Not for the first time, the World Cup Final, which was won by Italy on penalties after a 1-1 tie, was a disastrous advertisement for soccer in America. But that was the least of its problems, starting with the fact that the more enterprising team lost and France's Zinedine Zidane, the most distinguished player on the field, ended his career in disgrace. There will be much speculation as to why exactly he decided to head-butt Italy's Marco Materazzi in the chest -- an act of astonishing, jaw-dropping viciousness -- and rumors that it was the result of Materazzi's race-baiting him are already swarming the Internet. (Which is no reason to believe them.) Whatever the cause, it was an act of utter stupidity coming from such an experienced athlete. Nor is it the only black mark on Zidane's World Cup career. He was red-carded early in the 1998 tournament after stamping on a Saudi Arabian player, and he was suspended for the third match of this year's competition after collecting two yellow cards in the group stage. Zidane has a temper and it seems to flare up with particular venom in international competition.
One of the peculiarities of the match was that Italy, the younger side and with a day's extra rest, came out after half-time looking utterly exhausted. They were marginally the better of the two teams for the first 45 minutes, but after that they were clearly outplayed, though they hit the bar and had what appeared to be a legitimate goal ruled offside. There were occasional sparks of lively soccer, but the abiding image of the game, aside from Zidane imitating a goat, was of players lying on the field clutching their ankles, heads, shoulders and legs and rolling around in agony. France's opening goal came from an undeserved penalty (though they were later denied a penalty they did deserve), and perhaps that set the tone for a match that turned increasingly sour, culminating in the French captain's astonishing over-time meltdown. Ironically, just minutes earlier, Zidane nearly headed home what would surely have been the winning goal, following a neatly worked move he'd started. Only the outstretched fingertips of Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon's foiled him, pushing the ball over the bar. Had it gone in, Zidane would have closed out his career as one of France's great heroes. Instead, he wound up on the losing side, and remained in the dressing room while the rest of his team collected their second-place medals. A sad and very strange end to a career that has given millions so much pleasure. At his peak, Zidane was one of the most graceful players ever to touch a football, and far more of an "artist" than many people who make their livings in white-walled galleries. Yet his ultimate act, witnessed by over a billion people, was one of stunning brutality.
As for Italy, they offered little of the brio they displayed in their terrific semi-final win over hosts Germany. A World Cup that ends on penalty kicks is inevitably anti-climactic. Couple that with Zidane's disgraceful outburst, the paucity of goals, the endless gamesmanship and diving that marred far too many matches, and you have a World Cup that mostly made a mockery of Nike's "Jogo Bonito" commercials. The best club soccer is a lot more entertaining. So, for that matter, was today's Wimbledon Final.
-- Brendan Bernhard
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