By Ridge Mahoney
On a night of finely balanced tensions, set under darkening skies and
poised between two teams replete with heroic storylines and marvelous
players, a great career ended in disgrace and a grand tradition
prevailed once again.
Italy, purveyor of defensive efficiency, rode out numerous French
attacks to end regular play tied at 1-1, then ruthlessly dispatched
five penalty kicks to win the shootout, 5-3, and thus its fourth World
The outcome lingered bitter in the mouths of those fervently wishing
fate would reward France's adventuresomeness, and more sour
still was the sight of Zinedine
Zidane trudging off the field. Ejected for a senseless and
violent head-butt on Italian goalscorer Marco Materazzi,
Zidane eradicated all of his inspirational determination at this World
Cup and in its place rekindled images of the stomp into an
opponent's chest that earned him a two-match suspension at
the 1998 competition.
In that tournament, he returned in time to score twice in the final and
hoist the trophy. No such redemption could he find Sunday.
Zidane departed with 10 minutes left in overtime, leaving behind
valiant teammates who had prodded and pushed the Italians, who much
preferred packing a phalanx into their own half of the field and cagily
playing for set pieces. Yet the French goal came on a Zidane penalty
kick awarded for negligible contact between Materazzi and Florent Malouda,
although a second-half crunching of Malouda by Gianluca Zambrotta
probably should have been the one called.
Materazzi hammered one corner kick past Fabien Barthez, and Luca Toni drilled
another off the crossbar. Aside from some penetrating runs by Mauro Camoranesi,
the Italians' endeavor to score is best described as listless.
Only once did Toni get behind the French back line and on that occasion
his shot was blocked. Francesco
Totti might as well have been a fresco for all the effect
he had, and if anything, the late substitutions of attackers Vicenzo Iaquinta and
Alessandro Del Piero
merely preserved the status quo, which was to destroy through
deployment of Gennaro
Gattuso and Andrea
Pirlo in front of a back line expertly anchored by Fabian Cannovaro.
Gattuso not only stormed into tackles and broke up plays, he powered
forward into the penalty area on one occasion and through sheer force
of will generated a Toni shot that Lilian
Thuram deflected. Pirlo served up the corners for
Materazzi and Toni, but otherwise he usually stayed on his own side of
the midfield line.
The French, mindful that their older lineup probably couldn't
survive 30 minutes of extra time, kept coming but seldom did holding
Vieira and Claude
Makelele, fearing counterattacks that rarely arose, overly
commit to the attack. When Vieira suffered a slight muscle pull and
came off, his aerial presence was lost and replacement Alou Diarra tucked
in close to the back line.
With the prompting of Zidane and aided by the running of Thierry Henry, Franck Ribery swooped
up the flanks and took the occasional stint up top to let Henry catch
his breath. Ribery nearly won the Cup for France in the first overtime
by piercing the left side on a one-two only to drill the return pass a
foot wide of the near post. A few minutes later, Zidane met a swerving Willy Sagnol cross
with a fierce header that Gianluigi
Buffon turned over the bar with a spectacular stab of his
Zidane agonized over a near-miss that would have etched a glorious
image befitting his superb career. Instead, his final moment was to be
Five minutes after the teams changed ends in overtime, Zidane and Materazzi exchanged
words in the midfield circle. Zidane turned away, Materazzi said
something else, Zidane stopped, turned and viciously drove his forehead
into Materazzi's chest. The Italian fell heavily, Italian
players swarmed referee Horacio
Elizondo and, after he'd consulted with
assistant Dario Garcia,
who'd already been upbraided by Buffon and defender Fabio Grosso, the
red card came out.
Italy had the man advantage for the final 10 minutes but no inclination
to score. Coach Marcello
Lippi had piled on attackers in the semifinal against
Germany, fearful of losing a penalty-kick showdown to the host, but
kept it tight this time in the knowledge that Henry, Ribery, Vieira and
Zidane were out of the shootout.
Zidane had chipped his first-half penalty kick off the underside of the
crossbar and it landed barely a foot clear of the line. Substitute David Trezeguet,
Ribery's replacement, wasn't so lucky; he smashed
France's second shootout attempt off the bar and it came down
on the line before bouncing out.
Italy held its nerve and Grosso concluded a remarkable story by
slamming kick number five past a flailing Barthez.
Ravaged by a corruption scandal back home that threatens their club
status, Italy's players can be commended for their often
stylish play, though their abandonement of it in the final tainted
their triumph. Ten different players scored their 12 goals in the
competition, Gattuso and Cannavaro were exemplary throughout the
tournament, and Lippi set aside his own personal troubles --
his son Davide
is among those investigated - to adroitly prepare his team
for every game.
A four-game suspension took Daniele
De Rossi out of the lineup until the final, and an injury
to stalwart defender Alessandro
Nesta necessitated the inclusion of Materazzi, whose own
suspension was filled by Andrea
Barzagli. Their tactics in the final frustrated neutrals
yet nothing will stem the celebrations in their home country
and Italian communities around the world. Thousands of cars
buzzed the streets around the Olympic Stadium and the streets of
Berlin, flags fluttering, horns honking, fists pumping into the night
For France, the dream ending turned horrific, with the sight of its
greatest player exiting in shame instead of exaltation. The giant
photograph of him on display in Marseilles, the slums of which he
escaped to find fame and glory, has been forever tinted with an