A cup of surprises

Against the mysteriously abject Brazilians, Zizou was just as good as he was against Spain and wholly outshone some of the supposedly finest footballers in the world such as Ronaldinho.

It has been a World Cup of remarkable surprises. No. I am not talking about the elimination of a wretched England team managed by a greedy incompetent, a team that played just one decent match, its last in the competition against Portugal. The by now all too familiar battle of ten men against 11 was again seen in this match, which ended with the inevitable climax of defeat in the penalty shoot-out. The fifth time actually that England has lost in this fashion in top competitions; the second consecutive failure from the spot against Portugal, once against Argentina (10 men and extra time) in Saint Etienne in 1998, twice against the Germans. Before ever a ball was kicked I predicted that yet again England, for the third successive time under the inept Eriksson, would reach the quarter-final; and lose. Nothing could have been more ludicrously, self-indulgently mistaken than Eriksson's fatuous choice of 19-year-old Theo Walcott in the squad, when the expensive, certainly gifted, youngster had yet to kick a ball for Arsenal, let alone for England. It was, one felt at the time and all too rightly, no more than a cheap publicity gimmick, a pathetic attempt to show that behind the appearance of dull conservatism, Eriksson was a risk taker at heart.

What it meant was that in picking the untried Walcott, Eriksson rejected the choice of an internationally experienced Jermaine Defoe of Tottenham; then when things were sharply exacerbated by the loss of injured Michael Owen, the Swede hadn't even the courage of his own convictions, failing to use Walcott in a single game.

This, in turn, put a tremendous burden on Wayne Rooney who, in the end, snapped as one might have expected. No excuses for his excesses against Portugal, but in the first place, it was a heartless gamble to use him so early, if at all, after his serious metatarsal injury; and outrageous to use him as a solitary spearhead. A role which has never been his, and one in which the physical demands are enormous.

Eriksson protested during the tournament that there was no such metaphorical thing as a `marriage' between himself and David Beckham but, of course, there was, and it cost England dear. On those occasions when the ebullient, natural right winger Aaron Lennon got on the field, with his pace, his swerve and his initiative, we saw how much damage the real winger could do, rather than a player without the pace or the control to beat the full back. Beckham is a one-trick pony. The trick is an estimable one, with a remarkable right foot, capable of scoring or creating goals from afar, whether from free-kicks or corners. But the role is essentially a static one and Eriksson when he did, against Wales and Northern Ireland last season, take Beckham off the flank, it was to put him, absurdly, in a kind of quarter back role.

Now John Terry is canvassed as the new captain but he was badly found out in this tournament, strangely at sea in the latter stages of the game against Sweden, guilty of a shocking misheader against Ecuador which sent Carlos Tenorio clean through, only for a desperate intervention by Ashley Cole to deflect the ball onto the bar.

Thanks to the feeble incompetence of the Football Association, Eriksson rather than be shown the door for his various surreptitious attempts to join Manchester United or Chelsea, made millions of pounds out of a job so badly done. And let us not dwell on what euphemistically be called his romantic life, which, inter alia, involved a sordid affair with a girl secretary at the FA.

Were I to choose the shining star of this surprising tournament, it would surely be the astonishing French veteran, the 34-year-old Zinedine Zidane. His transformation, after two initial unhappy games for France, defied explanation. When France's much-criticised manager, Raymond Domenech, substituted Zizou during the game against South Korea, Zinedine walked off the field without a word or a glance at him. Suspended from the next game against Togo, you did wonder whether he would even return, especially as, with David Trezeguet at last being started alongside his old Monaco team-mate Thierry Henry, the wheels at last seemed to be turning.

So when I went to the ensuing game against Spain I was surprised indeed to see Zidane in and Trezeguet out and simply astounded by the superb display Zizou then gave. Abetted by the splendidly quick and incisive young winger Franck Ribery, Zizou simply dominated the field with sometimes almost casual command, elegant in possession, inspired in his passing. He scored at the very end a glorious solo goal.

Against the fading, mysteriously abject Brazilians, Zizou was just as good and wholly outshone some of the supposedly finest footballers in the world such as Ronaldinho, who was almost an anonymous figure, Ronaldo, looking as heavy as in his team's two opening games, and Kaka, who was actually substituted. The huge free-kick from the left which enabled Thierry Henry to shoot his spectacular goal was, in its own way, as remarkable as the shot itself.

Why did the virtue seep out of Brazil? The fact is that they started badly and when they did after their two opening games got into gear it was against modest opposition. Goodness knows what happened to Ghana in their match; no fewer than four times did the pathetic Ghanaian offside trap break down and on three of those occasions the Brazilians scored. But then, I never did think a great deal about Carlos Alberto Parreira as a coach; he is simply one who began uneasily, albeit briefly, when he wanted to practise what he termed `athletic' football, against Brazilian traditions, and who was absurdly petulant in 1993 when he dropped Romario from his qualifying squad only to bring him back desperately just in time to score twice against Uruguay and take Brazil to the States.

The other major South American coach, Jose Pekerman, lost his way badly in the match against a German team almost miraculously come to vigorous life after two dreadful opening displays. Not to bring on the wonderfully precious Lionel Messi at any point, and to take off his own prot�g� Juan Roman Riquelme made no sense. But Juergen Klinsmann, using unorthodox assistance in his team preparation, managed to transform a team that suddenly, after beating Ecuador 3-0, began to believe in itself, tightened up in defence, looked sharp in attack.

Italy made progress one way and another though that 3-0 win against Ukraine severely flattered them; Gianluigi Buffon had to make four fine saves and his bar was struck. Should they have had that penalty against Australia when Fabio Grosso fell over Lucas Neill's horizontal body? But then should Marco Materazzi, however ruthless a figure, have been sent off in that game?