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World Cup Low on Scoring but High on Drama

By Bill Peterson · July 12th, 2006 · Sports
Jerry Dowling

Of the sports for which sports fans profess their dislike, the low-scoring variety are most likely to be targeted for derision. Hence, the oft-stated dislike of soccer, for which the possibility of a nil-nil outcome frequently passes as an argument against the game's worthiness.

Baseball has taken similar lumps through the years from fans who are uncomfortable with the spaces in the competition.

America used to love baseball. Now audiences are bored with ball games that don't produce four home runs.

Soccer still hasn't caught on completely here, largely because it defies America's demand for bombastic entertainment.

But the World Cup draws more American interest with every passage of four years. A generation of American soccer players has grown to adulthood, television saturation of the sports world finds soccer a handy way to fill the air and many are taken by contests that are almost always undecided until the end precisely because the scores are low.

And the last two World Cups have produced bracing dramas on an international stage, tales of transcendent athletes forever marking themselves under the pressure of a true world championship. Only two footballers have won FIFA World Player of the Year three different times, each defining the World Cup during this century's competitions after fashions that compete with their expressions of the game. They made the 2006 World Cup memorable, which isn't to say they will fondly remember it.

The first forgotten and less maligned, at the moment, is Ronaldo, a Brazilian striker who has come to the last two World Cups with much to prove. He proved it in 2002 with eight goals, leading the Brazilians to their fifth World Cup and redeeming an injury-scathed career whose early promise had long been lost.

Ronaldo lost favor among Brazilian fans early in this year's World Cup as his speed decreased with an apparent increase in his weight. He played so poorly in the first two pool matches against Croatia and Australia that Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira subbed for him both times.

But Ronaldo came back with two goals against Japan, then added a goal in the knockout round against Ghana to reach 15 World Cup goals for his career, the all-time record. With three goals in the 2006 World Cup, Ronaldo has scored three in each of the last three World Cups.

But Brazil couldn't find the goal in the quarterfinals against France, losing 1-0. So Ronaldo was gone, but not for long. He's still only 29, and he's pledged to try it again with Brazil in 2010.

A less promising future awaits the immortal French midfielder Zinedine Zidane, who came back from retirement to give the French a chance this year, then hastened his next retirement with a puzzling loss of his head that minimized his chance of going out a champion. French teammates said Zidane flagrantly headbutted Italy's Marco Materazzi over a racial slur five minutes into the second half of overtime in the World Cup Final July 9.

Never has an elite athlete ended his career so ingloriously. Many athletes have lost their final appearances, and many have played poorly in them. None have played well and gone off for misconduct. But it was Italy against France in Germany, and one almost suspects gamesmanship by the Italian to motivate Zidane's self-destruction.

Both Finals contestants gave way to attrition, but in different styles of wear that turned in Italy's favor. The Italians were merely tired. They couldn't compete through the second half of regulation time with enough energy to force the action into the French end during a 1-1 tie. But the French, though more vivacious, began falling aside.

First, Patrick Vierra went down in the 56th minute with an evident hamstring pull and left the game. In overtime, French players were leaving, which raised question as to whether the Italian deliberations through the second half were the smart approach.

Frank Ribery went off for the French in the 100th minute. In the 108th minute, off went the great French striker, Thierry Henry, looking haggard.

A full day later, neither Zidane nor Materazzi came public with exactly what happened in the 110th minute. Materazzi denied a report that he called Zidane a "dirty terrorist." But Zidane's agent said Materazzi made a "very serious" remark. One supposes so, because Zidane -- born to Algerian parents -- walked back toward Materazzi and headbutted him to the ground, an infraction for which the officials had no choice but to send the retiring captain away with a red card.

Zidane not only scored the only French goal, hitting from the penalty spot seven minutes into the game, but also narrowly missed France's best opportunity in overtime with a header from the goal area. With Zidane, Vierra, Ribery and Thierry all gone in the closing moments, the French were almost powerless.

The outcome might have changed if all those skills had been available to the French for the shootout phase, but that's a hard call to make. While Italy made all its shootout kicks, France missed only one, that by David Trezeguet, whose shot hit the crossbar. A 1-1 draw ended in a win for Italy, which won the shootout phase 5-3.

Italy's win shocked no one, though it's worth remembering that the much-maligned U.S. team played the second half against the Italians one man short and still came out with a 1-1 draw in the only game Italy didn't win. But Zidane's infamous finale overshadowed the championship, which finally brought the title to Italian captain Fabio Cannavaro on the day he earned his 100th cap.

In the end, Zidane, who made his reputation for exquisite control over his teams and the games in which he played, couldn't control himself at the very moment he needed it most. His demise mystifies, because the gracious player turned ungracious, the clutch performer choked and the great one wasted a measure of greatness.

We remember not what Italy won but what Zidane lost.



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