will most likely forget much of his play and remember his momentary, but complete lapse of reason.

comanche/soul Best of World Cup 2006
MVP - Fabio Cannavarro, D Italy. The best defender I've seen for some time. Covers more ground than any center back in the game. For a short guy, he can jump with any striker. For a defender, has wonderful touch. But what's most remarkable about him: for the most tenacious defender in a tournament that set records for most yellow and red cards, he emerged without a single entry into the referee's notebook.

Young Player - Cristiano Ronaldo, MF Portugal. I truly hate him and I believe that he represents most of the awful aspects of this year's tournament. But he was still the best, and if he can keep the theatrics to a minimum, he'll be great.

Best Eleven - GK Buffon, D Grosso, D Terry, D Cannavarro, D Lahm, MF Frings, MF Zidane, MF Viera, MF Appiah, F Klose, F Henry.
(Honorable mention: D Zambrotta, D Thuram, D Rio Ferdinand, MF Maniche, MF Essien, F Robben, F Torres, F Podolski, GK Lehmann, MF C. Ronaldo)
***Note: The Best Eleven was selected without consideration of the team as a whole.

Goal of the Tournament (in order) -
1. Klose, Germany v. Argentina. Perfectly executed and beautiful in its simplicity.
2. Maxi Rodriguez, Argentina v. Mexico. The most spectacular of the bunch, a stunning left footed volley from a right footed player to win in overtime.
3. Torres, Spain v. Ukraine. The early leader for goal of tournament, it sneaks above Cambiasso at #4 because of Puyol's persistence and skill.
4. Ayala, Argentina v. Germany. A subtly impressive goal. Anyone who's ever headed a ball knows that getting a header by a diving, in-form keeper and a man on the post is a difficult charge. Doing so with a man on you even harder. Adjusting mid-air after a bump and diving to reach the ball, even more difficult.

Post-Cup News
Marco Materazzi has admitted to insulting Zidane, claiming it was just a typical on-field insult. Hard to believe really, especially with Materazzi's history of questionable behavior. But until Zidane tells us otherwise, there's not much else to go with.

One of my personal favorite players, veteran German midfielder Dietmar Hammann, has left Liverpool for Manchester City. He's definitely getting older, but it's always sad to see a player with his impact leave. Readers may recall his game-changing introduction into the 2005 Champions League final as a second half sub, effectively shutting down AC Milan's midfield and giving Steven Gerrard license to roam.

Though it appears Real Madrid have learned nothing from the colossal failure of the Galacticos' era, they're gearing up to make a move for Italian World Cup star Cannavarro (see above). It's still a risk to make a bid for an ageing player, but at 32 he appears at the peak of his powers, and center backs tend to age pretty well. Cannavarro and Sergio Ramos should form a productive partnership at the back as Madrid looks to rebuild and finally win some hardware next season.

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