After two tournaments of Senegal vs. Turkey and Portugal vs. Greece, the world breathed a sigh of relief as the 2006 World Cup, utterly short of surprises, featured heavyweight showdown after heavyweight showdown, all of which ended with inescapable consequences and scars that would last for years, as such rare and vital encounters should. There was so much trauma to sort through after Zidane’s headbutt, Grosso’s last-minute goal, Argentina’s failure to put Messi on the field against Germany, Zidane’s bullying of a completely complacent Brazil and Portugal’s bloody pitched battle against Holland that no one noticed the lack of attacking and goals in this World Cup.
The 2006 World Cup turned out to be a sort of valedictory tour, one last rehashing of the old, encapsulated by Zinedine Zidane rebounding to win the Golden Ball in the last matches of his career after having done comparatively little over the previous two seasons. All of the main showdowns between 1998 and 2004 were repeated in this tournament, whose results were eerily duplicated to the letter of their original matches, except without as much skill this second time. France again defeated Spain and once again jubilantly against all expectations defeated Brazil, again eliminated Portugal in a semi-final on a Zidane penalty and again found Italy waiting in the final, where after 90 minutes the score was again 1-1. Portugal again beat England on penalties and again eliminated Holland on a Maniche thunderbolt. The one exception was the final, whose result was reversed but similarly featured the original protagonist, David Trezeguet, who became the fall guy.
Germany risk ‘their’ tournament on something new
For the future, the biggest story was the rebirth of Germany on their home turf. Germany had for long decades played in the shadow of their battling win over Holland in 1974, grim, strong, getting it done by believing themselves superior, mechanically winning their penalty shootouts, not classically exciting, sometimes worthy of respect but quite unlovable. But the old ways were no longer working, so the entire German organisation was revamped around the turn of the century, bottom-up throughout the country. As around the Mediterranean, the focus would now be on ball control and intelligence rather than strength and endurance.
German football would soon take on a new set of characteristics, the opposite ones of yesteryear: they would be terrific entertainers, goals aplenty, but for whatever reason would be unable to take it all the way to the title at both club and national level. (Meanwhile the hitherto entertainers Holland, in a fascinating double reversal, would now adopt the old Germanic outlook that a winning end now justified any gritty, sometimes violent means.) Whatever Germany’s new foibles, the nation would finally fall back in love with its national team.
The new Germans were led by a refugee from the stolid 2002 team but who really represented the new fast moving, multicultural Germany: Miroslav Klose, who would win the Golden Boot here. He was a consistent scorer for Germany for more than a decade, intelligently able to pop up in the right place at the right time, prolific in the air, becoming the highest total goal scorer in the history of World Cup competition with sixteen strikes. The most important one was in the quarter-final against the favourites for the tournament Argentina, for whom Maxi Rodriguez had scored the most preposterous control and volley winner from thirty metres out in the previous round, the goal of this or most other World Cups. It was ten minutes from time and Germany trailed 0-1 when Klose headed in Borowski’s fine-touch headed assist. The standoff then continued to the shootout, when Germany proved that not all of their old ways had been revamped. Jens Lehmann’s list of Argentine penalty takers in his sock became famous, and after his two saves he gave long rival and now understudy Oliver Kahn a for-the-cameras cuddle.
Italy’s generation comes together for one tournament
The semi-final turned out to be, if not quite epic, at least the most intense showdown of near-equals of the most recent World Cups. Germany faced Italy, whose backline had proven quite invincible. The usual suspects Buffon in goal and the classic defenders Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta had begun the tournament, but the injured Nesta was replaced by the taller, slightly more fallible but also goal-scoring defender Marco Materazzi, who would score two vital headers from corners at Germany 2006. The mobile Gianluca Zambrotta was on the right (who also opened the quarter-final with a goal), and on the left was the most unlikely player to ever single-handedly decide a World Cup.
