La Copa Mundial De Futbol

Sunday, July 09, 2006


The Big One. Not just the biggest football match in the world, but the single biggest sporting event on the planet. In fact in terms of getting numbers of human beings together doing the same thing, it may be the greatest uniting force known to man.

The World Cup Final.

Any poor unfortunate who has had to spend any time in my company over the last month can now begin to relax. My friends, everything I have put you through was all about last night. One match. 120 minutes as it turned out. It is at an end.

To those of you who are like me, I'm sure you were fighting back the tears before, during and after last night's finale. I hope you were strong, after all we have today and the next four years for reflection, and I hope that your last night, like mine, was an uninterrupted celebration of all we have been through together over the last 31 days.

If there is a God, he is obviously a romantic, as the celebrations turned out to be Italian. If the world's greatest story teller had submitted the tale of the Italian team's journey to this triumph as a work of fiction, it would have been laughed out of the publisher's office. We could fantasise forever about the most extreme example of a team finding a victory from the depths of adversity, but nothing anyone could conjure in their heads can compare with the extraordinary story that reality has provided us with in this World Cup.

Most of the Italian players came into the tournament facing the prospect of relegation with their clubs, and went into the final with that outcome a near certainty. Some have discovered that all their work, their very lives, has for the last few years been a pointless sham. Many have had to contemplate the news that their victories were false, their Championship medals won by the deception of others rather than their blood, sweat and tears.

If Italy had gone out ignominiously in the first round, no one would have batted an eyelid, it would have been seen as the inevitable demise of a group of shattered players representing a football association in disgrace. Instead their response was an overwhelming display of positivity, and from the moment Francesco Totti announced to his colleagues before the tournament that 'either you're a cheat, or you're one of us', Italy forged perhaps the greatest team spirit seen in a World Cup. It was probably Totti's most potent contribution to his teams' success. The Italians were not just playing to restore their own unfairly tarnished reputations, or to help clear the name of their great footballing nation. It's probably too late for that. Italy's players were playing for the thousands of football lovers in their immensely proud country, and all over the world, that still believe a great triumph can be achieved by fair means. This motivation proved to be an unstoppable force.

It is noticeable that the Italians have, unusually for them, been one of the least guilty sides for diving in this tournament. It is as if they couldn't contemplate indulging in this petty form of cheating, given the higher levels of deception their game is charged with.

Last night Italy gave one of their least effective performances of the World Cup, but their displays throughout the competition made them the more deserving winner of the two teams. The match itself was extremely even, and a classic game of two halves. Italy really should have been ahead at the break, their midfield quartet magnificent once again, and the vastly experienced French back four looking like they had never defended a set piece in their lives. It was indicative of the Italians' belief that they so easily shrugged off the penalty, both the award and conversion of which were dodgy, to play with the same confidence they had shown against Germany. France were in danger of being swept aside, the failings that have haunted them for six years, it seemed, were being cruelly exposed.

Nobody could have forecast the change that took place in the second half. The pundits' half-time analysis universally predicted an Italian victory, and for once it was impossible to argue with them. What fools we all were in believing this World Cup had no surprises left in it. It was as if France hadn't been told which game they were playing in beforehand, someone must have mentioned to them at half-time 'by the way lads, we forgot to tell you, this is actually the World Cup final'. From nowhere the French found a reserve of energy and confidence, and charged back at the Italians. The Azzurri suddenly hit a brick wall, and as much as their victory had looked nailed on in the first half, so a French win now seemed a certainty. Thierry Henry, for the first time in the tournament, actually started to play like the man who terrorises the Premiership every week, and the master defenders suddenly had to call on all their reserves of strength and will to prevent France from storming the fortress. Even the phenomenal Cannavaro suffered a spell of vulnerability in the face of this onslaught.

Italy also appeared to have reduced their own attacking possibilities with a bizarre pair of early substitutions, the tall centre forward Iaquinta asked to play first on one wing then the other, with no success either time, and the defensive midfielder De Rossi making an unwelcome comeback after serving a four match ban for the World Cup's most disgraceful challenge. In the end however, France themselves were stopped in their tracks by sheer exhaustion, Henry could barely walk off the field when substituted, and Patrick Vieira had by this time already departed for the dressing room with an injury.

Extra-time became inevitable, but with two debilitated teams on the field it was never an especially exciting prospect. Given their record, there is no chance that Italy would have conciously settled for penalties, but their bodies would not allow them to show the same commitment to attack that they so spectacularly displayed in the semi-final. The extra period began to peter slowly snd nervously towards the shoot-out, until interrupted by one of the most extraordinary incidents in the history of the World Cup, a moment that history will probably remember as the definitive one of the tournament.

For Zinedine Zidane, this World Cup had been the proverbial rollercoaster ride, from complete anonymity in the group stage, to a glimpse of brilliance against Spain, and then a spectacular rekindling of his glorious past to enable the defeat of Brazil. Having had a quiet night in the semi-final, surely this was the stage for Zizou to give us one final encore of the greatest footballing talent seen in this era. What he gave us was a departing image that, tragically, may stick in the minds of his millions of admirers forever. The question that kept me awake last night, and I imagine will continue to trouble the footballing world until we receive an answer, is: Just what on earth did Marco Materazzi say to Zidane? Whatever it was, it provoked perhaps the most violent reaction ever seen on such an enormous stage, Zidane suddenly turning and ramming his head into Materazzi's chest at full pace. The ensuing pandemonium can be explained simply by the complete astonishment felt by everyone present. The referee, who clearly didn't see it, had no clue what to do, the Italians who did see it didn't know where to take their protests, the French players looked on stunned, the crowd frozen in shock by what they had witnessed. It took the referee several minutes, and apparently a intervention from the 4th official who had viewed a replay on a pitchside monitor, to arrive at the correct decision to end Zidane's dazzling career with a red card.

Should we be terribly sad at the manner of Zizou's exit? In one sense yes, it's awful that our abiding memory of such a giant of the game should be of disgrace, and defeat. The worst thing about it was that the man never got to take a final bow. He should, win or lose, have been chaired around the Olympiastadion to a standing ovation, Zidane was after all a hero to every football fan in the world, not just the French supporters present at the game. Instead the great man did not even reappear to receive his medal.

In another way though, I can't help but feel priveleged to have witnessed such an historic incident. Dreadful as it may have been for Zidane, it was a truly unforgettable moment. During the minutes of waiting for the referee's decision, and seeing Zidane depart, it seemed as the though the world was frozen, as though the planet had ceased to revolve until it could come to terms with the seismic event that had just taken place. Isn't that what the World Cup exists for? I am obsessed with this competition because it provides me with memories more vivid than anything else I've ever seen. I'm sure that when I'm old I'll tell my life story in terms of World Cups, and it's events like this one that make that possible.

For Zizou himself, the legacy of last night may not be so terrible. After all, Diego Maradona's career was littered with disgraceful events, but it has hardly affected his legendary status. Even genuine England fans will admit that when they hear the name Maradona, they think first and foremost of the footballer, one of the two greatest players to have ever played The Beautiful Game. Zinedine Zidane has provided us with too many examples of his genius for it to ever be forgotten.

Having picked itself up off the floor, the World Cup had still to provide us with a champion. A penalty shoot-out would surely result in a French victory, as Italy can claim to be one of the few countries with a worse record than England in these events. The Italians had to banish the memories not only of the 1994 final, when two of its finest ever players were reduced to gibbering wrecks, but also two other recent failures, including one against the French in the 1998 quarter-final. Add to that the extra-time defeat to the same opponents in Euro 2000, and surely Italy had to be a team resigned to their fate. From the outset of World Cup 2006 though, it has been clear that this is a different Italy, armed with a mental strength never seen amongst its predecessors. I wrote in an earlier post about the power of a team playing with the belief that their triumph was destined, and Italy took their penalties as if safe in the knowledge that their success was guaranteed. Not one of the five kicks even threatened to miss. What an incredible turnaround from their previous failures, and how wonderful that the fates had finally handed back some luck to a team that has been deprived of it for so many years.

As the Italian players celebrated, there was a feeling in the air that justice had been done. Finally, payback for all those failed penalty shoot-outs, finally revenge for their being unluckily denied in the last breath of the Euro 2000 final. It was just that the World Cup's finest player ended with the trophy in his arms, and that other individuals that had played like World Champions, such as Pirlo and Gattuso, now have the right to claim that title. There was justice for Zidane, who left the field when it seemed that he might have got away with his crime. And there was justice for a group of players forced to play under a cloud due to the dishonesty of others.

Oh, and one last example of justice done that we shouldn't forget - the best team in the tournament won the World Cup. Of that there can be no doubt.

The final was by no means the best game of World Cup 2006, but it contained more than enough drama to make it an occasion worthy of its status. It was a fitting finale to a fabulous festival.

For me, there is still some work to be done. This is not a signing off message yet. I think I have put enough effort into keeping this record for it to warrant an adequate closure. This of course must include a selection of my team of the tournament, and a healthy summing up of the entire experience. Come back over the next couple of days for that.

To the football however, it's Arrivederci. And to Italy, the World Champions, Congratulazione!


Really, who thought of the Third Place play-off? Come on, someone needs to own up now, there is a sadistic human being out there who devised this monstrosity, and some very cruel aiders and abetters who allow it to continue.

Can you imagine what it must be like for a player to have to play in this match? You begin the World Cup with an optimistic outlook, tempered with a bit of realism, but as the tournament goes on, and your team is successful, you allow your hopes to get out of control. Suddenly you're in the semi-final, just one game away from playing in the greatest sporting event known to mankind, and now, you allow yourself to believe that all your dreams will come true.

Then you lose the semi-final. What must it feel like? Fate has cruelly led you up the garden path, and your date with destiny is now a night infront of the telly with John Motson. Your body's every sinew has been sacrificed in pursuit of the Holy Grail, and now you must contemplate the reality that it may never be yours. The phrase you thought would never apply to you is the one now being broadcast in every country on the planet - you are out of the World Cup.

The key words in that last phrase are 'World Cup' and 'out'. In other words, for you my friends, the tournament is over. You will play no further part. What sort of mind is it then, that comes up with the idea of forcing these shattered individuals to re-appear? What kind of malicious inhumanity is required to hatch such a plan? Losing semi-finallists should be allowed to go home and suffer their failure in quiet contemplation. In the World Cup however, they must come back, parade themselves before thousands, and play the most pointless 90 minutes of their lives.

How can players be asked to take part in a World Cup match with no prospect of glory? How can you ask human beings to go and entertain once again the thousands of people whose hopes have been destroyed along with their own. How can the barbarism of this public execution be permitted in a civilised society??

Is it any wonder that teams almost always play the reserves in the Third place play off? Yes of course they tell us that they are giving a taste of the World Cup to those not quite good enough to earn a place in the team. We all know the truth is that the players who lost the semi-final are cowering in a corner somewhere, begging their coaches to be merciful. The coaches at least have some compassion within them. FIFA, I implore you, please end this now, before you are thrust before the European Court of Human Rights and rightly punished for your most hideous crimes against humanity.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

TV Awards

As the end draws near, a World Cup obsessive must do everything in his/her power to keep World Cup fever running at maximum until the final ball has been kicked. Many people at this time begin to talk about the competition in past tense, already having moved on from whatever excitement they felt a month ago as the tournament kicked off, and this attitude becomes especially common after England have been knocked out. These people should be avoided at all costs by genuine World Cup loonies.

What is needed in the run up to a final is a healthy dose of silly reflective lists. Today, I'm going to go with that good old favourite, the World Cup TV and radio awards.

Best Commentator - John Champion (ITV)
A surprise victory for shITV here, but this man is surely one of the most underrated in football broadcasting. He's got a great voice, he makes intelligent and insightful comment, and he's genuinely funny. He also has a knack of keeping his excitement level in perspective with the importance of the event - a crucial skill for a great commentator, and one only has to listen to ten minutes of John Motson to realise this. Why then is this man continually overlooked in favour of Clive Tyldesley? Tyldesley is always full of himself, trying to build up potentially big moments with memorable lines so he can hear his voice replayed over and over. The Champion just gets on with describing the game as it happens, and his commentaries are so much the better for it. The BBC failed miserably in this category this time, mainly due to having the embarrassing Motson as their number one.

Chances of getting the final: Nil.

Best Summariser - Chris Waddle (Five Live)
I should thank John Motson in a way, because if it weren't for his commentary being so excruciating, I wouldn't have been inclined, when watching BBC's matches, to use the digital facility of listening to Five Live's coverage instead. Chris Waddle has probably been their most used summariser along with the (also excellent) Terry Butcher. Waddle is a most perceptive observer, often spotting key tactical points early in a match which prove to be vital to the outcome. Howeverm the main reason Waddle gets the nod over his Five Live colleague in this category is his outspokenness, and his ranting during Graham Poll's farcical display in the Croatia v Australia match was one of my tournament highlights. To his credit, Waddle identified early in the game that it wasn't to be Poll's night, uttering the phrase 'having a shocker' after about 20 minutes, long before Graham had made his most memorable gaffes.

