The World Cup generates an entirely different feeling to club football. All the animosity that fuels and creates the excitement of the domestic leagues is forgotten for a month of national unity. Hailed as the pinnacle of a career, and due to its rarity, the international competition is placed in a dimension of untouchability for most players. The daring dream of bringing 30,875 carats of gold back to your homeland. This is what the World Cup offers.
The 2006 World Cup tournament held in Germany remains my personal favourite. I watched every game I could, in the same living room, on the same sofa. It was my first distinct football memory and I have unrivalled nostalgia attached to it. The iconic golden crest on the Azzurri’s winning jersey, R9’s yellow and green Nike Mercurial Vapors when he became the leading World Cup goal scorer, the unavoidable and palpable excitement surrounding England’s ‘golden generation,’ and of course that infamous headbutt.
I recall five iconic matches during this pulsating tournament that captivated my attention 16 years ago.
Czech Republic 3-0 USA (12 June 2006)
Koller 5′, Rosicky 36′, 76‘
Czech Republic. Tomáš Rosický, Pavel Nedvěd and Jan Koller. A team brimming with footballers who symbolised the 2000’s era. This was a clinic of bullet headers and top corner wizardry as the Czechs put the Americans to the sword in Gelsenkirchen.
Koller, the old-school hustle and bustle striker, who wouldn’t look out of place in a heavyweight boxing ring, kick-started the proceedings in the most emphatic fashion. The big, burly and bullish Dortmund striker powered in an unstoppable header for the opener. The 6’8 target man netted 55 goals in 91 appearances for his nation. Criminally underrated, a formidable force in the air and a handful for any centre back, the 2002 Bundesliga winner wheeled away on cloud nine having scored his first ever World Cup goal.
It then became the Rosický show.
The US had fielded their oldest-ever line up in a World Cup match, with an average age of 29 years, and it was obvious as the 25-year-old soon-to-be Arsenal midfielder unleashed hell upon the tired Americans. After a slick Czech passing move, Pavel Nedvěd’s inviting delivery was headed clear to Rosický, who with one touch out of his feet, released a rasping 30-yard thunderbolt that flew past Tim Howard.
The former Ballon D’or winner Nedvěd and Rosický combined at will as they strolled around the pitch. Nedvěd unlocked the American defence with a deliciously weighted through ball that was latched onto by Rosický. Once again, he left Howard with no chance, as he curled his effort out of the despairing reach of the shot-stopper.
It was a ceremonial moment for Czech football, as the 34-year-old Nedvěd was seen to be passing the torch to the up-and-coming Rosický, who sealed a move later that summer to the Premier League.
Argentina 6-0 Serbia & Montenegro (16 June 2006)
Rodriguez 6′, 41′, Cambiasso 31′, Crespo 78′, Tevez 84′, Messi 88‘
Argentina, cheered on by Diego Maradona in the stands, channelled the spirit of his 1986 tournament winning team to produce a mesmerising display. This was a statement of intent from the South American juggernaut, who boasted a stacked squad against the Eastern European minnows.
The chance of an upset was crushed, and it was impossible not to marvel at the imperious attacking show that the Argentines put on in Gelsenkirchen. Javier Saviola and Maxi Rodriguez decorated the wings with penetrating purpose and pace. Juan Román Riquelme’s delicate touches dictated the game. Hernán Crespo, a hybrid of a target man and a classy false nine, whose link-up play allowed his teammates countless opportunities. And finally, the magical and mind-blowing Lionel Messi. During his dazzling 15-minute cameo, he grabbed a goal and an assist to become Argentina’s youngest ever scorer at a World Cup. The global projection of a player who, unbeknownst to everyone at the time, was on the road to become greatest to ever do it.
The pick of the goals was the second, courtesy of Esteban Cambiasso: a 40-second move including nine players and 24 passes executed with the utmost precision. The pedestrian Argentine side moved the ball slowly with a number of short passes. Riquelme, Javier Mascherano and Cambiasso seemed uninterested in moving the ball forward but were plotting their decisive moment of attack. Then on the eighteenth pass, the left back Juan Pablo Sorin received the ball and ignited the most hypnotic of sequences. He fed Saviola, who played an audacious one-two with Riquelme as the ball shifted towards the unmarked Cambiasso. The midfield general found Crespo, who returned the ball with a sumptuous flick, allowing Cambiasso to thunder a venomous drive into the roof of the net to send himself and his teammates into rapture.
An introduction to the lethal potential of tika-taka football, orchestrated with devastating effect.
The opposition assumed the same role as me – simply a spectator. They were chasing shadows and the impossible task of retrieving possession from the diminutive and weaving Argentinians. An air of resignation from a side that succumbed to the breathtaking brilliance of La Albiceleste.
Côte d’Ivoire 3-2 Serbia & Montenegro (21 June 2006)
Dindane 36′ pen, 66′, Kalou 85′ pen; Zigic 10′, Ilic 19′
The first two games are memorable to me purely because of the wondrous attacking displays. The intricate and meticulous craft of the Argentines. The no-nonsense Czech combination of physicality and skill. But in the torrential Munich downpours, the West Africans and Balkans, who were both desperately grappling for their first ever World Cup finals win, conjured up a whirlwind of defensive howlers, retaken penalties, inexplicable handballs and corner flag dancing that left Boubacar Barry praying on his knees for normality to be restored.
Serbia & Montenegro appeared to have exorcised the demons of their Argentine massacre once they raced into a two-goal lead within 20 minutes thanks to the gangly 6’7 frame of Nicola Zigic, who netted their first ever World Cup goal. This then sparked the footballing gods to activate the most absurd 70 minutes, catalysed by a self-sabotage mission from the Balkan centre-back, Milan Dudić.