Fabio Grosso was a twenty-seven year old journeyman left-back who played for Palermo. In his guise as an occasional attacker down the left wing he would directly come through with the three biggest moments of Italy’s do-or-die matches. His dribble, taking out one and a half defenders, would win a penalty in the last minute against Australia for Italy to emerge alive from a fraught, one-man down battle for survival, but more was to come as the tournament became a tightrope. He would score the penalty that won the World Cup for Italy, arguably the single most important kick of a ball ever among the trillions of times anyone has ever touched a football on this planet. That summer he was transferred to Inter and the world appeared his oyster, but six months later he was back out on loan in France and a journeyman he remained.
Germany, backed by its crowd, and Italy in the first semi-final stood up to each other like heavyweight champions with few chances to score. But when the goalless match entered extra time Italy went for it, ending up with four forwards on the field, perhaps mindful of Germany’s unbeatable penalty shootout record. Sub forward Gilardino rolled a slow finish onto the post, then Zambrotta flew in with a shot that hit the bar. The match then reverted to its previous equilibrium. In the 119th minute, Jens Lehmann saved a shot for a corner kick, and that appeared that until the penalties.
Italy’s tall defenders came up for the corner, but Germany cleared it to the feet of Pirlo at the top of the box. Instead of taking the shot that every other player would have done, he kept the ball at his feet seemingly forever, dodging to the right of two Germans until he was able to pick out a pass inside to Grosso, still in the box. Grosso hit it first-time with his left foot and it curled to the inside of the post, just out of reach.
Grosso sprinted away, repeatedly shaking his head and supposedly saying, “I don’t believe it, I don’t believe it…” until his teammates caught up with him and dragged him into the scrum. He played the rest of the game with a slight smile as he crouched and tried to assume his usual defensive duties against Germany’s dangerous winger David Odonkor, who immediately flew in with a dangerous centre, rescued by a flying header by eventual World Player of the Year Cannavaro. With a few seconds left Italy were able to work the ball down again, Gilardino’s cute reverse pass setting up fellow sub Del Piero’s textbook open-footed finish. The long 0-0 face-off had suddenly finished 2-0.
A dress rehearsal for the distant 2010 World Cup final had occurred in the second round. Portugal eliminated Holland for the second tournament in a row in one of the worst-tempered matches in World Cup history, a record sixteen cards and four reds dished out. It began early when the new Holland, the first tournament of its post-Ajax generation and a group who knew how to get nasty, singled out Cristiano Ronaldo as the potential match winner and took him out, he eventually being too injured from the crunching to continue. The match was as spiteful as a cage fight, completely stop-start to accommodate the various fracases, a match so surreal that I couldn’t take my eyes off it in perverse fascination.
The ugly game was surprisingly decided by a beautiful goal, Ronaldo and Deco working the ball in to Pauleta who provided the back-to-goal assist to Maniche, who sidestepped a defender and ripped it in. Thus most of the match was played in the shadow of Portugal’s 1-0 lead. Portugal, however, had to dig in to survive two separate fifteen-minute periods a man down, Costinha and Deco sent off before Holland twice ‘caught up’.
Portuguese keeper Ricardo denied Dutch forward Kuyt a one-on-one with ten minutes left, but Holland coach Marco Van Basten controversially refused to bring Van Nistelrooy onto the field for personal reasons and Portugal held on. Portugal’s coaching staff, still led by Scolari, celebrated the final whistle like they had won the World Cup. Neither team would make a splash in this World Cup otherwise, notwithstanding Portugal’s minimalist advancement to the semi-finals, but virtually the same thing would happen in the biggest game of all, Holland’s 1-0 loss to Spain in the 2010 final. Stay tuned.
Revival, or complete fluke?
France and Zidane had performed terribly in the group stage and most people expected three-win Spain to end it in the second round. But France played a smooth attacking opening twenty minutes, and after going behind to a penalty neatly tied the match on halftime via new blood Franck Ribery, a player who would shine over the next decade as the secondary star to a Zinedine Zidane or an Arjen Robben but was not able to carry a team solo as he was expected to do for France over the next few tournaments.