Waddle is a one of the few honest summarisers, with the courage to actually give damning criticism when it is justified - ie not just to England's opponents. Five Live completely outstripped the opposition in this category, if I had made a top five they would have been in with a chance of a clean sweep.

Chances of getting the final: 50/50 - they'll probably go for Butcher and Graham Taylor.

Best Panellist - Alan Hansen (BBC 1)
For about the fourth World Cup in a row, this category has been no contest, and we must ask ourselves whether a successor to the King of pundits' reign will ever be found. Should we in fact just be grateful to live in the era of Hansen - the greatest there ever was. The man isn't just a football pundit, he's a revolutionary force in broadcasting. Hansen moved football analysis into a new era, leaving Jimmy Hill and the old guard standing with his relaxed, articulate, and candidly critical observations . Never before had we heard the word 'abysmal' used with such regularity and resonance. All punditry is now judged by the standards Hansen has set, and it's noticeable that other BBC analysts must wait their turn until the big man has spoken. Hansen has become the BBC's crown jewel, one imagines he could name his price if he wished to sign for a rival broadcaster.

It should be said that ITV's performance in this category has been, as usual, abominable. See the nightmare team below for details.

Chances of getting the final: Are you kidding? Only death could deny him, even then the BBC would probably attempt some form of restoration.

Best Anchor - Gabby Logan (ITV)
Gabby is the runaway winner here. Her main rival, Gary Lineker, has been guilty of risible puns, and an unnecessarily anglocentric view. Lineker also had a tendency to talk in cliches about certain teams, ignoring the evidence on show. Witness his praise of Brazil's flair football after three performaces without any, and his continued insistence that Italy are boring despite them being among the more attacking teams in the tournament. Gabby on the other hand just exudes class; she consistently shows impartiality, displays greater depth of knowledge than all her male counterparts, and asks more sensible and searching questions of her analysts. So why, we must ask, have ITV insulted her by replacing her with Steve Rider for the biggest games? Rider was nowhere to be seen until ITV's first England game, almost a week into the tournament. Up to then ITV had been virtually Gabby all the way, then in strolls Rider, like an OAP walking straight to the front of the Post Office queue, right into their biggest TV audience of the World Cup to that point.

Rider, a man who spent the vast majority of his career playing second fiddle to Des Lynam on the BBC, being allowed only to present events no one watched, like Golf, Motor Racing or the non track & field bits of the Olympics, is given priority for major World Cup games over the most intelligent football presenter on TV. Rider has continued to make fleeting appearances, showing up for Brazil games, and getting the Semi-final. What possible explanation can there be? My most horrifying thought is that ITV think it's great fun and politically correct to have a woman presenting the football, but that when it gets serious, we really need to be told how it is by a man. Whatever the reason, ITV should hang ther head in shame. They have the best young broadcaster in the business on their books and they blow it by using a old fart with no interest in football. Gabby, get yourself a transfer to someone who appreciates your skills.

Chances of getting the final: About 1%. There is still a slim chance that I could shoot Steve Rider before 6pm on Sunday.

Best Reporter - Adrian Chiles (BBC 1)
Adrian Chiles is pure gold in the world of televised football. For the first time, a genuine football fan has made it to the higher echelons of broadcasting. Adrian represents all us real football obsessives, perfectly summing up the emotions we all go through in pursuing our addiction, week-by-week during the regular season, and now day-by-day during the World Cup. He asks the questions we would ask, he sees the things that we would see, he is amused by things that only a real fan would be amused by. When ex-footballers analyse matches, they can tell us endless things about tactics and techniques that those of us who have never played the game wouldn't have the first idea about. But it takes someone like Adrian to spot the despairing looks on supporters' faces, the anxious fidgeting of a manager, the mannersisms that give away a player's mood. This is what a football supporter sees, it's all part of our World Cup experience. Given the bemusement shown by Chiles' colleagues in response to some of his comments, you wonder whether genuine football nuts ever become players. Either that, or leaving this innocent part of the experience behind must be a necessary consequence of becoming a professional. Whatever the reason, it's vital that the likes of Adrian Chiles are allowed to share the airwaves with the ex-pro's. Supporters are as much a part of football as the players, certainly one couldn't exist without the other, so it's only right that during the World Cup our enjoyment should be enhanced by hearing the voices of experience from both on and off the pitch. The BBC are unique in offering this insight, and it is thanks to Chiles' presence that they can do so.

Chances of Getting the Final: 100% that he'll turn up at some point.

Best Newcomer: Leonardo (BBC 1)
Despite being far too good-looking, the Brazilian gets a deserved award. Alan Shearer aside, the BBC have wonderful taste in analysts, and Leonardo's insights, the result of a career spent playing Latin style football in South America and Italy, have been a welcome change from those of panellists too used to the English game. His command of the English language also appears to be far superior to that of most of his British colleagues, I'm sorry to say. It's a shame that this will probably be the last we see of him.

Chances of getting the final: Relegated to half-time reporting from the stands for the semi-final, so it doesn't look too promising. Hansen and O'Neill are rightly nailed on, but Leonardo's expertise on Italian football might give him a chance of nicking Alan Shearer's seat. We can but hope.

So, in conclusion we have:

2006 World Cup TV Dream Team!
My World Cup final would be brought to me by the following team: This is the World Cup final, which means I can cheat with numbers.

Anchor - Gabby Logan (ITV)
Panel - Alan Hansen, Martin O'Neill, Leonardo (all BBC 1), Graham Taylor (Five Live).
Commentator - John Champion (ITV)
Summariser - Chris Waddle (Five Live).

With reports at half-time and full time from Adrian Chiles, who is of course with the fans.

With this panel, the World Cup final would be a glorious occasion, even if the game turns out to be shite. There is however, always another side of the coin, which is why we have:

2006 World Cup TV Team From Hell!
If Satan was broadcsting the World Cup, this would be his team:

Anchor - Steve Rider (ITV)
Panel - Alan Shearer (BBC 1), Ruud Gullit, Andy Townsend (ITV)
Commentator - John Motson (BBC 1)
Summariser - Mark Lawrenson (BBC 1)

With reports from Garth Crooks from Baden Baden, who will presumably bring us the thoughts of items randomly discarded by England fans. That's if they can stand two minutes in the company of Garth Crooks of course.

Team from Hell's chances of getting the final:
Rider: 100%
Shearer: Looking good for him, bad for us.
Gullit: Low, thank goodness.
Townsend: 100%. Shit.
Motson: 100%
Lawro: 100%

The last two will of course be together on BBC 1. That's the bleak reality folks. My advice would be BBC 1, with commentary switched to Five Live when match starts. Oh, and break the number 3 button on your remote, just in case someone gets tempted.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Alan Shearer - CWSOP

It's not often that the BBC come in for harsher criticism than the goons on the other side, and as usual, the beeb has generally provided far superior coverage throughout this World Cup. Last night however, I reached boiling point whilst watching the second semi final on BBC 1. Never have I heard a spouting of such complete and utter bollocks as that delivered before, during, and in the aftermath of, France's victory last night. Not only was it bollocks, it was also unforgivably biased bollocks. The usually exemplary Alan Hansen and Martin O'Neill were even guilty on this occasion, but there was no greater offender than perhaps the single worst pundit of World Cup 2006 - yes, even worse than Ruud - Alan Shearer.

At both half time and full time Shearer expressed the view that this World Cup had tailed off since the group stages, and had in fact been a steaming pile of shite since the commencement of the last sixteen. Did Shearer watch the previous night's semi-final? A match so emotionally draining many who watched it were unable to sleep due to the nervous tension that refused to leave their bodies? Even if this professional World Cup analyst did manage to miss the biggest game of the tournament so far, surely he saw the magnificent flowing football of France v Brazil? Or the drama of Argentina v Mexico, ending with the goal of the tournament? Was he under instruction from the BBC, so pissed off that they had been lumbered with such a dreadful semi-final, to deny all knowledge of the amazing match that had been shown on ITV the night before?

Shearer's colleagues generously attempted to make him look less of a twat by backing him up - O'Neill for instance said "yes Alan you're right, teams have looked a little nervous as the competition's gone on". What, you mean as they get nearer to the World Cup final? Oh how dare they become nervous, how inconsiderate of them. Martin, you're better than this, don't feel you have to back this idiot up! Alan, I've got news for you - you and you only think the World Cup has been shite.

Then we have the unbelievably one-sided assessment of the match itself. Shearer and Gary Lineker may be English, but that gives them no right to virtually cheer on the opponents of the side that knocked out England. The analysis throughout gave the impression that Portugal had cheated England out of a semi-final place, and that the French were going to avenge this for us. Now tell me in what way were Portugal cheating against England? Given that Wayne Rooney had stamped on a player's private parts, was a polite enquiry (and it actually was - no imaginary card waving) about the possibility of a red card unreasonable? These pundits had no reason to dislike Portugal before the game other than blinkered bitterness brought about by their own teams failings, exactly the type of reaction we have come to expect from hooligans. Maybe messrs Lineker and Shearer would feel better if they put the windows of their nearest Portuguese restaurant through.

Of course, no one could defend the blatant cheating that the Portuguese turned to as the game wore on last night. Surprisingly their one forward, once again inexplicably reduced to none late in the match, failed to create a chance against the flat back ten of France. The only Portuguese hopes were raised by the lunatic behaviour of Barthez. Inevitably, Portugal became frustrated and desperate, and their attempts to con the referee became farcical. Our friends in the studio, of course, dipped their bread. They might as well just have chanted 'cheat, cheat, cheat' throughout the post match discussion, such was their delight at being able to criticise the villainous Portuguese enemy.

There was however, evidence of one more piece of 'simulation' that appeared to be ignored in last night's game. Did anyone else think that Thierry Henry, who as we all know despises the ghastly cheats, was rather keen to make the turf's acquaintance after the challenge by Carvalho? There can be no doubt that Carvalho's boot made contact with Henry - but so what? Since when was this alone a foul? And since when was it ok for a player to throw himself to the ground simply in order to make the referee aware that inconsequential contact has been made with an opponent? Call me old fashioned but to call a challenge a foul, I was under the impression it had to bring the player down, or at least interrupt his momentum in some way? Carvalho's challenge did not affect Henry's run in the slightest, it was not enough to prevent him carrying on, and it was entirely Henry's choice to hit the floor. That is a dive. That is cheating. And it was just as bad as anything the Portuguese players did. So did our 'experts' acknowledge this? Nah.

Lineker - "There's no doubt this is a penalty is there?"
Shearer - "That's definitely a foul, you can't blame Henry for going down there"
Hansen - "Stonewaller"

If Cristiano Ronaldo, who I can't stand by the way, had won the penalty in the same circumstances, do you think he would have received this reaction? No, me neither. Still no matter, everyone loves Thierry Henry don't they? And we all hate Ronaldo and Portugal, so why let facts get in the way of anything?

Taking of facts let's get to a few. The match was awful, and both teams, that's both teams contributed equally to this. After France had scored their thoroughly unmerited goal, they went on the defensive for the rest of the game, safe in the knowledge that there was really nothing to defend against. This was not simply a case of a side sensibly and classily defending a lead, this was out-and-out negativity, everyone behind the ball, not even looking to try anything on the break. It was a return to the France of the first round, the France of Euro 2004, the France of World Cup 2002. It was a return to the France I had confidently predicted would totally flop, and here they are in the World Cup final. France and Zidane gave us a display to savour in but one match - against a shockingly bad Brazil. On the evidence of the tournament as a whole, and especially the two semi-finals, there can only be one winner of the World Cup on Sunday, and certainly only one deserved winner. It's not France. However, I have had enough of writing the French off and being made to look silly so I'm going no further with that. For now.

As for Portugal their performance was indicative of the poor standard of opposition they have had to play to get to this lofty stage of the competition. A group they couldn't fail to get out of, a vile Dutch team interested only in tarnishing The Beautiful Game, and a completely disorganised, reduced strength England, who they didn't actually beat. Results not worth of a semi-final place unsurprisingly led to a performance not worthy of a World Cup semi-finalist. Scolari's tactics were bizarre, never playing more than the lone Pauleta in attack, and then actually substituting him in two extraordinary situations, first against an England team down to ten men, then when a goal down with a World Cup final place up for grabs. Then again, to look at Portugal's squad, what was his alternative? Portugal's next best striker was Nuno Gomes, so the Brazilian was probably sensible in assessing that he was better off without. Scolari's fury at the referee for not buying his players' attempts at cheating pretty much summed up the desperation of the Portuguese effort.

