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It's Over!

FIFA BROUGHT OUT ITS WORLD CUP ALL-STAR list, and France's Zinedine Zidane was nowhere to be found on it. Nor were Argentina's Juan-Sebastian Veron, Italy's Francesco Totti and England's David Beckham -- all of whom had been expected to demonstrate their greatness in Japan and South Korea. Instead, alongside Brazil's Rivaldo and Ronaldinho and Germany's Michael Ballack, the U.S.'s Claudio Reyna was chosen in midfield. While he probably wouldn't make the final cut (this was a 16-man squad, not a starting 11), no one would have dreamed of such an outcome in May.

A couple of years ago, FIFA floated a proposal that the World Cup be held every two years instead of every four. Fortunately, the scheme was shot down quickly. The value of the competition relies heavily on its rarity, something fans the world over know in their bones, even if the game's bureaucrats don't. Nonetheless, there's a logic behind the idea. Were the next World Cup to be in 2004, then the makeup of the various teams might still be similar enough to allow us a better understanding of what happened at this year's competition. But by 2006, it will be much too late -- the coaches will have left, many of the players will have retired, and almost every country will field a team so radically different from this year's that comparisons will be impossible.

Only league play, where teams must confront each other repeatedly and perform consistently for the best part of a year, allows for an accurate appraisal of a team's talent. The World Cup is a one-off. Brazil played Turkey twice, but otherwise each encounter was unique. Would Senegal beat France again if they were to meet a month from now? How would Mexico fare against the U.S. next time? Could South Korea repeat its miraculous string of victories against Portugal, Italy and Spain? Would Argentina demonstrate why they were so feared before the tournament began? If you wanted a really definitive competition, you'd tell everyone to take the next six weeks off, then train for six weeks, and then meet again (in cooler weather) to start the whole thing all over again -- only properly this time.

It's an idiotic fantasy, I admit, and too exhausting to contemplate for more than a moment. Normally, one wouldn't even indulge in such thoughts, but then normally a seemingly mediocre team like Germany doesn't get to the final, and the third-place prize isn't contested by footballing minnows like Turkey and South Korea. Yet how well those "minnows" (and Germany) played! Usually a tired affair between two equally disappointed nations, this year's third-place match was a thriller sandwiched between a goal by Turkey's Hakan Sukur after 11 seconds -- the fastest ever scored in the World Cup -- and another by Korea's Song Chong-Gug in injury time, making it 3-2 Turkey. It could have been 3-3 had not a legitimate Korean goal been ruled offside. (In the end, even the Red Devils got nailed on that one.) It was the teams' underdog status that made the match so lively. Had Brazil been playing Germany, say, it's a good bet that the multimillionaires on either side would have treated the match as a formality, risking little and worrying about injury more than entertaining the crowd. But the Turks and Koreans, proud to be battling for third place, gave everything of themselves. They played defense, but worried more about attack. They dribbled and took men on, they combined for beautiful passes, they took risks and played exciting free-flowing soccer. Watching it, you had to wonder whether the final itself could possibly be so animated. Maybe "the beautiful game" would end up belonging to Turkey and South Korea rather than its traditional owner, Brazil.

FROM THE START OF THIS EXTRAORDINARY World Cup, one possible outcome was always that Brazil would get to the final and that Ronaldo would score the winning goal, thus decisively burying the memory of the title match four years ago, when he had a seizure hours before kickoff and ghosted through Brazil's 3-0 loss to France. Amazingly, this fairy tale, this slice of pure Hollywood fantasy, actually happened. Even better, Ronaldo scored twice to give his team a 2-0 victory and the Cup. The end was so perfect it was almost anticlimactic. Even those ultimate spoilers, the Germans, who dominated much of the game and played intelligently throughout, were unable to stop the fairy tale in its tracks. It wasn't the refs who rigged the match. It was the Supreme Being.

Ronaldo, an immensely likable person and one of the most talented forwards ever to play the game, has spent three of the last four seasons sidelined by a series of crippling injuries. He touched bottom in April 2000, when he returned to the field for his club team Inter Milan in a match against Italian rivals Lazio. By this point, Ronaldo had already been out of the game for something like six months following an operation on his left knee. Yet after only seven minutes on the field, he fell to the ground in agony, with his kneecap literally poking out of his thigh. No one had touched him or tackled him. Ronaldo was merely running with the ball when his knee gave way. It looked as if the man who had already been voted world player of the year twice by the age of 21 would have to retire at 23. If you wanted to point to the enervating physical and psychological pressures that beset the modern athlete, Ronaldo was your man.

So that he has helped his team to win the World Cup and won the Golden Boot (as the competition's top scorer, with eight goals) for himself is immensely cheering. If Germany had won on Sunday, and if Ronaldo himself had played badly, the game might have scarred him for life. Rightly or wrongly, he would have gone down as one of the most talented chokers in sports history. That he escaped such a hideous fate is something to be grateful for. Certainly he was. "Although both are very hard to go without, I don't think sex could ever be as rewarding as winning the World Cup," he was reported as saying after the match, sounding suspiciously like a Nick Hornby fan. "It's not that sex isn't great -- it's just that it's a lot more regular than the World Cup, which is only every four years." Since his wife is a rather good soccer player herself, perhaps she'll understand.

Having won the World Cup five times now (twice more than Germany and Italy, who come in second with three victories), the Brazilians are indisputably the most successful footballers in the world. But as this tournament demonstrated, things are becoming increasingly competitive further down the totem pole. America, South Korea, Senegal and Turkey have all memorably put themselves in contention. China is just beginning to stir. Nigeria and Cameroon will be back. And the Italians, Argentineans, Spanish and French will be hungry for redemption at the next World Cup. As for the Dutch, who inexplicably failed to qualify this time, they will be eager to prove once more that they are as good as anyone in the world. And there's nowhere they'd rather do it than in the stadia of their old enemy, the Germans, who will be the hosts in 2006.

Since that's four long years away, perhaps this is the time to point out that Americans who have just become interested in the game don't have to wait until the next World Cup to watch more of it. Locally, there's Major League Soccer, of course, but more importantly there's the wealth of European soccer to be seen year-round on any television set equipped with cable. Most of the world's best players belong to clubs in England, Italy, Spain and Germany. If you get the local Spanish stations or Fox Sports World, you can watch them play all season long. The English Premier League, in particular, is home to some of the most exciting football I've ever seen, not to mention the U.S.'s Brad Friedel, Claudio Reyna, Joe Max-Moore, Kasey Keller, Greg Berhalter and others. And the beauty of it is that -- as usual with soccer -- there are no commercials. You can enjoy an entire season of soccer from several different countries without having to sit through a single beer ad. As the Spanish commentators like to say, increĆ­ble.