This Sunday, the torment of those indifferent to soccer will come to an end. The World Cup final match between Italy and France will close a month-long tournament that has been surprising for being so unsurprising. And those Americans who care will again ponder why soccer, so pervasive in their suburban communities, seems only to bring the United States misery in international competition.
The fact that two European sides will be competing for gold provides a partial answer. The United States team had heart, fine physical form, and talent, but it was playing in the tactical dark ages, courtesy of its coach, Bruce Arena, who after seven years at the helm must resign. Loyalty to Arena is admirable, but not when his team lost two games and managed to tie a third thanks to Italy's team accidentally scoring in its own goal. The U.S. probably needs a European at the helm who can blend disciplined tactics (read, an ability to enforce boring defensive soccer) with the speed and liveliness with which American teams have become associated—and which helped take the U.S. to a (generous) No. 5 FIFA ranking before the World Cup finals began.
That the U.S. went down like a burning zeppelin was no anomaly in a tournament where really only the favorites did well. Of the eight top-seeded teams in the first round, all from Europe or South America, just one failed to win its group. France finished second behind Switzerland, forcing it to take the hard road to the final via Spain, Brazil, and Portugal. In that sense, Germany 2006 was a disappointment for those who thought the 2002 tournament in Japan and South Korea had signaled the arrival of teams from Asia and Africa. Only Ghana and Australia made it to round two in Germany, and promptly lost.
The World Cup may have been a blessing to soccer powerhouses, but it was also a severe leveler of egos. Brazil came in so favored to win that it seemed a competition was unnecessary. Archivists will recall that similar resignation greeted the Brazilian team of 1982, which was beaten by Italy and is now considered, arguably, the most dazzling side to have gone nowhere. Similarly, England was listed as a front-runner this year, but died on penalties in the quarter finals. Once the games began, Argentina, the Czech Republic and Spain were abruptly elevated to serious-contender status; Argentina alone made it to the quarter finals.
As a flip side to this coin, the World Cup will also be remembered as the triumph of the submarines—those teams not expected to do well, but that suddenly surfaced to find themselves in the semi-finals. Italy, France, and Portugal were largely ignored by professional prognosticators before the games began, and for a time after. The French were said to be too old, the Italians too mired in a domestic soccer scandal, the Portuguese too used to unfulfilled promise, to be taken seriously. Even Germany, despite home-field advantage, was little fancied by bookmakers to go all the way.
There was another message here: age made a difference, with older players performing decisively in their teams' successes. Of the final four, Italy and France were initially eyed with misgiving because they had an abundance of thirty-somethings in their squads. Certainly the French looked tired in the early matches, and much of the blame was directed at the 34-year-old midfielder Zinedine Zidane, who, it was said, no longer had 90 minutes of soccer in his legs. Except that it was Zidane who, for 90 minutes, led France to a stunning victory over Brazil in the quarter finals.
Even Portugal, years ago hailed, mistakenly, as the shape of soccer's future because of its glut of young stars, found itself within sight of the finals only after those youths had taken on a few years. But the moral of the tournament was not simply that experience helped; it was that the finalists benefited from shrewd admixtures of experience and youthful impulsiveness. How revealing it was that a young Fabio Grosso scored the goal carrying Italy into the final; yet that two minutes later, 32-year-old Alessandro del Piero struck a second goal, for the old timers' sake.
Germany 2006 reaffirmed how the World Cup is built on lasting jinxes and eerie coincidences. The Brazilians can't seem to beat the French; the Germans can't beat the Italians; the English can't win their second cup, or the Spaniards and Dutch their first. When shadowed by scandal, Italy reaches the final, though Brazil still can't secure a trophy in Europe. The Saudis, for all the money they throw at soccer, remain abysmal at the game, while the African teams, for all the money they cannot throw at the game, invariably show there is plenty of talent to be plundered by world-class teams.
Africa's entry into world soccer is the big untold story of the last decade in the sport. Whether it was Ivory Coast, Togo, or Ghana in Germany 2006, many of their players were familiar to aficionados, where they would have been unknown a few years ago. Emigration to more professional soccer climes is the way to salvation for any country looking to improve, particularly the U.S. If there is a realm where globalization has noticeably raised standards worldwide, it is soccer. The sport may yet be a bastion of nationalism ("a parody of conflict that constantly hovers on the edge of chaos," to quote writer Tim Parks), but it is also a good reason not to take autarchic nationalism seriously.
With that in mind, who will win the tournament? France has had the better of the more recent World Cup encounters against Italy, in 1986 and 1998, but the past may be irrelevant here. After losing to France in 1998, and again in 2000 in a heartbreaking European championship final, the Italians pragmatically began recruiting Frenchmen into their clubs. The final will be a bout between familiar enemies. My bet is on Italy winning by a margin of 2-1.