World Cup Madness

Those of you who haven’t seen the World Cup final yet but are planning to watch it and don’t want to be spoiled will want to stop reading now.

What a boring, poorly-played match on Sunday.

Overall, the knockout rounds were pretty enjoyable. Most matches in the round of 16 were at least interesting: Argentina beating Mexico after extra time (a match I still need to wach), Italy’s last-minute dubious penalty win against Australia, Portugal’s card-filled clash with the Netherlands, and France’s surprising win against Spain.

The quarterfinals had some moments: Germany’s penalty shootout win against a heartbroken Argentina, England’s poor performance and loss during a shootout against Portugal, Italy’s thorough trouncing of the Ukraine, and France’s surprise (and most satisfying, if I say so myself) win against five-time champions Brazil.

The semis were even more amazing. Italy and Germany neck and neck throughout regulation play, only for Italy to turn it around with two goals in the last few minutes of extra time. France comfortably shutting down Portugal with a single goal off a penalty kick midway through the first half.

Germany, disappointed with the end of their run to the finals, nevertheless put on an impressive performance to defeat Portugal in the 3rd-place match, almost shutting them out 3-1. If nothing else, Germany deserved to be in the final based on spirit alone (though their play wasn’t too shabby either).

But the final… oh the final.

I was a bit torn going in. On one hand, I’d come to like and respect the French team. Zidane’s work as captain really kept the team working together like clockwork. They really excel in ball-handling skills, and their goalkepper is top-notch.

And Italy… I may only be quarter Italian, but that’s the part of my heritage I’ve always identified with most. The Azzurri had played well to get all the way to the final, though at times using some questionable tactics. Either way, they’re a group of players who work well together and really pushed themselves hard to get as far as they had.

But the match was absolutely awful. First a questionable penalty-mark goal for France in the first 10 minutes, followed by a brilliant header goal off a corner kick 10 minutes later for Italy. Italy started out very strong, beating France 70/30 on possession alone in much of the first half. But after the second goal of the match, everyone started getting sloppy. France’s play deteriorated as well. This continued through the second half. Perotta and Totti – who had served Italy well in previous games – were performing poorly and were taken off. Later, Camoranesi was subbed out to bring in Del Piero. For France, Vieira was injured and pulled out midway through the second half.

Then we went into extra time. Everyone was tired. Ribery ran himself into the ground and was subbed out. Henry suffered an injury or cramp or something, and was taken out. Zidane was hit in the shoulder, but continued playing despite what appeared to be a significant amount of pain.

And then the madness began. Off the play, Zidane head-butts Matterazzi. Video playback seems to indicate he was provoked, but how could he lose control so completely? He’s said the World Cup would be his last games, and he’d retire afterwards. How could he let himself leave in disgrace? The referee didn’t see the foul, but Zidane was sent off with a red card after a consultation with the fourth official on the sidelines, who had seen what had happened.

Of course, at this point, 10 minutes left in extra time, things pretty much fell apart. France weren’t coordinated enough without Zidane (not to mention being pissed off), and Italy were just too tired to put together a goal-scoring play, so they settled on delaying long enough to bring the game to penalties.

Italy made all their shots. France missed one. Ironically (and sadly), the miss was a crossbar hit from striker Trezeguet, who probably wouldn’t have been in the penalty lineup had Zidane not been sent off.

I wouldn’t say the match was boring. Not at all; it was the World Cup final, after all. But neither team played at their best, and the ending was marred by the horrible – yet rightful – ejection of one of the sport’s most celebrated current players, in his last match as a professional.

At any rate, I annoyingly only saw 25 of the 64 matches, due in part to my lack of cable and thus lack of ESPN. I saw very few in the initial group stage, so there are several teams I hadn’t seen play at all. Fortunately I was able to see all but one of the 16 knockout-round matches, one of which I downloaded and plan to watch when I get a chance, since I read it was a pretty good game (Argentina vs. Mexico).

Ah well. I’m looking forward to South Africa in 2010. Maybe the US can make it to the knockout round next time. And maybe I’ll have the time and money to be able to go there and see a couple matches. That would rock.