Sunday, July 09, 2006

Hero to Zero as France Loses World Cup Final

From the opening kick-off something looked wrong with the French side. They seemed in a fog, lackadaisical, too overconfident and/or too loose. Their passing was sloppy and they looked as if they were trying to conserve their energy for some other big game coming up tomorrow.

Their momentary glory came in the opening minutes not from any team effort but simply a break by a single striker into the Italian goal area where he was clearly fouled.

Zidane's ensuing penalty kick was also so "laid back" and nonchalant that he almost blew it completely, getting one of the most lucky breaks in soccer history by hitting the cross bar and rebounding straight down just 1 foot inside the goal line.

The Italian's then took the game over with quick and dominating play for the rest of the half, scoring the games only true goal just 10 minutes after the French penalty kick.

The second half saw a renewed and reorganized French team that took the game to the Italians in a fine style. As the half progressed the Italians began to noticeably sag with exhaustion, requiring the Italian coach to use both of his substitutions to maintain equality of play.

Officiating was fairly even with some noticeable inclination in favor of the Italian team. Yes, it is true that one excellent goal by the Italian side was called back because of a paper-thin off-side call (that on replay appeared to be called correctly) but, on the other side, the Italian players were allowed to foul Zidane and other French players almost with full immunity. Even a clear foul against France in the Italian penalty box area was ignored by the officials.

The frustration reached a boiling point when Zidane, attempting to jump for a head ball, was crushed from behind and smashed to the ground by an Italian player just before the end of regulation play in the second half. No foul was called even though seemingly identical plays had resulted in fouls being called against France both before and after.

Zidane had been double-teamed throughout the game and had been kicked and tripped often without any fouls being called. A player of his international stature is generally respected by officials and given enough room to move during a game of this magnitude. But not today.

Zidane's greatness and heroic stature had taken such a beating by the closing minutes of the second overtime period that he appeared to "snap," giving a viscous head-butt to the chest of the Italian Marco Materazzi who had been covering him so closely. The incident took place away from the ball and was unseen by the head official. A sideline judge, however, confirmed the foul and Zidane moved meteorically from a hero to a zero in the blink of an eye as he received the first overtime red card in World Cup final history.

Until that moment it appeared that, even with star striker Henry sent to the side with leg cramps, France stood at least a 50-50 chance to come out ahead of Italy in the approaching kick-off.

With Zidane and Henry gone, however, and the French team gutted and demoralized by the disgusting behavior and expulsion of their team captain, it was only a matter of time before the Italians stood tall and the French folded.

It may be true that a missed "penalty kick" by David Trezeguet (who replaced Henry) lost France the kick-off but it must be clear to everyone that, in the end, it was Zidane who lost the game.

Congratulations to Italy for being the victor in the World Cup. Rarely have there been two teams more equal in skill and character competing in a World Cup final. The game was, until the very end, exciting and entertaining.

In the end, character won.