Quite a weekend -- Italy wins at Wembley and Messi's Argentina triumphs in the Maracana

So the Italians are back. Back as the absolute masters of tournament play. The team that always finds a way to do the right thing. That much-needed tying goal against England in the Euro Nations final came from ... who? A center back if you please, Leonardo Bonucci  -- with the decidedly unglamourous stat of having scored a goal only once every 15 games.

Never you mind -- there has always been a lot of the “cometh the hour, cometh the man” about the Italians -- remember Paolo Rossi in 1982? or Andrea Pirlo in 2006? (three Man-of-the-match awards, yet overlooked in the all-tournament individual awards).

So Bonucci got the vital goal, hardly a thing of beauty, but Gianluigi Donnarumma took the player of the tournament award. The goalkeeper -- and that’ll tell you that the Italians still play a basically defensive game.

Or maybe not. Because I feel pretty sure that Donnarumma secured his award by saving the final pair of England’s kicks in the shootout. Which to me is a totally absurd situation. The shootout is not part of the game -- but a horrible excrescence tacked on at the end.

Just how horrible could be seen as Bukayo Saka -- 19 years old -- saw his deciding shot saved. Is it fair, is it human, to saddle one player, a teenager, with the responsibility of losing, not just a game, but a whole tournament, even, as in this case, to have him publicly humiliated as he destroys the extravagant hopes of a whole country? Poor Saka, no way he deserved that, anymore than he should have had to suffer the online racial abuse.

How on earth did he, the least experienced of England’s kickers, come to be taking the crucial fifth kick? There will be a smooth explanation, I suppose, which I don’t want to hear.

The instant that Donnarumma’s save won the trophy for Italy, the reliable English melodramatic mush began. Over and over, we were told that English fans were “heart broken,” that this was a “heart-breaking” way to lose. Those poor English fans.

I could see nothing particularly heart-breaking about the loss. Just like the Italians, the English were back. Back where they have proved for 55 years that they probably belong, as the almost team. I was in Wembley (the old Wembley) in 1966 for the World Cup final. The victory over West Germany, England’s finest hour (though tainted by the famous ball-over-the-goal-line controversy). And since then . . . nothing, just 55 years of never being good enough.

That’s a hell of a long time to keep hope and belief alive, but the English have managed to do that -- right up until last Sunday, when it really did seem that this blind faith was about to be rewarded. England, at last, in a major final again. EURO 2020. And at Wembley. And a rip-roaring start with a goal against Italy after just two minutes. What could go wrong this time?

Oh, just about everything. Super-early goals are far from being the unalloyed prize they seem. OK -- for the team that surrenders the goal -- Italy in this case - they bring stark reality, and a clear objective: to score the tying goal. And it has virtually the whole game to do it.

But for the scoring team, the team with the immediate advantage -- England -- that early goal was more of an albatross than a gift. Soccer has developed over the past decades, into a low-scoring sport. Goals are not plentiful. 1-0 games abound. So too do the wretched 0-0 ties.

Soccer’s official response to this clear trend has been utterly pathetic. In fact there has been no real response, no attempt to tweak the rules, or to make major changes, to encourage goalscoring.

FIFA, and the hopelessly inadequate IFAB, have simply accepted the low scores and the increasingly dour games they produce. As for the problem of getting a result when 0-0 and 1-1 games crop up so often -- well, you know the sport’s answer: the shootout.

If we can’t get real goals to decide a game, then we’ll have a dopy coda to the tied games, complete with synthetic goals. That’s where the sport is. Now, there’s something to feel heart-broken about.

England, burdened with that early goal, dithered. To go all-out for the second, surely decisive goal? Or to play it safe? Take no risks and rely on the undoubtable fact that plenty of games end 1-0.

So we got an indecisive England against a determined Italy. The indecision seemed to infect even the shootout. Those last two kicks mirrored England’s game performance -- a lack of accuracy (too close to the keeper), and indecision -- both were struck without conviction, not hit hard enough. The game stats make it clear that the Italians were the team that was trying to make things happen.

A final thought on the game. I’m allowed to wonder what the English reaction would have been had they won. I’m sure of one thing, the losing Italians would not have been sympathetically described as “heart-broken”. They would have been “gutted.” Betcha.

The day before all those hearts were broken and, presumably, tears were shed, we saw Argentina win the South American title. At last, Lionel Messi, as captain, has won a major title with the national team.

Nobody, I’m sure, will begrudge him that honor, though the sad truth was that he had little impact on this game. Messi in Argentine colors remains a pale shadow of the Barcelona Messi.

I found the game itself to be in the “not bad” category -- which, frankly, is not good enough for these two famous teams. This should have been a festival of all that is best in South American soccer.

