Monday, July 10, 2006

Well That Was Interesting

Happily, my prediction of a boring 1-0 French victory turned out to be inaccurate. We had a whopping two goals, but more importantly, we had some real excitement ten minutes from time:

There are all sorts of interesting angles to discuss after Zidane's rhino impersonation:

1. It's fitting that a World Cup most notable for Zidane and for an explosion of yellow and red cards ended with Zidane getting a red card.

2. It's unfortunate that Zidane's career had to end with a moment of ignominy, but it's a nice reminder that no player or person is all good or all bad. The best players all have bad moments. Maradona had his Hand of G-d, Pele has his whoring for Mastercard and just about every other sponsor (and that unfortunate pick of Columbia to win the '94 World Cup), Cruyff has his refusals to play for the Dutch in a key qualifier for the '74 tournament or in any of the '78 tournament, Beckenbauer has...something, I'm sure, and now Zidane has the headbutt. It just goes to show that we should never define a player by his worst moment, because everybody has them.

3. Although the red card will likely be remembered as the defining moment of the match, especially since the penalties were not exactly memorable, it did not have much of an impact on the match. It did deprive the French of a chance to win in the final ten minutes and they were creating all the chances by that point, but the French had been trying to score for 110 minutes and to that point had only produced a dodgy penalty. (And this despite the alleged greatest striker in the world today! Sorry, I just can't help myself anymore. Henry did play well yesterday.) It's not likely that Zidane's dismissal prevented France from scoring the winner, nor would it have prevented David Trezeguet from missing from the spot, as Zidane likely would have taken the place of Abidal or Sagnol in the line-up. (Incidentally, Trezeguet also missed his penalty in the 2003 Champions League Final for Juventus against AC Milan.)

4. Think about this: if Buffon doesn't make an outstanding save on Zidane's header at the end of the first overtime period, then Zidane is probably remembered as the best player since Pele, if not Maradona. He would have gone out scoring both goals in the World Cup Final after scoring the winner in the semifinal and assisting on the winners in the quarterfinal and the round of 16. Instead, by a matter of inches, he'll probably be remembered as a sterling player with occasional bouts of madness. And this is all so by a matter of inches. Isn't that a reflection that we don't really judge players the right way?

5. If it is true that video evidence was used to punish Zidane for the red card, then this is an instance of the officials reaching the right result by the wrong means, but it also might be an impetus for use of video replays in soccer, which would be a good thing. ("A lot of good that does us," chimes in the '66 West German side.)

6. If it is true that Materazzi baited Zidane by calling him a terrorist, then how does that jibe with FIFA's stance against racism throughout the tournament. And if we move in the direction of using video replay to punish players after matches for diving or other conduct missed by the referee and linesmen, then can the same be done for racist comments? And would FIFA have to use lip-readers to mete out discipline? For the record, no matter what Materazzi said, Zidane's conduct was unjustifiable. Maybe the immortal Jack Dalton from Roadhouse could have helped:

Zidane: "What if someone calls me a terrorist?"
Dalton: "Well, are you?"

We could all stand to learn something from Dalton. Even you, Zizou.

A few other thoughts on the game:

1. For a team that is noted for coming apart at the spot, credit must be given to Italy for taking five excellent penalties. They were all into the roof of the net and/or the side netting. The only one that possibly could have been stopped was Pirlo's first kick, but it was high enough that it couldn't be considered a bad effort. And who would have thought that the Italian kickers would have performed so well from the spot, but their ace keeper Gigi Buffon went the wrong way just about every time. Interestingly enough, if Buffon would have guessed correctly on Trezeguet's kick, he might have just been in position to deflect the ball in when it caromed down off the crossbar.

2. For me, Fabio Cannavaro was the MVP of the tournament, mainly because Italy won on account of their defense and Cannavaro's ability to marshal a backline that saw all sorts of changes throughout was excellent. (If France won, I would have been strongly tempted to give my imaginary vote to Thuram.) I did find it amusing to be yelling "get 'em, Fabio!" on a number of occasions yesterday. Soccer makes me do the weirdest things.

3. There was much discussion while watching the game with Orson and Peacedog as to whether the "doctors" (or "physios," if you prefer the English term) have any medical training at all. Apparently, the cures for any soccer injury are:

a. water (similar to Robitussin for Chris Rock's Dad);

b. a sponge; or

c. the spray.

There was much speculation as to what exactly is contained in that magical spray that allows soccer players to return from the most painful injuries. I personally suggested that it's Pam, but Orson pointed out that for France or Italy, it would almost certainly be some sort of aerosol olive oil. Deodorant or any other bathroom spray seems highly unlikely. We also decided that the universal motion from a player that he is injured should no longer be clutching an ankle or a head, but rather a downward motion from an index finger indicating that the spray is required.

4. Was Francesco Totti even on the field? I make fun of Henry for delivering less-than-stellar performances for his country, but he's Just Fontaine compared to Totti.


peacedog said...

Had a good time watching yesterday. Meeting Orson was a treat. Game was much better than I dared to hope for (that isn't to say it was a great or even good game).

I'm still shocked at how bad Buffon was in PKs.

Fox said...

Nice post, Michael.

I wrote a long comment but it didn't take so I'll leave you only with this amusing article on teh "magic spray."

Chg said...

Zidane used poor judgement in allowing himself to be baited, but the entire thing illustrated one more problem with selling soccer to America.

When it all comes out, I think it will be clear that Zidane was set off by some sort of racist slur. While such things take place in American sports as well, soccer still regularly has incidents that sound like something out of a time machine to Americans.

