MAHONEY: Italian pragmatism reigns supreme

By Ridge Mahoney
In Berlin

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 Cup.
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 midfielders Patrick 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 right glove.
Zidane agonized over a near-miss that would have etched a glorious image befitting his superb career. Instead, his final moment was to be ignominious.
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 sky.
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 infernal glow.

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