It was far from that. The winning goal (yes, this was a 1-0 game) from Angel Di Maria was a beauty -- a long raking pass, an awkwardly bouncing ball that Di Maria controlled with sublime grace before, on the run, smoothly, almost gently, lobbing the ball perfectly over the Brazilian goalkeeper.

There were other moments of virtuoso individual skill. But not enough, not the way it used to be down there. In this column, some 10 years ago, I asked “How much longer can South American soccer last?” I was worrying about the way that European clubs were snapping up -- at ever-younger ages -- the South American stars.

That process has surely reached a climax -- with this final being seen by many as Messi vs Neymar, the two biggest names, both of whom play in Europe. Which is merely the tip of the iceberg -- 20 of the 22 players who started the final play for European clubs.

As for the coaches -- Brazil’s Tite, has no Euro connections at all, while Argentina’s Lionel Scaloni’s 20-year playing career was spent mostly in Spain and Italy.

It is quite impossible that such an overwhelming Euro presence does not bring with it a Euro-influenced approach to the game.

I feel quite certain that I see that influence at work in the current Brazil and Argentina teams. No, I don’t like it. Those two teams, the cream of the South American crop, produced a final low on individual player brilliance -- once a sure-fire element in all such teams. The deadening encroachment of tactics and systems is making itself felt.

15 comments about "Quite a weekend -- Italy wins at Wembley and Messi's Argentina triumphs in the Maracana".
  1. George Vecsey, July 16, 2021 at 3:20 p.m.

    Paul, I just had the thought that in the old European wars, the side that was about to lose would empty the military academies and send teen-agers to the front. Sort of what Southgate did. 
    At least when Italy lost in 1994, it lost with injured mainstays Baresi and Baggio. 

    For the World Cup in 2022 (maybe), I want to hear at least one game broadcaster without an English accent -- somebody who knows other myths, other realities. (I'm not talking about the studio babble. You could take the egomaniac louts in Major League Baseball pre-game shows and put them on soccer studio duty. Same differeence.) 

    Finally, regarding Brazil-Argentina, you refer to the Messi of Barca. I know that guy - -the one with Andres Iniesta setting him up.  

  2. Peter Bechtold replied, July 16, 2021 at 10:32 p.m.

    GV: I escaped to the Latin language broadcast on UNIVISION,if only to avoid Taylor Twellman who ruins any match,for me, with his incessant babble and interruptions.
    How Ian Darke and Jon Chapman put up with him is beyond me.
    PS:I remember fondly your writings; stay well.PB

  3. Tom Mara replied, July 17, 2021 at 8:54 a.m.

    Peter, like you I either turn off the sound or watch the spanish station when Twellman is doing the commentary. Who said "an empty vessel makes the loudest noise". Re: Paul Gardner's article, what game was he watching? Italy played attracting football and England played ugly "kick and run" not to lose football. Re: Southgate's player selection?? 

  4. beautiful game replied, July 17, 2021 at 2:28 p.m.

    Iniesta et al did set-up goals for Messi on hundreds of occasions. That "guy" scored the goals on most of the set-ups.

  5. Ric Fonseca replied, July 26, 2021 at 4:51 p.m.

    GV:  Thank for your comment about not having to hear a tv futbol soccer commentatror without an English accet.  Curiously, I believe it was yesterday, while watching an Olympic futbol match (with all the sports being shown almost every hou) what seemed to be an American announcer, well his description of the match was OK, but THEN.... lo and behold, an English accent was heard, the sad aspect of this is that I couldn't make out the blokes description of the game, as all I heard was dabble-babble, oy, mate, etc.  Then on NBC's daily broadcast, I was shaken in my sandlas to hear yet another English accented voice, that made me wonder: heck, doesn't NBC have any sports broadcasters, that is to say, US trained, male or female?  Why do we have to be bombarded with an English accented broadcasting?  This is almost akin to sending our players to Europe (mind you, mostly not to Latin america or Africa) but to the likes of Germany, England, and not give them a chance to show their wares in the MLS (conversely, have MLS teams recruit from South america and then cry in their beers saying there aren't that many home grown skilled players?  Ya know pilgrims, this argument was valid say twnty-five years ago, golly gee, I remember folks from the higher soccer circles that it would take the US about 20 years to finally produce skilled-talented players - in the later '70s and into the '80s... Go figure! 

  6. Kent James, July 16, 2021 at 3:55 p.m.

    I think PG has gotten things mostly spot-on in this column.  The early goal was an albatross (I was actually surprised England attacked as much as they did, though that lessened over time).  PK shootouts are the worst, with someone usually "losing" the game, half the time simply because the keeper guessed correctly against them, while their keeper didn't guess correctly.  

    Two things worth trying; to get more goals (but not too many), make the goals bigger (I'd suggest a foot higher, a yard wider; 9'x9 yds).  Instead of PKs, have kickers shoot from farther out (18 yd line, or maybe top of the penalty arc).  Then the keeper would save all but the absolute best shots (and the keeper would not need to guess), so that a great shot would win it rather than a weak one losing it.  Heroes instead of goats.  

