By Mike Woitalla, in Berlin
Executive Editor, Soccer America Magazine
In the shadow of scandal and amid jeers, Italy lifted the World Cup title.
THEY'RE LIKE GOOD HURDLERS goes one assessment of the Italian national team, jumping only as high as necessary to clear the bar.
The Italians try to advance through tournaments playing not to lose, hoping to squeak through by a goal, on a counterattack or late penalty kick.
That's their modus operandi, supposedly, and who's to argue when one listens to midfielder Simone Perrotta, who said that defense is in the Italians' blood.
''No one cares about playing pretty,'' he announced. ''I would be happy to win the World Cup with 10 defenders.''
The Italians gave the world catenaccio, a word meaning ''door bolt'' and in soccer it denotes a system dedicated to preventing goals with a packed defense while aiming for 1-0 wins.
But what did the 2006 World Cup champion Italians really offer in Germany?
In the first round, U.S. coach Bruce Arena predicted that Italy would be satisfied with a tie against his team, because it had already taken three points off the Ghana in a 2-0 win. And a 1-1 tie is how the game turned out, even though the Italians played with an extra man for nearly a half.
In the final against France, the Italians lived up to their reputation. Sparked by an early 1-0 deficit, they moved players deep into the attack, but not long after getting the equalizer, the Italians resorted to their defensive game. Then they won on penalty kicks.
In their seven-game run to the title, the Italians gave up just two goals. One was an own goal against the USA. The other was from the penalty spot against the French.
That seems to indicate defense won it for the Italians. But there was much more to the Azzurri's game.
The Italians scored 12 goals, second only to host and third-place finisher Germany, which notched 13 goals.
The Azzurri breezed past the Czechs, 2-0, in their final first-round game. After they won their round-of-16 game against Australia, 1-0, on a stoppage time penalty kick, playing with a man down for more than 40 minutes, they thumped Ukraine, 3-0. Only four other games in this 64-match tournament had such a large margin of victory.
The Italians took 83 shots, third behind Portugal (100) and Germany (113). And the Italians were the most accurate, their shots hitting the frame 58 percent of the time. Fifty-one percent of Portugal's shots were on target; the Germans aimed well 44 percent of the time.
The Italians also won 44 corner kicks, a tournament high along with Portugal, indicating that they did take the game into their opponents' territory.
One of the most intriguing Italian performances came against Germany in the semifinals.
The game went into overtime after a scoreless 90 minutes. Then the Italians stormed into the attack, hitting the post and the crossbar in the first two minutes.
The Germans were suddenly facing a team with three forwards on the field, Coach Marcelo Lippi having brought on Alessandro Del Piero and Vinzenzo Iaquinta for two midfielders.
The Italians eliminated the Germans, 2-0, on goals in the 119th and 120th minutes by outside back Fabio Grosso and Del Piero.
Consider what Argentine coach Jose Pekerman did in his team's quarterfinal. Argentina had, with a refreshingly offensive approach, provided the most entertaining ball of the tournament. But against Germany, with a 1-0 lead, Pekerman took out two key attackers, playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme and forward Hernan Crespo, replacing them with the more defensive Esteban Cambiasso and forward Julio Cruz. The Germans tied the game shortly thereafter and won on penalty kicks.
The Italians outshot the Germans, 15-13, and had a 10-2 advantage on shots on goal. The Italians had a 14-4 edge on corner kicks.
They also committed the fewest fouls and suffered the most of the four teams that played seven games.
Certainly the statistics indicate that Italy was one of the more attack-minded teams of the tournament.
CANNAVARO AND CO. That Zinedine Zidane won the tournament's Gold Ball MVP award was an obvious result of FIFA encouraging media to cast their votes before the final.
Besides the absurdity of bestowing the tournament's highest individual honor on a man responsible for one of the most hideous acts in World Cup history, the obvious choice for Golden Ball was Italian central defender and captain Fabio Cannavaro.
Cannavaro, who settled for the Silver Ball, patrolled the Italians' backline, yet he was never carded. He was called for only 11 fouls, less than two per game.
He won 31 tackles, but was more often seen darting out and winning the ball before his opponent could get to it. He was practically unbeatable in the air, but he stands barely 5-foot-9.