As in 2000, the arm wrestle continued long into the second half. If it had come later in the tournament this could have been considered the best match of Germany 2006. It was tight and with few chances, as usual in this World Cup. Spain pressed and France resisted. This was the last knockout match Spain would lose for a decade – in fact, the last knockout match goal Spain would even concede in a decade. They were heavy with midfield stars and a new find, smaller forward David Villa would take Spain to the top in the years to come, but here Spain still lacked that indefinable thing. Their defence wasn’t the airtight entity it would become in 2010 and 2012, and seven minutes from time France’s experienced names came through. Henry won a free kick, Vieira’s free header at the back post was unluckily deflected past an in-position Casillas, and France had somehow won a match they had spent much of on the back foot. In the last minute France were able to work Zidane free and he displayed his usual style, skilled without looking frantic, no rush, to sidestep Carlos Puyol and drill the ball to the uncovered near post.
The Kings die pitifully to the King
Next was the 1998 final rematch, France vs. Brazil. Brazil’s entire tournament thus far had been a monument to complacency. Ronaldo, Adriano, Cafu and Roberto Carlos were all past it but were in the team on their names and past glories. More disconcerting was that world football’s golden boys Ronaldinho and Kaka were not able to take charge when the chips were down. The whole team was sleepwalking through a tournament seemingly custom-made for them, having only woken up once when the younger, hungrier B team played their dead match against Japan.
France and Zidane wound back the clock. Zidane popped up here and there to occasionally provide frustration to Brazil, flicking the ball over their heads, pivoting 360 around them, slipping passes out to teammates. He probably won his Golden Ball based on the hype of this one match. In the first half France imposed themselves. Ronaldinho, who had started the game wearing a headband with an R on it, “ditched the superhero shtick at halftime when he realised he was involved in an actual match,” as Paul Marshall put it.
Twelve minutes into the second half came perhaps the moment of the World Cup. Shortly after Zidane had pulled another of his moves to leave an opponent biting dust, France won a free kick on the left. Zidane’s free kick sailed over the pack to a free Henry on the right, who soared into the air and guided home an unstoppable airborne volley.
Zidane had finally delivered an assist to Henry. France had been waiting for such an event for years. Henry was mobbed on his way back to the centre line, for once the hero of the French team if only for a few seconds before the critics once again rounded on Zidane afterwards. Roberto Carlos had neglected to mark Henry on the key play, taking the time to fiddle with his socks and figuring someone else would do it. In fact only three Brazilians ran in to contest the free kick with the assorted French attackers, the others lolling around outside the box, which really said it all. They would not record a single shot on goal in this loss. Brazil had won eleven consecutive World Cup matches and it was a result that shocked all of us, but Brazil made no effort to fight and save their World Cup in the last half hour.
The slow war final
France had turned around six years of decay in three matches. The legendary spine of Thuram, Vieira, Zidane and Henry had one last tournament in them after all (or more accurately, they had half a tournament in them). Their final against Italy was a similar type of mano a mano as all the other slow-fuse throwdowns this World Cup, like all the other matches a midfield battle with little end-to-end play or chances, neither team giving way or finding a way through despite assorted setbacks.
Italy and France since their Euro 2000 final had both played two mediocre tournaments before 2006 and would both play two terrible tournaments after it. In hindsight it would be difficult in these circumstances to find a World Cup final that was less worthy of producing a team with the long-term label “World Champion”. But it was a quality confrontation between opponents who were definitely the world’s top two teams, if only at that top level for the short duration of the tournament. France scored a penalty before the game had even started when Zidane, knowing Buffon would go left as per Zidane’s usual penalties, chipped up right and softly off the bar, an outlandish penalty cementing his legend in his last game.
So far so good for France, but I immediately remarked that “I’m still not convinced France actually has anything… any idiot team can put in a couple of penalties,” a remarkable accusation for a team in the box seat to winning a World Cup. France had gotten to this point as if by magic or by accident, living on the fumes of their old titles, scoring comparatively few goals in this tournament. Biographer Philippe Auclair remarked that for Henry, despite being responsible for the winning goals against Brazil and Portugal the whole tournament simply passed him by, and Auclair didn’t know what to make of the final.
Italy dominated the first half, able to ignore the aberration of the beginning. In the first half they got their heads to three corner kicks. The first was a goal to Marco Materazzi, the second blocked on the line, and the third hit the crossbar. Then after halftime it was all reversed. France delivered a torrid ten minutes in which Henry wriggled into the box several times but couldn’t put it away, and unknown winger Florent Malouda was in the process of playing one of the games of his career. Against this, they conceded a goal to Italian forward Luca Toni against the run of play, annulled for a slight offside.
France shaded the game right to the end of the 120 minutes, but if this was a slow war, France’s main warriors would drop like flies, one by one. None of Vieira, Henry or Zidane would make it through to the penalties denouement. If Italy were second best, they were at least able to keep their composure better, their unbreakable backline bent but held the line, and perhaps that’s how wars are won.
First Vieira would go off injured, walking off the world scene forever. In extra time Ribery poked just wide of the post. Then the moment arrived when Zidane set up and then powered a header towards goal, a goal that would have made him once again the two-goal hero and inexplicably made France world champions for the second time in three World Cups. But Buffon pulled off a blinding save, one to show his grandkids when they ask how Italy won the 2006 World Cup.
After the 105th-minute break it all fell apart for France. Henry was substituted, then a minute later Zidane delivered his headbutt into Materazzi’s stomach after a juvenile war of words. After minutes of confusion he was red carded and iconically trudged past the World Cup trophy sitting off to the side, in tears. France’s leaderless bunch of ghosts left behind surprisingly continued to press for the winner and even converted three of their four penalties, but their fate had seemingly already been sealed.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light
In spirit the headbutt was the end of the 2006 World Cup; the penalty shootout afterwards felt oddly empty even as it was happening. The event was a sensation that was pilloried around the world and left the romantics scratching their heads wondering how The Man had acted in such a way, with literally the last action of his career and with the World Cup on the line in the next twenty minutes to boot. The truth was that it was not the first time Zidane had committed the act on field, and he in fact ended up the record collector of cards in World Cup history. If David Beckham had been hung in effigy for sticking up a boot while lying on the ground, the same blame could have been proportioned to Zidane for France’s loss. But of course in France he was ‘God’ and the country sycophantically excused him, much blame directed at his recipient Marco Materazzi for his words rather than at Zidane for his act. Like Zidane, Materazzi had scored in this match (as well as conceding France’s early penalty) but unlike Zidane he was on the field to score one of Italy’s five winning penalties.
So France confusingly lost this final when they had finally played like champions of sorts, after years of winning with mediocrity. No wonder Auclair didn’t know what to make of it all.
Italy’s backline, much like France in 1998, had played with four defenders who had locked the door and also contributed five (!) key goals on the path to glory, backed by a brilliant keeper, three further defensive mids, Pirlo and a plethora of forwards who all chipped in here and there. They were a lovely balanced team, tenacious and skilful, able to attack or defend with the times. They were already an experienced collection of players, not particularly designed to be one for the future, and Juventus’ demotion for the match fixing scandal meant that Cannavaro and Zambrotta had influenced their last high-class match.
The same was shockingly true of Vieira and Henry, only thirty and twenty-eight. Vieira, who had been indomitable in this World Cup, would win some Italian titles with Internazionale but would be phased out and would not play another international tournament. Henry, on a long streak of excellent seasons and the 2006 season’s main X-factor, would not be a high-level influence after this match. At least for him there would be one more ‘Indian summer’ season of glory three years later with Barcelona, finally winning the Champions League trophy after he had perhaps given up all hope. The parenthesis within the parenthesis, Auclair called it, the one season of glory within the parenthesis that was his three-season Barcelona career.
France and Italy would curiously contest a rematch only two months after the final, France led by Henry and sporadic star Sidney Govou winning a charged match 3-1 in Paris in Euro 2008 qualification. It was an odd but meaningless postscript.