    As for the Brazil-Argentina game, I think the problem was too much passion, not European-style playing.  There were a lot of bad touches, bad passes (the field didn't look like it was in great condition), players hitting each other (and pretending they'd been hit...).  Not what you'd hope from two teams as skillful as Brazil and Argentina, but very intense, so that made it compelling viewing.  If only Messi had not slipped on that final break away (incredible pass to set it up), but at least his failure on that play did not prevent a victory (that would have been too tragic).

  7. beautiful game replied, July 16, 2021 at 5:57 p.m.

    I would suggest up to five substitutions in an overtime to settle tournaments would result in far  fewer PK decisions. As for the FIFA's decision to bend just about every LOTG rule in order to avoid stoppages gives every advantage to the defense, i.e, off-the-ball fouling rarely punished, free kick 10-yard rule with defenders a couple yards away from the ball, never enforced, etc. A caution for a tactical foul is mostly enforced in the latter stages of the game and dismissed otherwise. So why is the playing field tilted in favor of the defense? Some policy-maker decided that stoppages slow-down the action on the pitch and fouling is to be overlooked under most circumstances irregardless that it benefits defenses. 

  8. George Kauffman, July 16, 2021 at 7:10 p.m.

    I was Director of Soccer for Pennsylvania's Keystone Games for over twenty years (Pennsylvania's Olympics.) I detested penalty shootouts, and from the beginning we ended the game on the field. Sudden death, decrease to seven players on the field, no one could use their hands in goal, no offsides. Teams had to play good defense and not foul because a foul would mean a direct kick generally, and no defender could use their hands. Once in a while it happened and i saw players head the ball out of the goal sometimes. Use of hands was a penalty kick and red card if deemed intentional.
    Some people didnt like it, but it worked well. The games usually finished in ten minutes or so. We had maybe two go a second period. I thought it was much more exciting and it WAS decided ON THE FIELD.

  9. Kent James replied, July 18, 2021 at 1:53 p.m.

    No hands in goal is an interesting way to make it easier to score; I like it.  Maybe start by restricting where the keeper can use his hands to the 6 yd box for 15 minutes, then go to the no hands at all.  

  10. Tim Schum, July 17, 2021 at 4:30 a.m.

    Nice recap. In relation to the early English goal I never heard anybody reference the pk awarded the great Dutch team in the ‘74 WC and how that ended playing out. Though the Dutch did not try to run the clock out. In relation to changing the rules to encourage more offense I advocate that unless a player is completely behind the last defender that individual is onside. This nose, fingernail business is absurd! Every sport adjusts when an element (attack/defense) is out whack. Except soccer.

  11. beautiful game replied, July 17, 2021 at 9:49 a.m.

    Daylight between players shoould determine off-sides, makes sense.

  12. Santiago 1314 replied, July 18, 2021 at 1:05 a.m.

    I like it Tim..
    How about EVERY Hand(Arm)Ball is a Free Kick... 
    This Letting the Referee Decide if He is going to Call a Foul, when the Ball is clearly "Manipulated" by the "Hand", makes FOOTBALL look Stupid to Outsiders...
    It's the Only thing they know... "You can't use your Hands in Soccer.!!!"
    The Only Decision the Ref should make is:
    Intentional = Direct FreeKick
    UN-Intentional = IN-Direct Freekick
    We would see a lot of those Interesting "Laboratory" Set Pieces in front of Goal.!!!
    Too many Times Refs won't Blow their Whistle, because it's an "All or Nothing" PK... But, I Bet he would call it, if He had another Option. 

  13. Wooden Ships, July 17, 2021 at 10:46 a.m.

    Don't change the game. I watched both, very happy for the Azzurri and for Argentina. Agree with Paul that all the over thinking of systems and tactics has influenced the South American game, style. Unfortunate! Widening the goals, shooting from the 18, run of play until a score, all nonsense. PK's have their own drama, which I sit on the edge of my seat watching. Offside use to be the torso. VAR, nitpicking on referee calls incessantly, let players play, let referees ref, overcome whatever injustices you feel have occurred and be better. Fans (non players) stay out of it, either watch and appreciate as well as agonise, or find some other activity to watch. As Rambo said "Let it go, let it go."

  14. Greg Gould, July 19, 2021 at 1:41 a.m.

    I like all the PK alternatives being thrown out here. For me all are worth trying and I feel like any would be better and more appropriate than the gimmicky PKs we have now. 

  15. David Ruder, July 26, 2021 at 4:03 p.m.

    Over the years, Italian National Teams always reminded me of the kid who punches you in the ribs while walking to the next class in a crowded hallway and then pointing his finger at another guy.

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