Of course, any sensible analysis of this match would have criticised France's inadequacies, and dull approach to the game.

Shearer - "Well France have been one of the better sides in the tournament, and they proved that tonight"

I give up. All I could think of was what the analysis would have sounded like had that performance been delivered by Italy. The Azzurri would have been crucified, 'look at them sitting back on the lead, no one wants this in the World Cup do they?', 'well it's just typical Italy, we see it from them every time, it's disappointing they have this attitude when everyone wants to see an entertaining game'.

Any real football fan should be thanking their lucky stars that Italy are in the final, they are our only hope of World Cup 2006 getting the climax it deserves on Sunday if the French take the same approach into the game as last night. It's a shame the three teams that have stood out clearly above the rest in this World Cup ended in the same half of the draw. Any combination of Italy, Germany and Argentina would have made a fabulous final. Indeed it's possible that the destiny of the first semi-final is to be remembered as the greatest final that never was. Let's just hope that the France, and Zizou, of the quarter final, turn up one last time. The reality is they will have to if France are to take their second World Cup.

I am now off to lobby the BBC for a panel of Hansen, O'Neill and Leonardo for the final.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Auf Wiedersehen

You see, the tournament would be much better off without Italy, they're so boring.

Yeah, right.

The first semi-final of World Cup 2006 was not only the match of the tournament, but will go down in World Cup legend as one of the greatest ever seen. The scoreline, still reading 0-0 with 90 seconds of extra time remaining, did it no justice whatsoever.

Semi-finals can often be nervous affairs, due to the sheer amount at stake. Sure, there is more to gain in a final with the ultimate prize to be won, but there is far more to lose in a semi-final, making these games much more susceptible to tension. When it comes players being dictated to by their emotions, fear of losing will assume power over the hope of winning almost every time. Besides, for the loser of a final there is an achievement on which to reflect and be proud, and the satisfaction of knowing their place in history is secure. For a beaten semi-finalist there is the certainty of obscurity, and the ignominy of participation in the harrowing misery of the 3rd place play-off.

What made last night's match different is that both sides, particularly Italy, defeated their fear. Perhaps this is not too surprising in Italy's situation, after all with many players facing relegation with their clubs, and having seen a personal friend almost take his own life a week before, what did they have to lose?

The entire 120 minutes of this game was completely absorbing, Italy dominated the first half-hour, controlling midfield, and with Totti enjoying his most creative spell of the tournament so far it appeared only a matter of time until they would break through. Germany however showed superb resilience, holding off the wave of attacks, and gradually growing stronger. The second half became a wonderfully open affair, with passing of the highest quality moving the ball swiftly between penalty areas, and nothing between the sides at all. The longer the match went without a goal, the more the feeling grew that Italy may have missed their chance. Ballack came more into the game, feeding his wingers who tried in vain to supply the German strikers with healthy ammunition, but found their efforts continually thwarted by the world's outstanding rearguard, and in particular the world's outstanding defender, the awesome Fabio Cannavaro.

Cannavaro was, in footballing terms at least, a giant, showing an almost psychic positional sense, precision and authority in the tackle, cool and accurate distribution, and when anything did go slightly awry, extraordinary powers of recovery. The captain was the ultimate leader, organising his defensive troops in one instant, and driving forward the attack the next. Only Zinedine Zidane can possibly hope to rival Cannavaro for player of the tournament now, and Zizou will need two mighty performances to rob the Italian skipper of that accolade.

As the match reached extra time, so Italy reached the point of no return. It was clear to everyone, including both sets of players, that a penalty shoot-out meant the death of the Italian dream. If Italy wanted their place in the World Cup final, the place their performance had definitely merited, they had to score a goal. Extra-time saw the drama reach an even higher level as a result, as Italy gathered everything they could find, and threw it straight at the German goal. Gilardino, a most influential substitute, hit the post, Zambrotta hit the bar, Del Piero got the ball stuck under his feet with the goal at his mercy. The commitment to attack of the Italians saw them playing the additional period with no fewer than four strikers - they really didn't want penalties. This, inevitably left them vulnerable, and the Germans almost took advantage, Buffon having to magnificently protect his perfect record against oppostion players in this World Cup.

It seemed that the monumental Italian effort had come to nothing, and that the penalty shoot out, and inevitable German win, was upon us. The expectation could be sensed all around the Dortmund stadium, a nation waited to acclaim it's heroes once again. But this Italian team has a spirit beyond that displayed by any other side in this World Cup. Pirlo, another wonderful performer in midfield, saw his excellent shot turned away for a corner by Lehmann. When the ball returned to the Italian on the edge of the area, his instinct must have been to fire in another shot. Instead Pirlo, with immense composure, skilfully evaded three oncoming defenders, and found space to slide the ball to Grosso, the left back, who from the right hand side of the penalty area, curled a perfect first time shot beyond the German 'keeper. Grosso's celebration resembled that of Marco Tardelli in 1982 (there can be no higher praise for a celebration), eyes bulging, fists pumping, tears streaming. The embodiment of what it means to put your team into the World Cup final. There was still time as the Germans made one desperate effort to recover for Del Piero to add a beautifully taken 2nd on the break, with the very last kick of the game.

The Italians celebrated not with relief, but with the joy of a team that had achieved exactly what it expected to. Never for a moment did the belief leave them that they would emerge victorious, and that, ultimately was what saw them through. For the Germans, an incredible adventure had come to an end, and they were left to deal with the extreme pain felt by a team that has to lose before its own expectant people. A nation that had celebrated as one since that last-minute winner against Poland, now suffered collective grief.

The surge of optimism that gives any host nation its foundation for success in a World Cup can unfortunately only do so much. In the cold light of day, the Germans must accept that they perished due to a lack of quality. Their best chances fell to the talented but raw Lukas Podolski, who spurned them. The effort shown by the workmanlike German midfield just couldn't quite cope with the class of the Italians. When a composed and cultured left foot was needed to provide the decisive finish, it was the foot of an Italian. This match was tremendously even, but Italy were just a little better everywhere on the field. Not vastly better, but enough for it to be apparent to everyone, and the grace with which the Germans accepted their defeat reflected this. The right team won.

