It's somehow fitting that a World Cup contested in Germany has produced a final between a country that the Germans conquered in three weeks in May 1940 and a country that the Germans had to invade in 1943, despite the fact that it was an ostensible ally of the Germans. (Funny how everything in European soccer ends up relating back to WWII, or at least it does when reflected through my slightly jaded prism.) And in contrast to their performances during that era, France and Italy have progressed to Berlin on the strength of impregnable defenses, having conceded a grand total of three goals in their 12 matches leading up to the Final. Take out the penalty awarded to Spain and the own goal conceded by Italy and opponents have scored exactly one goal against France or Italy from open play. All this points to a relatively uninteresting Final for those of us who like lots of scoring chances and end-to-end play. France and Italy are both full of skilled offensive players, but as the knock-out games have demonstrated, great defenses usually conquer great offenses and both France and Italy have great defenses.
It's fitting that a tournament dominated by defense in the knock-out phases will ultimately be won by the two stoutest defenses present. However, despite the attractive technical skill on display in Germany, The Guardian's Rob Smyth points out a problem with the knock-out stages of Germany '06: an absence of goals. Unfortunately, he's absolutely right. There have been an underwhelming 24 goals in 14 knock-out games, which will hardly set anyone's heart aflutter. Compare that to 44 goals scored at the same stage of USA '94 or 39 goals scored at France '98 at this stage. The classic games from those tournaments don't seem possible now that defenses have completely taken over. The Brazil-Holland 3-2 masterpiece from '94 is a distant memory. Italy played three outstanding knock-out games en route to the '94 Final and all of them finished 2-1, two of them including some late drama (although Spaniards might choose a different word than "drama" to describe a game that they lost in large part because the ref and linesman contrived to miss a Mauro Tassotti elbow into Luis Enrique's face, in the box no less). France's dramatic win over Croatia, marked by Lilian Thuram's first two goals for France to bring the hosts from behind, is one of the defining memories of '98, not surprisingly because it involves goals.
And the World Cup isn't the only place in which offense is suffering. The last Champions League, for instance, featured two teams in the Final who got there by winning semifinals 1-0 over two legs. How in the world did Rijkaard's Barcelona and Ancelotti's Milan produce one goal over 180 minutes? (Actually, there was that strike by Shevchenko where Puyol fell over and...ah, the joys of selective memory.) And then, let's go back to Euro '04, which was won by a Greek side that created one chance per game and kept progressing with 1-0 wins.
The last time that offense was so hard to come by was the uninspiring 1990 World Cup. That one was more dour than the present tournament because in 1990, just about every game was decided in penalties and Argentina made it to the Final using penalties as a preferred end-game. There has been more action in this World Cup and less reliance on playing for penalties. Indeed, between Italy's dreadful record in penalties and France's still-inexplicable decision to start Fabien Barthez between the sticks, our finalists would have been nuts to employ such a strategy. Still, FIFA needs to take some concrete steps to counter the defensive cycle that currently weighs the game down. After 1990, FIFA took the wise steps of: (1) banning keepers from handling the ball when it's played back to them by their teammates; and (2) awarding three points for a win instead of two. The '94 World Cup was much improved as a result. So what should FIFA do this time to increase offense without resorting to gimmicks like bigger goals? A couple thoughts:
1. Allow additional substitutions in extra time. This wouldn't necessarily affect the number of goals in 90 minutes, but it would make extra time more compelling as teams would throw on fresh players to run at tired defenders.
2. Award indirect free kicks in the box. This has always been a pet issue of mine. Refs currently allow a lot of contact in the box that they would never allow in the midfield because they (quite rightly) don't want to give penalty kicks for anything other than fouls denying clear scoring chances. The problem now is that it's very difficult to score in the box, especially on corner kicks, because defenders can bump and grab offensive players with impunity. The solution would be to create a second class of fouls. Fouls that deprive clear scoring chances will still merit penalty kicks. Fouls that are less severe would result in free kicks from the edge of the 18-yard box. This would have the dual effect of creating more free kicks, which are always crowd-pleasers, and cleaning up the box so offensive players have a chance to get their heads on set pieces.
The difficulty I have is creating some sort of subtle rule change that would encourage managers to play two strikers again. The 4-5-1 has become the preferred formation and it can be attractive if the offensive players (usually the offensive central midfielder and the two wingers) get forward to support the striker, but it's a very stout defensive formation because it typically leaves two defensive midfielders in place to shield the back four. England, France, and Portugal all use the formation and achieved excellent defensive results with it, but none of them have played especially exciting games, especially against one another. Two 4-5-1 teams are unlikely to create an exciting match because one striker and three supporting midfielders are going to be little match for four defenders and two screening Makeleles. (It's a real testament to little Claude that he has become the Platonic ideal for a defensive midfielder.) Who ever thought that Italy would contest a final and would be viewed as the more offensive team, at least in terms of its formation. Marcelo Lippi has also showed more willingness to roll the dice by putting on offensive players in the later stages of games, so score two for Fortress Italia. He's such an improvement over the hopelessly conservative Giovanni Trappatoni.
A few other random thoughts on the Semifinals:
1. I rooted for Portugal because I generally like the Iberian Peninsula and because I stood to win $150 if they beat Italy in the Final, but it was awfully hard to root for them yesterday. Their display against France was one of the most cynical collection of dives in recent memory. The game desperately needed Jorge Larrionda to issue a yellow card for diving to convince the Portuguese to actually try to score a goal. The diving got worse and worse as Portugal's desperation and realization that they couldn't score from the run of play increased. Cristiano Ronaldo was particularly bad in this regard, marring an otherwise excellent performance. I felt bad for him that bitter English fans were whistling him throughout the game (it's so much easier to invoke a scapegoat than to acknowledge that your team couldn't score and that your star young player fully deserved to be sent off), but the feelings of sympathy receded as he routinely went to ground.
2. Lost in the hosannas for Zidane (and those hosannas are well-deserved as he stamps himself as the best player since Maradonna) is acknowledgement of: (1) how good France's defense is; and (2) how boring the French are with a lead because they make little effort to kill a game off with a second goal. They created a nice three-man break yesterday in about minute 55 with Zidane, Ribery, and Henry all surging forward and then the game ground to a halt as France made little effort to score and Portugal was incapable of doing the deed themselves.
3. Fabien Barthez...uh, yeah. He did his best to mimic a bride tossing her bouquet to her bridesmaids on Ronaldo's free kick in the second half, only Luis Figo decided that he would prefer to remain a bridesmaid by lifting the bouquet over the goal when the goal was at his mercy. Oy vey all around. This is one area in which Italy will have a decided advantage on Sunday: they can be confident that when the ball is sent towards their goal, their keeper won't flap at it.
4. For a side not noted for their offensive prowess, Italy really put on a show in extra time, hitting the post twice and then scoring two great goals that involved significant teamwork. The Azzurri don't have very good strikers, but they have gotten offense from their midfield and outside defenders, even moreso than the 4-5-1 teams that are supposed to get their offense from those sources.
As for a prediction, 1-0 to France because I can't pick against Zidane at this stage and because this French core has already beaten Italy twice in major competitions ('98 World Cup quarters in penalties and Euro '00 Final in extra time). The chances are going to be few and far between, but I trust Zidane to create the better chances than Totti and I trust Henry to finish better than Luca Toni or Alberto Gilardino.