What a tournament. After weeks and weeks of football action, the end of the road is in sight. It has been a great World Cup in my opinion, and despite the usual run of somewhat negative football in the knockout stages (with teams bunkering down and playing not to lose), the games have lived up to expectations. Yesterday's Italy-Germany semi-final will go down as one of the classic games of the tournament. That game, won by the Italians in the dying moments of extra time after they absorbed and controlled the German attack for 119 minutes, was highlighted by some of the best refereeing we have seen, and it made all the difference in the world. This World Cup may go down as one of the most poorly officiated in history, with yellow and red cards coming fast and furious all tournament long, and controversial calls deciding games (see Italy vs. Australia in the Round of 16).
Yesterday's referee, Armando Archundia of Mexico, did so many good things in calling the match that, in light of some of the terrible decisions throughout the World Cup, it felt startling to see a referee do his job properly. Dives consistently went unrewarded and unpunished; players faking injury on both sides were simply ignored and made to look fools, lying on the pitch clutching their faces. I never thought I would say so, but credit where credit is due; congratulations to Mr. Archundia for allowing us to enjoy a tense, pulsating match between two great teams.
Mellow Yellow: Archundia gives Italy's Mauro Camoranesi what's coming to him
I am no fan of Italian football, but this team look like world beaters. Their constant, tenacious defense (with players working in combination to trap the ball all over the pitch) has been a thing of wonder; there is no doubt in my mind that Fabio Cannavaro and Gianluigi Buffon have been the best players in the entire tournament. Combine that with a ballanced attack that can change the scorline in an instant from almost every position on the field, and you have the makings of a champion. There is no other team that has done what the Italians have accomplished; with 11 goals from 10 different players (Pirlo, Iaquinta, Gilardino, Matterazzi, Inzaghi, Totti, Zambrotta, Toni, Grosso, and Del Piero), Italy is playing amazing team football. There is a certain arrogance about the Italian team, a sense of entitlement that is usually reserved for small, champagne-soaked tables in the cocaine fueled nightclubs on Ibiza, that sets my teeth on edge; a part of me wants to see these whining, diving pretty boys lose. On the other hand, there is no denying they are talented, tough footballers who have taken the team concept to new heights in this tournament. I wish them luck in the final.
A Bolt From The Blue: Grosso Wins It For Italy
Next up is today's match between France and Portugal. Portugal comes into the semifinal after out-boring England on penalties in the quarterfinal, and much to my chagrin, the dirtiest team in international football have a chance to make it to the final. Head-butting, diving, time-wasting, card begging, pushing, winking Portugal have arrived in the semis without much love. At the center of the storm is Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portugese winger and Manchester United show pony who will forever be infamous for demanding that his club teammate Wayne Rooney be sent off in the quarterfinal contest between Portugal and England.
No Honor Among Thieves: Ronaldo Seeks Red For His Club Mate Rooney
There are some players on Portugal that I admire (Pauleta and Simão seem perfectly decent), but the way this team has made its way to the semis, on the back of some pretty dirty gamesmanship, I think most of the world would like to see them lose. And who better to beat them than France and Zinédine Zidane, the greatest player of this generation.
I was living in Washington, DC in 1998 when Zidane delivered the World Cup to then-host nation France. He was a player at the height of his powers, a transcendent performer whose abilities on the ball were matched only by the depth of his humility and burning desire to win both on and off the pitch. I remember watching the final in a DC bar full of Brazilian fans with my friend who supported France, and as Zidane headed two goals past the Brazilian defense, he electrified everyone who loved football that night, including the Brazilians. Last weekend, as France faced Brazil again in the quaterfinal, the heavily favored Brazilians and their playmaking star Ronaldinho were once again humbled by one of the best performances of the tournament as Zidane put France on his back and dazzled his way to victory. It was as if 2002, when France was eliminated in the Group stages without scoring a goal, had never happened. In Sunday's game against Brazil, when Zidane's perfect cross found Thierry Henry alone on the back post for the 1-0 win, the playmaking midfielder cemented his already legendary career by earning a place among the greats; Pelé, Maradona, Zidane. He carries a yellow card, so I can only hope that today's officiating is as controlled as yesterday's or else we might see disappointment in the final.
I am hoping France win again so that we can continue to watch Zidane; an Italy vs. France final would be a great match, one I think the tournament deserves. Even more importantly, Zidane and France represent change in Europe; a "non-practising Muslim" of Algerian descent born in France, he and his teammates showcase a diversity not often found on European national teams. In fact, when right-wing French curmudgeon Jean-Marie Le Pen lambasted this team for not being 'white enough', he may have unified the team, as the enlightened response from defender Lilian Thuram suggests.
As you get ready for the semi-final, here is a look at the master at work. What is the old saying?
Form is temporary, Class is eternal
Let's hope Zizou shows us both tonight.
Zinédine Zidane at work. (Warning: European dance music au fromage may be involved.)