The Italians are one step away from arriving at what they must now believe is their destiny. Only the finest all round team performance of the World Cup so far was enough to get them to the final, and they will believe that they can still improve on this when they get there. The victorious team in tonight's semi-final now know the formidable levels that they will need to reach in order to deny them.

They could start by trying to work out what on earth they need to do to score a goal.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Fairy Tales

News broke today that Fabio Capello, manager of the potentially relegated Juventus, has resigned as the match-fixing verdicts get ever nearer. The prosecution for this case also recommended today that Juve be relegated two divisions, and that demotion should also apply to Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio - clubs that supply many of the Italy squad currently preparing for a World Cup semi with Germany. A week ago, one day prior to their second round match with Australia, the Italians learned of the suicide attempt of Gianluca Pessotto, former team mate of many, and simply 'mate' of some. Not the ideal preparation you would think.

Yet teams that win World Cups, a bit like Grand National winners, always seem to have a story behind them that makes their triumph seem like some kind of fantasy. Think of the likes of the written off Brazil of 1994, Kempes and Maradona's Roy of The Rovers-esque efforts in 1978 and 1986, the France team of 1998 which had failed to qualify for the two previous World Cups, and perhaps best of all the West Germans of 1954 who came from two down in the final to beat Hungary, having lost 8-3 to the same opponents earlier in the competition. Also high on this list would be the victorious Italians of 1982. Two years prior to the tournament, Italy had suffered a match fixing scandal that led to two major clubs being relegated and several players being banned, one of which, Paulo Rossi, returned from his ban to play in the World Cup. After a nightmare start in which Italy scraped through the group stage without winning a game, the written-off Rossi scored six goals in the final 3 matches of the tournament to help Italy take the trophy.

A few pundits have made the Azzurri's current campaign out to be a carbon copy of '82, which it most certainly isn't, yet there are enough similarities to make the more romantic among us start to lean towards Italy when selecting a champion from the remaining four contenders. Match-fixing has reared its ugly head once again, though this time the problem is very much of present concern, unlike in 1982. The scandal however, as so often happens, appears to have created unity amongst the Italian squad, a most valuable commodity amongst a group well known for temperament issues. As the presidents, directors, managers, referees and gangsters involved all await their fates, to be known almost immediately after the World Cup final, the players seem to have cocooned themselves, more determined than ever that this will not affect their chance of glory.

It is most doubtful that Luca Toni will repeat Rossi's feats, and Toni's brace against Ukraine, scored as his place in the team had been brought into question after four goalless outings, is not quite comparable with Rossi's hat-trick against Brazil at the equivalent stage in '82 which came after a similar barren run, but again the resemblance is there. Who knows what the two goals will do for the confidence of someone who had the ability to score 30 serie A goals last season.

In addition to any positive omens that go with Italy, there are several negative ones that apply to the Germans, whose dreadful record against tonight's opposition I detailed in a previous post, and who the Italians beat to win the 1982 World Cup.

Now, I realise there's nothing whatsoever in all this that even approaches a concrete reason why Italy will beat Germany tonight and go on to win the World Cup, and indeed I have discussed the likelihood of an Italian success based on a more rational argument previously in this blog. But those who think vague historical comparisons are meaningless underestimate the power of psychology in football. Whether or not there are any worthy parallels between the Azzurri of 1982 & 2006 is irrelevant compared with whether the Italian players believe that there are. The thought that to win is your destiny, that your victory has already been decided, that it is actually impossible for you to lose - now that's a powerful mindset to take on to the field with you in a World Cup semi-final. Equally, the idea that you are playing your bogey team, a team that has got the better of not only your generation but all your predecessors as well, is not a good one to go into such a big match with. The Germans are renowned for their mental strength - will they have put such thoughts out of their mind? Is it possible for them to do so when such statistics fill every newspaper in the run up to the game?

When you hear a commentator ask, 'can history play a part in the outcome?', what they are really asking is 'can these footballers put superstition out of their minds?'. The same footballers who wear lucky shorts, lucky pants, lucky boots, walk out in their lucky position in the line, don't put on their lucky shirt until they've walked over their lucky bit of the tunnel and waved to their lucky wife at home sitting on the lucky chair holding the lucky dog - will these players be able to forget about superstition for a night?

To the rational thinking person, the Germans hold all the aces, they appear in better form, their performances have gathered momentum, the crowd is theirs in the most atmospheric stadium in the World Cup, their forwards are scoring much more freely than the opposition, and they have defeated better sides in the two previous rounds than the Italians. In addition, Italy's best player, someone who would surely need to be at his best for his team to win a game of such magnitude, is out of form and unreliable. The Germans are surely worthy favourites.

But is 'history' on their side?

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Now this is what I call irony

Those of you who have read this blog from the off will know that I didn't exactly rate the chances of the French team very highly. Well today I have a confession to make. I backed France to beat Brazil! Hahaha! Surely the most unjustified winnings ever, I slag off France right left and centre, and when they prove me to be a fool, I have the temerity to make money out of it! No, I have no shame.

Time for some humble pie. France, thank you, you were wonderful, it was a pleasure to witness your renaissance, and I as one of your biggest doubters, am only too delighted to be proven wrong, especially as your wonderful display of beautiful football accounted for the one team I have disliked more than you (not including Holland), Brazil.

So why the hell didn't you play like this before you lazy bastards?! Where have you been??

Brazil, an absolute rabble from start to finish in World Cup 2006, were turned over by a resurgent French team, and by a gloriously reawakened Zinedine Zidane, to whom I send this personal message:

Zizou, my friend, I know I doubted you, and I'm sorry. I criticised you harshly, but I was only thinking of your reputation as one of the game's giants. I did not want the lasting memory of you, a genius, to be of a useless, immobile waste of space. Thankfully you have left this to Ronaldo. Your status as a true footballing legend is secure. Zizou, I love you. Welcome back.

Another irony of this game was that two sides who have looked so dull, defensive and clueless in attack should produce the most open, attacking match of the tournament. In the end France triumphed because, unlike every other team in the competition, they were not scared of Brazil. If you walk onto a pitch feeling unequal to the opposition, you are beaten before you begin, and Brazil win so many games this way, through sheer intimidation. There was no chance however, of France succumbing, there are far too many egos in the French team for that. Why should players like Vieira, Zizou, Henry, Thuram, et al be in love with the Brazilians when they are so busy being in love with themselves? France's arrogance proved to be their biggest weapon, as it enabled them to overcome the toughest obstacle faced when playing Brazil - fear.

