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World Cup Diary

The France-Italy final could have been gastronomy on grass. It was burnt toast instead, summing up the entire tournament: uneven, mostly dull, stupidly violent, poorly refereed, dismally low scoring, and decided by football’s equivalent of a United Nations Security Council resolution. Penalty shots as decider should never figure in competitive play. Better replay the match a day or two hence, or return to some form of golden goal beyond the thirty minutes of extra time, or eliminate one player from each side every so many minutes to open up the game, also substituting in fresher legs with each withdrawal: If the first-stringers can’t do it, give the bench a whack at it. Anything but penalties. Brazil’s penalty-shootout victory at the Rose Bowl in 1994, at the end of a 0-0 draw with Italy, was more a Vegas crap-shoot than a triumph. Italy’s victory Sunday wasn’t even that, though winning by default should seem perfectly familiar to an Italian team sidled by corruption born of crooked wins. A few more goals might have saved this World Cup from clean-sheet stupor, but Italy’s presence tends to be a chronicle of tedium foretold: the lowest-ever goal average (2.2) was recorded when Italy hosted in 1990. Italy’s win this year caps the second-lowest average, at 2.3.

And Sunday? The French played better throughout. The Italians looked spent and undeserving. Until Zidane’s header the French had the winning goal dancing around their cleats. I’m not of course referring to the header the fabulously named Gianluigi Buffon miraculously saved in the 105 th minute, when Zidane smashed a cross from Willy Sagnol for what looked like a certain goal, but the one that transformed him from prince to thug in a moment that will define this World Cup as infamously as Diego Maradona’s “hand of god” goal defined the 1986 cup in Mexico City’s Aztec Stadium, when Argentina eliminated England in a quarterfinal match and went on to win it all (its second and last time). The difference is this: Maradona followed his 50th minute fraud in the “Malvinas II” match with what to this day is considered one of the greatest goals ever scored—his fabulous run from his own end through trench after trench of English defenders and gravity’s elbows before demoralizing Peter Shilton and finding the net. Beyond that, Maradona continued his run all the way to the podium.

Zidane for all his alleged class failed in every respect at his 110 th minute felony, willing his team to failure. His smash of the chest of Marco Materazzi, a class-A thug in his own right, was as craftily pre-meditated and dead-on as Zidane’s greatest passes. Whatever they may be, his excuses can’t (or shouldn’t) stand up no matter how loving the messages projected to Zidane on the Arc de Triomphe Sunday night. “The Paris-based anti-racism advocacy group SOS-Racism issued a statement Monday,” the Associated Press was reporting on Monday, “quoting ‘several very well informed sources from the world of football’ as saying Materazzi called Zidane a ‘dirty terrorist.’” What of it? Of course it’s a crass insult. And maybe I’m not too sensitive to it because my Lebanese skin and occasional chin bristles get me that moniker once in a while. But there’s a bit of a distance between the words of an idiot and sternum-busting violence. But let’s not assume too much of Zidane’s ornaments of faith in fair play or sensitivities about Arab or Berber matters. This is the man who drew a two-game suspension in 1998 for stomping the hell out of Fouad Amin, the Saudi Arabian captain in a similarly out-of-nowhere burst. Amin, too, is said to have insulted Zidane.

Besides, NASCAR aside, since when has football been anything less than the most bigoted sport on the planet? “[T]he English and Italians developed the tradition of making ape noises when black players touched the ball,” Franklin Foer tells us (in How Soccer explains the World). “The Poles toss bananas on the field.” Racism is the calling cards of clubs like Saint-Germain, Red Star Belgrade, “and almost half the teams in Italy.” Chelsea’s hooligan fans travel to Nazi concentration camps to admire Hitler and play sieg heil. Jean-Marie Le Pen has been insulting the French team’s immigrant DNA for sport for years, singling out Zidane to specify his Algerian genesis, as if it was a self-evident denigration to the French bien-pensants, and managing a free kick smack on Zidane’s father’s honor. We’ve yet to know of a Zidane head-butt against Le Pen’s sternum, though that one would be a hell of a lot more tolerable, and somewhat admirable, than the one he inflicted on fellow-goon Materazzi. So back in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, Zidane walked, jogged, turned, set himself and fired, disqualifying himself from the looming penalty shoot-out. And this is, in Thierry Henry’s words, “the guy we can always count on, the one who really takes control.” One good thing to come out of the thing is FIFA’s apparent first-ever use of instant replay as part of a match’s refereeing. Let’s home it’s the beginning of a long and beautiful habit.

You can’t have sixty-four matches and not, even in the worst circumstances, stumble on gems. Germany’s resurgence as an attacking power in the one place where their attacking style is a gust of fresh air was a joy to see, so were those young and bullish Spaniards in their first two games, before they proved to be the tournament’s premature self-ejectors. The Argentines have never been a personal favorite, but you have to admire their sheer brazenness with the ball. Among the few other good things we can look forward to, based on this year’s display, are the crop of hugely entertaining African teams that should form a core of discovery at the South Africa edition of the 2010 Mundial. Too bad we can’t say the same for the American team, which looked like a bunch of overconfident Yankees (as in new York Yankees) meeting their match, say, in Kansas City, and deserving every bit of it. The disarray of the American team has nothing promising about it. My greatest goal is that Nelson Mandela doesn’t kick-off before the 2010 Mundial does. He’ll be 92 if he makes it that far, though chances are, if he does, he could still outwit even the golden-shoed wiles of Arjen Robben. As exuberance goes, South Africa is bound to please.

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