Friday, July 07, 2006

Final Fantasy

Well, the previous post notably failed to inspire furious debate over potential reforms to the simplest, yet most complicated, game on Earth, though Dan-O and I did manage some crisp rhetorical one-two passing. I assume all 10 of you are paralyzed with anticipation for Sunday's Enchilada—that, or exhausting every ounce of your blogospheric ardor over on the Guardian blog, where you're all posing as uptight English anoraks, reeling off tongue-in-cheek rants about how the World Cup is not "real football" and strongly implying that you can't wait until Scunthorpe's season starts up. (Or...are those people really real?)

As for footie fixes, I'm for a light-handed but effective tinker with the rules. (I see in this morning's Oregonian that Lord Sepp plans to convene all 32 World Cup coaches—will Big Phil and Domenech come to blows? will Arena bum one of La Volpe's cigs?—along with a veritable parliament of FIFA technical experts, allegedly to do exactly that. Frankly, the thought chills me to the marrow.) Bookings stemming from physical contact, penalties and disputed goals warrant a quick video review before they irrevocably change the course of a match. A little tweak to the offside rule? Maybe. I'm sticking by my beloved new brain-baby, the Dundas Lifeline Rule: in the case of a 0-0 draw in tournament knock-out rounds (AET, of course), the highest scoring losing team (whether in regulation or AET) in the same round advances in place of the two scoreless teams, sliding across the bracket to fill the appropriate slot in the next round. Think of the permutations! Think of the fun! Think of Argentina v France instead of Portugal v France!

I'll be posting a Big Book of World Cup Bests and Worsts soonish, but some early "personal bests":
—Watching Trinidad's white-knuckle draw with Sweden at home with my wife on a sunny morning, both of us totally flipping out.
—Watching Trinidad v England at a packed, raucous Costello's with the same girl, both of us totally flipping out.
—USA v Italy, party at my place; Campari & Soda v Pabst Blue Ribbon.
—Talking World Cup with just about everyone whether they like it or not.
—Grudging (or at least feigned) interest in the whole event from my non-football-obsessed pals.
—Watching Argentina v Mexico at the Globe Pub in Chicago: A beyond-capacity crowd cheering lustily for Mexico (even me!), except for a few Argentinian guys who sportingly offered to trade their Albiceleste replica shirts for El Tri tops.
—Watching Italy v Australia at a small Italian caffe in Chicago, and the ancient Italian man sitting next to me who celebrated Totti's penalty conversion by slamming his right elbow against his left palm and growling "Vaffunculo!"
—Watching the Sudden and Celestial Rebirth of Zinedine Zidane on the big screen at Dishman Community Center in the heart of scenic North Portland.
—After Brasil limped off after losing to France, Cousin Grady added commentary to the ESPN coverage: "And now we take you to another international soccer disappointment—Alexi Lalas!"
—Germany v Italy at the Thirsty Lion. Mania after Grosso's goal.
—France v Portugal at Pioneer Courthouse Square. The O pegged the total crowd for the semi-finals at 8,000. Sorry, soccer-haters. Your time is at an end.
—A Pretty Move.
—Just how much goddamn fun the whole thing has been, how little work I've gotten done, and how sad I'll be to see it end.

Now, to the Final. Two teams from neighboring countries that are nonetheless a study in contrasts.

France more or less epitomizes the modern, cosmopolitan "blended" style of play. With players scattered all over Europe, Les Bleus owe more to the state-of-the-art soccer practiced by the leading mega-clubs than any particular national characteristic. (If you wanted to get all racialistic, you could say the same of their ecumenical ethnic line-up, which has the double advantage of drawing on all the demographic strength of an increasingly diverse nation AND pissing off fuckfaces like Jean-Marie Le Pen.) They're well-engineered defensively, while their midfield is pure romance, thanks to Zizou. Metrosexual Thierry Henry is balanced by guttersnipe-looking Gallic ratfaces like Ribery and Sagnol. Chuck in Patrick Viera, and you might say these boys do not lack for toughness.

The problem is, as great as they are, they're not scoring much. Over the last 2.5 matches, they've scored four goals: 1) set-piece created by Henry dive; 2) Zidane break-away at the death; 3) set-piece, Henry completely unmarked; 4) penalty created by Henry dive. For all Zidane's magique, this is hardly an offensive powerhouse.

Italy, on the other hand, is much more a traditional national team. Everyone plays in Serie A; everyone is as stereotypically Italiano as it gets. They are, of course, stingy as the secret Vatican archives on defense, but they are not—as has been noted everywhere—the usual 1-0 Italy of yore. Ten different players have scored goals, and they've knocked in five in their last 2.5 matches, all from the run of play (I think; I skipped most of that Ukraine joke).

This is a team that will not leave Henry running free at the back post while Zidane floats one across the breadth of the penalty area. Nor will they Luis Figo a sitter over the crossbar when Barthez—the one player in the 22 likely Final starters who evokes a, shall we say, less clinical and polished era of sport—decides to play volleyball. When France screws up, Italy will be there to make them pay.

I like both of these teams a lot. France is obviously the more charismatic and lover-ly, but there's a lot to be said for the Italian boys: they're tough, motivated, creative and, so far, lethally effective in all but one game (hello, Bruce). I'm sticking with the snap prediction I made after the semis: Italy 2-0 France. I'll be pulling for my ancestral homeland, but just barely—I'm also more than ready if Zidane produces a Last Seduction.

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