As for the (former, tee hee!) champs their legacy is surely to be remembered as the worst Brazil team to play in a World Cup. Not for one moment did Brazil ever look like world beaters, and I can't remember the last time you could look back on a tournament and say that. In fact Brazil carried (literally) with them the laughing stock of the tournament, his record breaking goals perhaps the biggest World Cup red herring ever. Yet this Brazil came in being hailed as possibly the greatest vintage of them all, famous five up front, Ronaldinho the finest since Pele, etc. How, er, ironic.

With confidence seemingly fully restored, France may be considered most people favourites now. Playing as they did last night, and with the real Zizou in tow, they will take some stopping, and do have the easier semi-final. The toughest problem remaining for the rest though is not Zidane, or the German crowd, and certainly not the snivelling Ronaldo. The team that wins now will surely be the one that can somehow work out how to score against Italy. Solve that one, and you will be deserved World Champions.

Now, what's the best way to spend ill-gotten gains...

Come on, you didn't think...?

Sorry, just a moment...


That's better.

People should be able to make a fortune out of England at the bookies (especially if you backed the draw, ahem!), they have to be the most predictable team in World football. If only they didn't get carried away with this optimism lark. Watching England in the World Cup is like re-reading your favourite book over and over again in the hope that the ending will change, a venture just doomed to failure every time. Yes, here we go again, troubles with unpredictable best player, will he play, won't he play? Yes yes, play crap win, play crap win, play crap win, play crap win. Ah, big team, this will be the end, we have no chance playing like this. Nooo, disaster, adversity, it's all going wrong. But wait...look, they're playing well...they're going for it...our heroes, they can do this! COME ON ENGLAND!!...

Oh dear.

Seriously though, it is absolutely typical England. As soon as they begin to look like a decent side, it's goodbye. What made this latest heroic failure particularly hard to swallow was the fact that it was all so easily avoidable. I said in a previous post that what England needed was to be free of Sven's tactical noose, and so it proved when change was forced upon them. Chance relieved England of their greatest hindrance, Beckham, and the pace and width of Lennon that replaced him almost won the game. What wasn't needed of course was being reduced to ten men and losing their best player, but even after Rooney's exit, England, with no plan in place whatsoever, took the game to Portugal and deserved to win. The truth is that the team that would have definitely won the game was on the field for less than ten minutes. England were given every clue to their best 11 during the warm up games, and in their poor performances in the early stages of this tournament, and yet they chose to ignore them all.

More frustrating still was the fact that Portugal were just asking to be beaten, and they gave surely one of the worst performances ever to earn a semi-final place in a World Cup. For a team which already had the bare minimum in attack, to reduce that number still further after the opposition had gone down to ten men has to go down as one of the most bizarre decisions ever. So much for another supposed tactical genius. 'Big Phil' Scolari got this one horribly wrong, as his battalion of midfielders ran around armed with the necessary weaponry, but with no target in sight. It should have lost Portugal the game, but the luck was with them. Portugal also feature in their team the World Cup's most odious individual in the utterly repellent form of Cristiano Ronaldo. Surely no one outside Portugal will be happy to see such a horrible, arrogant, overrated, cheating cry-baby lift the World Cup. Which is just as well, because he won't, and we do at least have the pleasure of his failure, and subsequent blubbing to look forward to.

Not that Ronaldo was actually responsible for the turning point of the match, whatever we may think of him. It was difficult to tell whether or not the referee did send off Wayne Rooney for the red-card offence he actually committed, or for the much less serious push that followed, but this really doesn't matter. All that is important in these circumstances is that justice is done, and there can be no doubt that the dismissal was justified. Rooney however, should not be made a scapegoat here either, in fact if any blame is to be ditributed, it should be pointed firmly in the direction of the England manager, and coaching staff. Even Rooney's foolishness can be linked to Eriksson's incompetence, after all the vicious stamp into Carvalho's groin was surely the act of a frustrated man, completely fed up with running himself into the ground with not a team mate in sight. Rooney deserved to go, but his mistake was understandable and forgivable. Eriksson's were not.

Of course, despite the frustration that all England fans feel at the team causing their own downfall once again, it should be remembered that at no stage of this tournament have England looked like World Champions. The Premiership is presented to us with such razzmatazz that it's easy to convince ourselves that the play seen there is better than it is. If commentators regularly tell us that John Terry and Rio Ferdinand are among the best defenders in the world, we believe it, and yet this tournament tells us something very different. Defensively England looked way behind France and Italy. In midfield they have nothing to compare with Argentina, despite the supposedly world class Lampard and Gerrard. Ironically, England's one individual display worthy of the world stage came from the one man that we are consistently told is rubbish. Yesterday, Owen Hargreaves gave one of the finest performances I have ever seen in an England shirt. The man was all over the pitch, despite the fact that he was meant to be playing midfield anchorman, usually a rather static position. Hargreaves maintained his covering position when Portugal had the ball, and yet got forward to support Rooney far more often than the two attacking midfielders infront of him, whose job it was to do so. I would like to hear the explanation of the tired-looking Lampard and Gerrard for this lack of energy shown in a World Cup quarter final. Well boys, was it the heat again? Hopefully Hargreaves will retain a place in the team, and in his correct position instead of being used as some kind of handyman utility player. I don't think you will see Bayern Munich moving him around too much after all.

Now of course, we have to suffer many people showing a disinterest in the World Cup. Only this morning, five live brought their World Cup breakfast show to an end, and presenter Nicky Campbell announced his return home. The suggestion that only England matter is one of the worst side effects of the World Cup. What are these people on? Get over your disappointment and park yourself infront of the next game!

After all, it's just getting interesting.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

True Colours

The lack of posts for a couple of days has not been down, as you might think, to the lack of football taking place. On the contrary, I had fully intended to keep you up to date with life as a World Cup obsessive on those days during the tournament when the remaining teams are allowed to rest, but alas, moving house and all the crap that comes with it have prevented me from posting. Also, I have now moved into a home which as yet has no internet connection so my posts may be a little delayed from now on. One thing that is certain is that, like the eventual world champions, this blog will continue to the bitter end!

