MR. MACHIAVELLI HAS LEFT THE BUILDING
Merci Dieu. The Italians are done in, and beyond the borders of the boot-shaped country itself and half a million expatriate pizzerias, the tears are not exactly flowing. The Italians ruined the last World Cup Final with their ultracautious play, and it’s a relief to know they won’t be around to ruin this one. Year after year they produce breathtakingly skillful players, and year after year they play in exactly the same defensive style, stifling their opponents, hoping for one deadly counterattack to steal the game. They have some of the best players in the world, the most prestigious league (Serie A), and, in Roberto Baggio, arguably the most cunning footballer around, but their style of play feels increasingly inbred. Given that the Serie A is positively awash in international talent — Brazil’s Ronaldo, Chile’s Ivan Zamorano, Holland’s Patrick Kluivert and half the French team all play in it, to name just a few — it’s odd that none of it seems to rub off on Italy’s national side. They have now gone out of the World Cup for the third time in a row on penalty kicks, and it serves them right. If you play for a 1-0 victory, don’t complain when you get a 0-0 draw instead.
And another thing . . . one minute from the end of extra time, after he and his teammates had spent 120 minutes trying to penetrate Italy’s blue wall, France’s Emmanuel Petit kicked the ball out of play when he saw Luigi Di Biagio writhing in pain in Italy’s penalty area. This almost surreally old-fashioned bit of good sportsmanship — the French were literally in the midst of their final attack before the horror of the penalty shootout — drew a gasp of amazement from the 77,000 spectators at Saint-Denis and sent Univision’s Andres Cantor into an aria of stunned emotion. “El premio ‘fair play’ del Mundial!” he called it. “Del Mundial!” And what did the Italians do after their player had received treatment from the doctor? Did they give the ball back to their sporting opponents? No. Paolo Maldini, the coach’s son, took the throw-in himself, and instead of sending the ball out of play (so that France would regain possession), he threw it to a teammate, who promptly booted it upfield toward the French goal. Arrivederci!
Diego Simeone, Argentina’s captain, is a good actor and a devious mind. If he were a Brazilian, they’d call him Iago. (For a movie — The Maltese Soccer Ball, say —starring Holland’s Wim Jonk as a private detective, Simeone would make an ideal villain.) In the game with England, his histrionics won Argentina a penalty kick and later got David Beckham sent off. Going for an Oscar, Simeone repeated the trick in the quarterfinal with Holland, getting Arthur Numan red-carded in the 77th minute. Before Simeone could entrap another Dutch victim, his teammate Ariel Ortega screwed up Simeone’s master plan by head-butting the Dutch goalkeeper and getting sent off himself two minutes from time. The Dutch, who had dominated the second half before Numan’s dismissal, quickly re-established themselves. All afternoon Holland had swept the ball around the field in an awesome display of laserlike passing. Then, Frank de Boer sent a final long ball in Dennis Bergkamp’s direction, and with a mere three touches (one to control it, one to take it around his defender, one to knock it in the net), the Arsenal striker and English League Footballer of the Year did what the English couldn’t do: He sent the Argies packing. It wasn’t the most spectacular goal of the World Cup, but it may have been the most perfect.
“The World Cup is every bit as much about past wars and nationalistic fervor as it is about football,” wrote a letter writer to the L.A. Times the other day, sounding, like a lot of recent letter writers to the Times, as if he wasn’t enjoying the soccer very much. He then went on to suggest that, during halftime in the U.S. match with Iran, American coach Steve Sampson should have pumped up his “underachieving” players by showing them news footage of the 1979 hostage crisis — as if you could simply inject people with a sense of history by showing them five minutes of video clips at halftime. You either have a sense of history or you don’t. American-Iranian relations, or the lack of them, probably mean a lot to Iranians, but how much do they mean to Americans? And how much would an American victory have meant to the American public? Judging from the ratings, not much.
When England played Argentina, on the other hand, the stupendous din raised by England’s fans left no doubt as to how much a victory would mean to them. This was nationalistic fervor all right, and it was one reason why the game was so exciting. But there was also the game itself. At its best, there is something epic about soccer — the size of the field, the number of players, the extraordinary flow and unpredictability of the game — and, once in a while, it actually lives up to its potential. This was one of those times. If you’re going to have a war, this is the way to do it, with red cards rather than guns. David Beckham is not dead and buried, he is merely lying low beside a posh Spice Girl.
Soccer players like it harder
“It’s obvious to anyone but a FIFA traditionalist that the game needs to generate more scoring chances,” thundered another letter writer to the Times, unhappy with the way the 2-2 tie between England and Argentina had been settled by penalty kicks. He has a point, especially now that Brazil has gone through to the final on penalties after a 1-1 draw with Holland. On the other hand, the latter was hardly a game that failed to generate scoring chances. Ron aldo, who gave Brazil the lead in the 46th minute, looked sharper than he has all tournament and with a bit of luck, might have had a hat trick. Hol land’s Patrick Kluivert could have scored six. Only brilliant last-minute tackles kept the score down.
Every sports fan’s dream is a dream of total domination, but there’s precious little of it to be found in the World Cup. By the time the competition reaches its final stages, only a sliver of luck or talent or refereeing separates the teams — which is why soccer is cursed with penalty shootouts. For some Americans, this is the crippling flaw that underlines the essential wrongness of the game — and by the time this World Cup is over, they may have more ammunition for their argument. Change the rules, they say. Let’s have more goals, less ties. Make it more entertaining, goddamit!
Maybe: If I were head of FIFA, I’d probably increase the size of the goal by 2 or 3 inches — goalies are bigger than they used to be, after all — and scrap the offside rule when the ball is played within, say, 20 yards of the goal. But that’s about it. Difficulty — not ease — is what soccer’s about. (If it was supposed to be easy, it wouldn’t be played with the feet now, would it?) To the true soccer fan, a score of 0-0 may be unappealing, but a score of 5-4 is apt to feel childish. That’s a goal every 10 minutes. That’s two teams that don’t know how to defend.
In any case, it is not so hard to criticize a sport. One might, for instance, inquire of an American basketball fan why a 48-minute game should take two and a half hours to play. Is it so we can all watch an hour and a half of commercials? And if basketball is so exciting, why does it need to be accompanied by tacky organ music? Why is a coach allowed to stop the game whenever his team isn’t doing well? Why not just let them play? And since teams essentially spend the first 30 minutes of a game casually swapping baskets to no great effect, why not start the game in the fourth quarter? And…?
Next week: the semis, the final and a wrap-up. