” I spent the afternoon of Sunday, July 9, 2006 in Berlin sleeping and playing the PlayStation. In the evening, I went out and won the World Cup. ” – Andrea Pirlo
This world cup had so many elements repeated from the past world cups it felt at times as if the gods had decided the script by cherry picking some of the best and worst moments in past history. A singular flawed genius dragging his team through to the finals by sheer force of will like Maradona in ’86 and ’90, Italy coming into the world cup on the back of a match-fixing scandal and winning the world cup through some disciplined defence interspersed with flashes of creativity ala ’82, a titanic semi-final between the 2 giants of European football, Italy and Germany, decided in extra time like ’70, a match which devolved from a game of football into a straight up game of brutality like the Battle of Santiago in ’62, some of the world cup’s truly memorable moments had their own versions in 2006.
The 2006 World Cup was an odd one. It was the last world cup for a lot of legendary players and the first world cup for quite of a few of the current stars. Indeed you could name a XI of the players for whom this was the last world cup and it would have been a pretty mean team. This was the last world cup for players like Zidane, Viera, Makelele, Thuram, Totti, Del Piero, Nesta, Inzaghi, Ballack, Kahn, Lehmann, Figo, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Riquelme, Van Der Saar, Van Nistelrooy, Nedved, Raul, Morrientes, Shevchenko etc. while players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi, Rooney, Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Podolski, Van Persie, Sneijder, Robben, Modric, Ribery, Xabi Alonso, Ramos, Fernando Torres, David Villa, Fabregas, etc. were enjoying their first World Cup.
The world cup kicked off with the host nations taking on Costa Rica. The fruits of the dramatic restructuring of their youth setup post EURO 2000 were finally being borne and youngsters like Lahm, Mertesacker, Podolski, Schweinsteiger formed an integral part of the team. Germany easily qualified through their group winning all 3 of their matches. England also went through as group winners despite not beating Sweden again. Argentina and Netherlands got through the so called group of death winning 2 and drawing the match between them. Italy seemed unfazed by the ongoing Calciopoli scandal as they cruised through their group with 2 wins and a draw. However their progress was marred by a 4 match suspension for Daniel De Rossi for a horrific elbow to the face of United States’ Brian McBride. This meant he would directly be eligible to play in the final, missing the last group game, the round of sixteen, quarters and the semis. France squeezed through after winning the last game of their group which Zidane missed through suspension. Spain, Portugal, Brazil all got through their groups easily and reached the knockout stages.
It was in the round of sixteen that the infamous Battle of Nuremburg took place between Netherlands and Portugal, a game unmatched in brutality. A total of 16 yellow cards and 4 red cards were handed out by the referee and Portugal somehow held their nerve to go through. Italy won their match against Australia after a rather controversial penalty earned them a victory deep in injury time. The other big game of this round involved Spain and France. Spain had played well in the group stages and advanced comfortably while France had scraped through. For all intents and purposes Spain were the favourites in the match. Apparently Zidane did not get the memo as he ran the show and topped off his performance by an exquisite finish past his club team-mate Iker Casillas to make the score 3-1.
The quarter finals pitted tournament favourites Argentina against Germany. A tense match was settled via penalty shootout where Lehmann calmly withdrew a piece of paper tucked in his socks before each Argentinean penalty and dove the right way in all 4 saving 2 of them as the South Americans went out. Italy won their quarter final comfortably against Ukraine. Brazil faced off against France in the final quarter final. In Ronaldo, Kaka, Ronaldinho and Adriano Brazil had one of the strongest attacking quartets in the tournament and seemed ready to go and beat France and gain revenge for the ’98 final. In this match Zidane produced one of the greatest individual performances of his career and World Cup history, completely dominating the match.
The match was also famous for being the only time that Henry scored a goal off an assist by Zidane. For a country blessed with one of the best playmakers of his generation one of the best strikers around, Zidane and Henry never really gelled as players.
The semi-final between Portugal and France was a tight affair settled by a Zidane penalty. The other semi-final between Germany and Italy was one of the most intense games of football you will ever see. Some truly cracking chances were created by either side but no goals were scored for 119 minutes. As the match seemed destined for penalties Germany’s insistence on playing attacking football let them down as Italy hit 2 goals on the counter in 119th and 121st minute of extra time to dump the hosts out.
The final showcased the flawed genius that is Zizou. A World Cup final, penalty for his country, he chips the ball and it bounces in off the crossbar. If it had been any other player I would have confidently said that it was luck and that he had mishit the original kick. With this bald genius, there’s a good chance that he purposely hit it onto the cross-bar, just because he could. Materazzi equalized with a header, but the defining moment of the world cup happened in extra time. The reasons for it were and are irrelevant, what matters is that in the last game of his professional career, the mad man that he was, Zidane was sent off for headbutting Marco Materazzi.
And there it was, an illustrious career capped by a notorious moment. Zidane’s sending off took the wind out of France’s sails, and they lost to a rejuvenated Italian side, which claimed their fourth World Cup, their first in 24 years.
While it wasn’t the best World Cup of all time, it certainly had its fair share of memorable moments and magical goals. It is indeed a tragedy that the not-so-passionate football fan remembers it most for the moment in which a passionate footballer, arguably one of the greatest of his generation, lost his temper.