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Archive for Sunday, July 9, 2006

Commentary: Italy, France surprising the ‘experts’

July 9, 2006

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Either three-time champion Italy or one-time champion France will add a gold star to their national team jersey and etch their country's name on the World Cup trophy today. And of course, for the next four years Italian or French people will proudly proclaim their soccer prowess. When the 2006 World Cup began in Germany one month ago, very few so-called experts predicted that these two countries would dispute the final match. What happened?

Italy made it to the championship game thanks to an air-tight defense that only allowed one goal - an own goal against the United States - in six matches. One can hardly point to a single player's performance as being responsible for their success, considering that Italy's 11 goals were scored by 10 different players. If the Italians become champions today, it will have been the result of a true team effort.

France had a much different path to the championship game, rising from near-elimination in the first round to phenomenal performances in the knockout stages thanks to clutch performances by aging star Zinedine Zidane and dangerous striker Thierry Henry. On their path to the championship game, the French eliminated three powerful teams, including a savory victory over five-time champion Brazil.

Regardless of today's result, Germany 2006 will be remembered for dramatic finishes and atrocious refereeing. As punctuated by Italy's last-minute victory over Germany in the semifinals, numerous matches were decided in the waning minutes. On the other hand, the crescendo of heinous officiating was reached by Russian referee Valentin Ivanov, who managed to distribute 16 yellow cards and four reds in the Portugal-Holland match.

As I wait in anticipation of today's final, I can't help but feel that the best team of the tournament is not participating. Argentina never lost a match (Germany advanced from their tied quarterfinal game on penalty kicks), played beautiful attacking soccer, scored fantastic goals (see the replay of Maxi Rodriguez's strike against Mexico), and yet their players will watch today's final at home. I'm biased, of course, given my Argentine heritage, but at least I can take solace in the fact that both Italy and France have one Argentine player on their squads: Mauro Camoranesi and David Trezeguet, respectively.

Unlike previous World Cups, the 2006 edition has yet to produce a clear-cut "star" of the tournament. German Miroslav Klose is currently the top scorer, though he could be surpassed by Frenchmen Thierry Henry or Zinedine Zidane today. If France wins, perhaps one of those two players will be thought of when Germany 2006 is remembered.

Before the World Cup began, I produced a tournament bracket predicting the outcomes and match-ups. My final four prediction (Czech Republic, Holland, Spain and Argentina) published in the Lawrence Journal-World on the day of the opening game was woefully wrong, much to the pleasure of my friends and colleagues. The Czechs didn't make it out of the first round, Holland and Spain were thrown out in the round of 16, and Argentina was unlucky to not pass the quarterfinals. So your best bet is to read my prediction for the final game and expect the opposite to happen: Italy 2, France 1.

- Robert G. Rodriguez holds a Ph.D. in political science from Kansas University, specializing in politics and sport. He is the associate director of the KU McNair Scholars Program, and an adjunct professor in political science and Latin American Studies at KU.

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