That a team and nation will coalesce around Materazzi as Italy has done and will continue to do is difficult for Americans to accept. The worst things John Rocker said were "queer*" and "I don't like foreigners," and he became such a national lightning rod for criticism, it destroyed his career.

You touched on this, but the irony that the defining moment of this WC came as a result of a likely racist taunt that resulted in the taunted player's ejection doesn't say much for the effort to clean up soccer.

Also, no one is mentioning the acting job involved. Zidane doesn't appear to have hit Materazzi with much force. If that had happened in an NBA game, the player on the receiving end would have walked through it. There would have probably been some posturing from both sides, and no escalation.

Materazzi reacted like he'd been shot, as Italian soccer players are prone to do at the slightest contact. The mindset of the American athlete and fan struggles to accept a sport where such acting jobs are not only tolerated, but an integral part of every game.

All in all, this was a disappointing WC. It's only fitting that one of my two least favorite teams (along with Argentina) would win the Cup. The only bright spot was the play of the Germans and Australians. If not for the absolutley worst of the God awful calls that plagued this tournament, I think one of them would have played for the title.

* I don't want to downplay any slur, but there are degrees of insult. While this is certainly a slur intended to hurt and, as such, unacceptable, it is not as severe as many other words targetting homosexuals or others.

Michael said...

CHG, I pretty much disagree with your entire premise. First of all, there has to be a distinction between words and violence. No matter how racist a statement Materazzi made, it does not justify Zidane headbutting him with full force. Racism is bad, but not as bad as violence. In fact, part of the underpinning for racism being evil is the fact that it was/is often paired with violence. This is the one good argument that can be made in defense of Rocker: he has been far more villified than other players who have been convicted of violent acts.

Second, we don't know what Materazzi said. One rumor is that he called Zidane as terrorist, which is bad, but I doubt that most Americans would revile someone who calls a Muslim a terrorist. It's wrong, but it's a form of prejudice that many Americans at least tacitly accept. The other rumor is that he used a term for Zidane that identified him with the Algerians who fought for the French in the Algerian revolution. Again, a hurtful thing to say, but more political than racist. The bottom line is that players, especially stars like Zidane, will necessarily hear all sorts of abusive language from opposing players and fans and it's part of the job description to rise above it.

Third, you significantly understate the force of Zidane's impact. He took a running start at Materazzi and launched into him with his head. That's enough to knock most men off their feet, certainly a beanpole like Materazzi. He did overstate his injury on the ground, but that's not a major sin.

Finally, given that Zidane got sent off for stamping on a Saudi eight years ago and has also been sent off for headbutting opponents in Serie A and the Champions League, why assume that he must have been provoked by a racist statement? Isn't it possible that Zidane has a short fuse and was frustrated by close marking, a great save by Buffon, and a garden variety titty-twister?

Orson Swindle said...

The game hurt so much, it required two presses of a the spray to heal my shoe.

Oh, and four imperial pints helped, as well.

Fox said...

I think it warrants mentioning that Americans are being a bit hypocritical about the whole diving and looking for fouls bit. If anyone has watched an NBA game recently (or, perhaps, the NBA Finals) to say the lengths hoopsters will go to draw a foul. And yes, that includes flopping at every opportunity (see Fisher Derek and Battier, Shane). All good athletes are cheaters to some degree and all understand how important it is to draw calls.

The difference is that no American athlete would roll around as if he'd been shot whenever anyone so much as bumps him. They fall down, get the call and get back up. I wonder if the difference is (1) the advantage system, which delays the timing of the refs' decision, (2) the constant hope of drawing a yellow card (there really isn't a parallel for that in the NBA or NFL because technical fouls are rarely given just because someone looks hurt), or (3) just the fact that Americans are too "macho" to feign injury to this degree. Actually, I think someone should do a study on this.

And Michael, I agree with you whole-heartedly that there is nothing Materazzi said that justified that head butt, in that situation.

Kanu said...

Also, no one is mentioning the acting job involved. Zidane doesn't appear to have hit Materazzi with much force.

Are you shitting me CHG? That was the hardest headbutt I have ever seen in my life (albeit the only one I've ever seen to the sternum). ZZ is like 5'10" and MM is 6'4" - the force literally knocked his feet out from under him.

Dude, feel your sternum when you get a chance. There a nothing but skin on top of that bone - no muscle or fat. Getting punched hard there would hurt like a mother, having a dude plant, lean in, and fucking drill you with his forehead and any one of us would be rolling around for 5 minutes too. I actually was impressed with MMs ability to carry on and then slot his penalty. For me he certainly lived up to his reputation as a hard nut. I can't imagine that a pretty boy like Kewell, Fabregas, or Baros would have continued, and as I said somewhere else Robert Pires would still be laying on the field as we speak.

I could not respectfully disagree with you even more.

Nicole said...

While the spray does make an amazing number of appearances during the World Cup, if you pay attention to the sidelines in American football, you see the same thing.

I do agree that it seems ridiculous that no matter what you do, dousing the area in water seems to make it better. I've always thought that would be incredibly uncomfortable. I mean, I know you're sweating and all, but it still doesn't amount to the soggy shoe that this injury bath does.

I mean, in all practicality, I bet that leads to some pretty spectacular blisters and raw patches. Figure nylon sock, skin and leather shoe.

I'm just sayin...

Anonymous said...

Zidane is 6'1" - and Materazzi clearly took a dive. That doesn't mean it wasn't a dirty play, of course.