Now where were we? Oh look, I go missing for a couple of days and I come back to find that World Cup 2006 has lost it's best team. You can't trust these footballers with anything can you? One thing should be clear, and that is that Argentina are the best footballl team in the world regardless of who wins the World Cup. Certainly when it comes down to technique, skill and sheer quality of their play they are anyway but as we know, that doesn't necessarily always win you football matches. When you get to a quarter final or beyond of the World Cup, I get the feeling that the teams that win are just those that get slightly less terrified than their opponents. Prior to yesterday's game, both these teams had advanced with a method of all-out-attack, in the Germans case mainly to keep the ball as far as possible from their untrustworthy defence, and yet both seemed rather crippled by the enormity of the occasion. What should have been a match to savour for its fast paced high drama and goals, will actually be remembered for the tension, slowly rising as they headed towards the moment of judgement, when one team that has come to the World Cup only to take away the trophy knows that their dreams will be shattered. Now that's pressure, and it got to Argentina.

After controlling the game for an hour, and taking the lead, the Argentine players and coach got the biggest case of the wobbles since Jana Novotna (legendary choker - tennis ed) last had a match point. This manifested itself in one of the classic "(sharp in take of breath) ooh, he's gonna regret that I tell you" substitutions as, with half an hour left and one goal up, Argentina removed Riquelme, their playmaker and axis, and replaced him with Cambiasso, a holding midfielder. They also used up their three subs without bringing on the young Prince Messi to torment their weary opponents. Germany duly equalised with ten minutes to go, and Argentina had nothing left with which to reply. The best they could achieve was to hold out in extra time and wait for the penalties, but as this game involved the Germans, we all know what happens then. I'm sure I caught sight of German players grinning as they meandered through the extra half-hour, knowing that as soon as the final whistle blew, the semi-final place was a mere formality. Readers can feel free to correct me if I'm wrong here, but as far as I know the Germans have lost only one major shoot out - the 1976 European Championship final to Czechoslovakia, when the famous chipped penalty (probably the first time that technique was ever seen in a major match) won the tournament. From that moment, it appears that it has been implanted into the brain of every German footballer that they do not lose penalty shoot outs, and their preparation for these occasions is becoming the stuff of legend.

So, each and every German penalty was duly despatched with frightening ease and confidence, and the match was all over. Well actually, not quite. Following the final whistle, complete anarchy broke out on the pitch as Argentina took their defeat, complete with the obligatory few dodgy refereeing decisions in favour of the host nation, rather badly. Gabriel Heinze was unsuccessfully restrained by at least 20 people, and when Maxi Rodriguez sprinted 30 yards to launch himself feet first into a group of Germans, Sepp Blatter must have been having palpatations over the effects this would have on his precious PR. Fifa shouldn't punish Argentina for this, they should celebrate the fact that football is played by emotional human beings who aren't actually delighted at being knocked out of the World Cup having not lost a match, and have just had all their dreams shattered. If this is the greatest show on earth, and it is, then the last thing you should want is for players to walk off smiling when they've lost. Argentina's behaviour was a fantastic advertisement for football, it said 'this is the World Cup. It matters.' I would love to see England behave like this when, sorry, if they lose to Portugal today. Only joking there!

As for Germany's semi-final opponents, the one thing they will know is that the game must be won in the conventional way. Not only are the Germans seemingly infallible when it comes to spot-kicks, there aren't many nations more vulnerable at that stage than Italy. Personally I don't think it will get that far, I think Italy will knock the Germans out in normal time. The wonderful scenes of national joy reached their cruscendo last night, and are about to turn into utter despondency. Why do I make such a bold statement? Quite frankly I can't understand why the Italians are so constantly written off by the TV pundits who appear to dislike them for being defensive. First of all I think it's a tired cliche, and the Italians are no more negative than most other sides, in fact in some cases they are less so. What the Italians do have is a magnificent defence, but this is not the same thing as being negative. Some of their games may appear quiet, especially if Italy take the lead, but this is because the opposition finds it impossible to carve out any chances due to the sheer quality of the defending. You can hardly blame the Italians for spoiling the game when the opposition simply aren't good enough to beat them.

Let's look at a few facts. Italy have the best goalkeeper in the tournament, the best centre-back, the best full-back, the best holding midfielder, and possibly the best winger. Ok, playmaker unfit and out of sorts, and centre forward unconvincing, but it's not a bad start is it? They haven't yet conceded to an opposition player in the tournament, Zaccardo's freak own goal against USA the only time Buffon has been beaten so far. Italy also haven't actually lost a football match for two years, surely this makes them, if anyone, the 'team to beat' in the tournament. Then there is their World Cup record - Italy haven't actually been knocked out in normal time since 1986, losing on penalties in 1990, 1994 and 1998, and going out to the South Korean golden goal in 2002. When it comes to playing Germany they're not bad either, 4 World Cup meetings, no German wins so far, and when they last played each other in a friendly, about two months prior to the World Cup, Italy thrashed Germany to such an extent that Klinsmann almost lost his job because of it. The omens do not look good for the Germans. Quite apart from the questionable clues that history gives us to the outcome, Italy are coming along very-nicely-thank-you in this tournament. Anyone who can coast to a 3-0 win in a World Cup quarter final the way Italy did deserves serious respect. Even then the BBC chose to question the standard of the opposition rather than give Italy any praise for their efficiency. England have made much harder work of far worse opposition so far, yet their chances are seen to be better than Italy's.

If winning in the final stages of a World Cup is more a mental task than anything else, then personally I think we have new World Cup favourites. Just so long as it doesn't go to penalties, which may be the only way the Italians can be beaten.

I can't sign off today without a mention of or TV friends once again. The gulf in class between BBC and ITV was perhaps more in evidence last night than any other night, both in the serious and non-serious stakes. In the aftermath of the vile Spanish supporters monkey chanting over La Marseillaise the other night, Fifa have insisted on each captain reading an anti-racism message before the quarter-finals. As the German and Argentine captains did so yesterday, ITV gave a cursory explanation, then proceeded to talk all over the announcements. Jonathan Pearce on the BBC gave a full explanation, declared his praise for such a venture, and gave us full translations of both Cannavaro's and Shevchenko's readings. As the BBC might tell you, this is what they do. Added to this was the BBC's half-time punditry, which was superb. Gary Lineker, for all his puns and biased assessments does at least have a relaxing style well suited to sports coverage. Steve Rider might be presenting a royal funeral, such is the gravity of his manner. Last night the BBC produced the TV moment of the World Cup so far, thanks to the wonderful Martin O'Neill, who began comparing Italy's style of play with the building of the Roman Empire, and even crediting Caesar and co with inventing the offside rule. It's only on the BBC.

Now, who's playing today? Ah yes...