The secret to his success, says Cannavaro, who earned his 100th cap in the final, is ''good food, lots of sleep, and regular sex.''
He paired up with Marco Materazzi after Alessandro Nesta went down injured. Materazzi, who will forever be known as the recipient of Zidane's head butt, was called for the penalty kick in the final but redeemed himself with a headed goal off a corner kick. It was his second of the tournament. He had never scored for Italy in 28 appearances before the World Cup.
Cannavaro and Materazzi were flanked by right back Gianluca Zambrotta and left back Fabio Grosso.
Zambrotta is nicknamed ''The Lung'' for his ability to fly up and down the flank. In the win over Ukraine, he scored the first goal. In the second half, he cleared a ball off the line. Grosso scored only two goals in his last 90 games with Palermo, but at the World Cup he struck Italy's first goal in its win over Germany. In the 1-0 win over Australia, he fell over Lucas Neill to draw the penalty that Francesco Totti buried.
Bronze Ball winner Andrea Pirlo, 27, is the most skillful of the Italians, although he swept in front of the backline. Dutch great Johan Cruyff called him a Zico in front of the defense.
''When I see what Andrea can do with ball,'' midfield partner Gennaro Gattuso said, ''I ask myself whether I'm really a soccer player.''
Lippi called Gattuso ''Italy's toughest dog.'' His nickname is Ringhio, the Growler. But like all of Italy's hard men, he has the skill to play in tight spaces and keep possession after he gains it.
Providing attacks from the right flank was Mauro Camoranesi. He would catch high cross-field passes gently on his instep before spinning around to storm down the wing.
Camoranesi was born and raised in Argentina. As a teen-ager, he joined Mexico's Santos Laguna. After a stint in Uruguay and in Argentina, he returned to Mexico and played for Cruz Azul for three years before moving to Italy at age 24. Because his grandparents were Italian, he was eligible for the Azzurri.
The Italians started the tournament with two forwards but ended up playing with only Luca Toni up top. He scored just twice, both against Ukraine. It didn't matter. Ten different players scored Italy's 12 goals.
THE SCANDAL. When Italy convened at its pre-World Cup training camp in Coverciano, fans gathered to jeer. ''Cannovaro, you piece of s***!'' some of them shouted.
Investigations had been launched into a scandal involving match-fixing, illegal betting, manipulation of referee assignments and accounting fraud. At the center of the scandal is Juventus, for which Cannovaro and four other Azzurri play.
Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi said during the tournament that a good World Cup performance would repair Italy's imagine: ''The Azzurri represent the positive of our people: fortitude, creativity and talent.''
As they moved toward the title, it was even suggested that a World Cup victory would result in amnesty to those involved in the scandal.
''That would be like pardoning all the car thieves in Italy because Ferrari won the Formula One title,'' said an Italian comedian.
During the tournament, several of the players left camp to visit Juventus general manager Gianluca Pessotto in a Turin hospital. The former Italy defender, not among those being investigated, had fallen 50 feet from Juventus office window. He was clutching a rosary when he was found. A suicide attempt is suspected. When they beat Ukraine, Italy's players dedicated the victory to Pessotto.
Before the Italy-Germany game, Germany's mass-circulation Bild newspaper accused the Italians of orchestrating the suspension of defensive midfielder Torsten Frings, who was caught punching Cruz by television cameras after the Germany-Argentina game. Although the Italian federation had not instigated the investigation, Bild announced with giant headlines, ''Now you're really gonna get it!''
Fueled by Bild, German fans, otherwise such gracious hosts, whistled through the Italian national anthems. The Italians endured more jeers when they walked on the Berlin Olympic Stadium stage to accept the World Cup trophy. The fans in the stadium had not seen the replay of Zidane's assault and blamed Materazzi for play-acting.
''We think that after the phone taps, the accusations, the intrigue and the fraud,'' wrote Corriere della Sera columnist Gianni Riotta. ''Each one of the Azzurri returned for a month to what they were when they were kids on the street - when soccer was a dream, not a racket.''
(This article originally appeared in the August 2006 issue of Soccer America Magazine.)