The first act: A curling cross from Arthur Boka was met by a Christopher Reeve Superman lunge by Dudić, who glided through the German air to pluck the cross out of the sky with his outstretched arm. It gifted a penalty to the Ivorians, which was eventually scored on the second attempt by Aruna Didane after encroachment denied the first. The striker was then at the double, a wonderfully guided header prompted a corner flag dance session with the suspended Didier Drogba – reminiscent of Senegal’s celebrations for their winner against France four years earlier.
The second act: Another Dudić handball. Another penalty. This one was more innocuous but almost criminal, giving that it was his second offence. Barry was on his knees, unable to watch if Bonaventure Kalou could clinch his nation their first world cup win. He gleefully obliged, sending the keeper the wrong way with the dancing ringleader Drogba already waiting at the corner flag for their next routine.
The Ivorians celebrated like they had won the tournament. Their miraculous comeback had everything. A truly breathless encounter. Les Elephants had trampled over the Balkans and handed Henri Michel a sweet departing gift in his farewell to the national team.
Brazil 0-1 France (1 July 2006)
“Zidane is back at his magisterial best,” said John Helm, who was the onlooking commentator and witness of the captain’s phenomenal quarter-final performance.
Zizou had announced his retirement from international football in 2004 after France’s shock exit from the European Championship, but his 2006 remontada reached its peak in this outing, as he incessantly teased and bullied Brazil for 90 minutes. Turns, checks, spins, pirouettes, drag backs, flicks. The full catalogue of his artistry on display as his vision, raw ability and seemingly effortless persona meant he coasted around the pitch to produce one of the most elegant and eye-catching performances in World Cup history.
From the beginning, Zidane set out on a merciless mission to dismantle and embarrass the reigning world champions. His impudent drag back away from Zé Roberto followed by quick step-overs to manoeuvre past the onrushing Gilberto Silva set the tone for a forgettable evening for the midfield pairing.
The great Ronaldo was the next victim. In his efforts to track back, the irrepressible Zizou nonchalantly flicked the ball over the retreating striker before he headed the ball to Eric Abidal. That skill doesn’t sound the most thrilling, but personified football in its simplest and most satisfying form. His beautifully lofted free kick set up Thierry Henry for a clean side-footed volley which was the deciding goal of the affair.
He made Brazil’s star-studded team look like amateurs. To emerge from a match containing 22 of the world’s elite in such a superior light indicated the unbelievable genius of Zizou. The French skipper’s brilliance rippled through his compatriots. Raymond Domenech deployed a 4-2-3-1 formation, anchored by the athleticism of the imposing Patrick Viera and the ruthlessly efficient Claude Makélélé. Zizou, who occupied his trademark number 10 position, was supported by the blistering speed of Franck Ribery and Florent Malouda on the wings.
Brazil was toothless. Kaká, Ronaldinho and Ronaldo were anonymous in Frankfurt. Les Bleus, who had laboured perilously through the group stage, were marching through the knockouts in style.
Italy 1-1 France: Italy win 5-3 on pens (9 July 2006)
Materazzi 19′; Zidane 7′ (pen)
Marco Materazzi sat down with AS to discuss the final:
“He had scored France’s goal in the first half and our coach [Marcello Lippi] told me to mark him. After that first brush between us, I apologised but he reacted badly. After the third clash, I frowned, and he retorted: ‘I’ll give you my shirt later.’ I replied that I’d rather have his sister than his shirt.”
The two goal scorers of the final clashed in the 110th minute. Materazzi lay on the floor, clutching his chest in agony. Zidane stood over him, emotionless and empty. The Italians then swarmed the referee, Horacio Elizondo, who reached into his pocket, pointed at the guilty French captain, and brandished a red card.
He had forged the perfect script for his teammates to pounce on.
After 64 matches and 147 goals, the 2006 World Cup was ultimately decided by the dark arts of Materazzi and his cheap shot at Zizou’s sister. Tempting a nailed-on penalty taker into a mindless headbutt, and a subsequent dismissal, ten minutes before the deciding shootout for football’s most coveted prize was a stroke of wind-up genius.
Watching on, it unfolded in slow motion in front of my eyes. The normally composed attacking midfielder had indulged in a moment of unspeakable madness that derailed his side’s World Cup dream. It was deeply sad to watch a disheartened Zidane – arguably France’s most talented player – trudge down the tunnel, departing the international stage in such desperate circumstances. In that moment, his impeccable knockout performances and outrageous ‘Panenka’ penalty that had given his side the lead, did nothing to soften the unforgettable memory of his depressing exit from the Olympiastadion. In a glittering career that amassed nothing but admiration, his antics in extra-time of the final remain the only regrettable action from a near-perfect footballer.
Materazzi was involved in everything. He had conceded the penalty for France’s opener, but he then levelled the score with a towering header. He was the antagonist for Zizou’s red, then coolly slotted away Italy’s second penalty to rub salt in his opponent’s deep and bleeding wound. France, shaken by Zizou’s dismissal, faltered at the final hurdle.
To lose on penalties is always excruciating – it can make any player lose composure in a fleeting surge of anxiety. David Trezeguet, who scored the ‘golden goal’ in France’s Euro 2000 final victory over Italy, was the victim on this occasion. His powerful penalty cannoned off the crossbar and was the only miss. The Italians masterminded a faultless shootout performance as Fabio Grosso dispatched the winning penalty.
I will always remember the reaction of French goalkeeper Fabian Barthez, who knelt down against the goal post, staring desolately into the distance whilst the Azzurri flooded the pitch in ecstasy.