World Cup and its drama

2006 was all about the World Cup, but looking beyond, the year saw the passing away of the legendary Hungarian forward Ferenc Puskas, writes Nandita Sridhar.

The fact that a bald head striking a blue jersey covered chest is the longstanding image of the 2006 FIFA World Cup says something about the latter stages of the tournament, where, for most parts, the ball that flew off the boot defied nothing but hopes.

The `showpiece' event, a tag under severe threat after 2002, had the drama, no doubt, but did it have the quality that a World Cup stage demands? It doesn't take nitpicking to conclude that it didn't.

To put it simply, the goals dried up after the Group stages, with play getting more defensive, and fewer risks taken. The artificial and momentary excitement of penalty shootouts cannot make up for the thrill of watching a goal.

Thank God for Zinedine Zidane, the towering, bald figure the world was privileged to watch till he lost his head. Moments like his brilliant pass to Thierry Henry against Brazil and the audacious penalty he took in the final, showing nerves of steel made the event worth watching.

Alas, remembering Zidane henceforth will always be like admiring a cracked work of art. Discussing his sublime football will always summon (not willingly) thoughts of his final act on the football field. His ability to withstand pressure will always be weighed against his inability to withstand provocation.

But, for the moment, let's be content with what we saw of him for most parts of a tournament that saw the defensively strongest team lift the trophy. Italy played near faultless football throughout. The farther Italy went into the tournament, with the world's best goalkeeper and defender as part of its arsenal, the lesser the chances grew of scoring against it. Ironically, it was the very same team that produced the most exciting two minutes of classic football in the knockout stages, with Fabio Grosso and Alessandro del Piero shocking host Germany in the semifinals in extra time.

Playing in the backdrop of possibly the biggest football scandal to hit Italy, the champion did not let it affect its morale. For Fabio Cannavaro, having enough of the jack-in-the-box in him that aids jumping in front of his net when required, a World Cup win in his 100th match was perfect.

The Italians, though most will argue, were lucky to have been awarded a penalty against Australia, defended their fort in characteristic fashion. Conceding just two goals throughout the tournament, the Azzuris were as miserly as they could get.

With coach Marcelo Lippi's smart tactical changes after Group stages, and good teamwork from the likes of Cannavaro, Grosso, Gianluca Zambrotta and mid-fielders Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso, not to forget goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, Italy was worthy winner.

A statistic that most thought would go to Brazil or Argentina surprisingly went to the Germans who scored the most number of goals in the tournament. "We know how this euphoria carried us through the tournament," said the tournament's leading goal-scorer Miroslav Klose after Germany finished third. He couldn't have put it better.

Germany, buoyed by flag-waving, screaming crowds, played attacking football. The team dumped its tag of `mechanical' and `boring', and wiped off memories of its 2002 brand of football that lacked creativity and life though it took the side to the final.

Portugal surprised by finishing fourth, ahead of the fancied South American names (as it turned out, they were merely names and nothing else).

Possibly the biggest disappointment of the tournament was Brazil. Touted as the favourite almost out of habit rather than any positive indication of living up to past excellence, it proved to be a bunch playing from memory.

Manager Carlos Alberto Parreira refused to let go of his fixation for Cafu and Roberto Carlos, with neither warranting a place in the playing XI.

Ronaldinho was strangely subdued throughout, while Ronaldo had his hands full dealing with `weighty' matters. He, however, became the highest goal-scorer in the tournament's history. Kaka shone in the first match, but could do nothing more.

Brazil's best performance came against Japan, when it rested most of the `stars', a sign of things to come.

Argentina deserved better than getting knocked out on penalties by Germany. Producing two of the best moments — measured purely on the basis of flair — in the tournament, its exit as well as that of Brazil's took some sheen off the tournament in the later stages.

Argentina's mauling of Serbia and Montenegro in the Group stages saw a 24-pass delicacy, converted eventually by Esteban Cambiasso.

It should please the purists, frowning on the 'Europeanisation' of football, that the best goal of the tournament belonged to Argentinean Maxi Rodriguez. Against Mexico, in the extra time, Juan Sorin's pass went straight for his chest, after which he stunningly fired it into the net, raising hopes, that there is still room for magic in the cramped commercialisation of modern football.

As always, England was overrated and eventually under-performed. After the World Cup, David Beckham relinquished captaincy and Frank Lampard took his place.

The Australians, as one would expect them to do in sport, were ruthless and played hard. They were unlucky to lose to Italy, but not before a stunning performance against Japan. Ghana impressed with some refreshing and physical football, but lost tamely to Brazil, something of an anti-climax to their campaign. Czech Republic and The Netherlands were surprisingly disappointing.

The World Cup also came under the scanner for the refereeing, with the match between Portugal and Holland producing 16 yellow cards and four red cards. Possibly a few years from now, we might comprehend the reason behind Graham Poll's decision to give three yellow cards to Croatia's Josip Simunic.

Sportsmanship was as much prevalent as Brazilian flair. Most players played on diving boards and went to any extent to get the other sent off. And if that didn't work, the family insults were thrown in. Marco Matterazzi's infamous theatrics and his ability to feign injury by falling to the ground to a mere touch, would have had Geoffrey Boycott in an even-my-mum-can-push-him-down frenzy. But this time he chose to touch a well analysed and scrutinised Zidane nerve. In the ruthless world of modern sport things don't look like improving.

The year 2006 was all about the World Cup, but looking beyond, the year saw the passing away of the legendary Hungarian forward Ferenc Puskas in Budapest on November 17.

Barcelona showed its class in the Champions League beating Arsenal in the final. Chelsea became the second team after Manchester United, to win back-to-back Premiership titles. Sevilla won the UEFA Cup, with Brazilian club SC International winning the FIFA Clubs Cup.

As another World Cup year has come to close, it should be said that the best team won, though it was not the most beautiful team to watch.