Anti-climaxes galore

RONALDINHO (seen after Brazil lost to France) was given a more defensive role.-AP RONALDINHO (seen after Brazil lost to France) was given a more defensive role.

Metamorphosis might well have been the theme of a largely absorbing World Cup, which deserved a better conclusion than the penalty shoot-out of the final.

What is it about these World Cup finals? Four years earlier, Germany's belligerent blond goalkeeper, Oliver Kahn, had just been voted best goalkeeper of the tournament before the final. On the big day, he proceeded to make a complete hash of what should have been a very easy shot to deal with, thus giving Ronaldo a Brazilian goal. This time out, France's splendid veteran, 34-year-old Zinedine Zidane was about to be voted, quite deservedly, best player of the tournament. What then happens in the final? Why, Zidane, after so coolly chipping in his team's early penalty off the crossbar, and so nearly heading the winner from a cross from the right in extra time by Willy Sagnol whom he had set up himself, crazily head-butts Italy's Marco Materazzi and is sent off. As big an anticlimax, you might say, as the appalling finale of penalties after extra time, shades of 1994 and such a wretchedly irrelevant way to decide the game's greatest competition. The trouble now is that replays in a competition, now so top heavy with teams, is out of the question.

In 1994, before they met in the final in Pasadena, it was known that neither Brazil nor Italy would have countenanced a replay, weary as their players were. Any more than would the Czechs and Germans in a thrilling European final in 1976 in Belgrade, decided by a cool spot kick from the accomplished Czech midfielder, Antonin Panenka.

Metamorphosis might well have been the theme of a largely absorbing tournament, which deserved a better conclusion. Germany and France began so poorly that you would never have put any money on them to go as far as they did. Any more than you might have expected Zidane, after two mediocre games for France against the Swiss and South Koreans in the second of which he was actually substituted, to be brought back at all after the suspension which followed, let alone to become the star of the show. Much credit had to go to that slightly comical figure of a coach Raymond Domenech for restoring Zizou to the team against Spain, when he excelled, after their relations had become icily strained. David Trezeguet, who replaced Zizou against Togo and rejuvenated the attack, had seemed sure of his place against the Spaniards.

Italy's progress to the final was a curiously uneven one. They had no trouble in their opening game against the na�ve Ghanaians, who came to vigorous life in their next couple of matches only to look more ingenuous still against Brazil when their offside trap broke down pitifully four times, three times giving away a goal to a team which finished the tournament as poorly as they had begun it. So much for those of us who gave Brazil the favourites tag. But who could have predicted that the gifted Kaka, scorer of such a fine individual goal to beat a defiant Croatia in the opening game, would play so poorly against France that he would actually be substituted? Ronaldo looked heavy in those opening games, improved subsequently, but by the time Brazil met France was firing blanks again; as indeed was Adriano, who had a poor season with Inter. As for the world's best player, Ronaldinho, he seemed ill at ease in a somewhat constricting role, which definitely did not give him the creative freedom he has while playing for Barca. Brazil got more out of him in 2002 not least that insidious free-kick with which he beat England's 'keeper, David Seaman.

Returning to Italy, they were abysmal against the USA when Gabriele de Rossi was sent off for his vicious foul on Brian McBride. He may have been consoled by the fact that Marco Materazzi, the big, bruising centre back destined to be grounded himself by Zizou's head, dedicated the first of his two spectacular headed goals, against the Czechs, to him. But then there seemed to be an element of role reversal in Materazzi's assault by Zidane; the boot, you might say, tending to be on the other foot. It was tasteless of Materazzi to favour De Rossi, but should manager Marcello Lippi have even kept the Roma player in Germany let alone brought him on in the final, when he scored one of his team's penalties? Shades of the 1930s when Vittorio Pozzo, the twice World Cup winning Italian manager, deployed the Argentine thug of a centre half Luisito Monti, or in the late 70s and early 80s, when Enzo Bearzot used the fearsome Claudio Gentile, now in charge of Italy's Under-21 team!

Italy probably played their best and most adventurous football in the closing stages of the win against Germany, when Lippi went for broke by putting on extra strikers, and his full backs, Gianluca Zambrotta and Fabio Grosso, overlapped with such zeal. It hardly happened in the second half of the final, and it was a mystery why the Azzurri, having so worried the French defence and its shaky 'keeper Fabien Barthez with high crosses from the flanks, should have abandoned the policy after half time.

Argentina should surely have done better and it was disappointing to see their previously shrewd coach, Jose Pekerman, become the victim of his own caution against a German side which grew exponentially after the two opening games, solidifying the defence and gaining drive in attack. The confidence was seemingly gained by their 3-0 conquest of Ecuador. But it seemed badly wrong of Pekerman to pull off his favoured playmaker, Juan Roman Riquelme, and not to bring on the dynamic young winger Lionel Messi at all.

England? Who could disagree with unlucky Michael Owen when he lambasts the inept, greedy Eriksson for forcing a recovering Wayne Rooney to play alone up front and not having the guts even to use the 17-year-old attacker Theo Walcott, so obviously chosen as a cheap gimmick to show that the Swede wasn't the dull dog we took him for. Oh yes, alas, he was. But let us hope at least it will be the end of Beckhamitis and the start of a regular role for precious natural winger, Aaron Lennon.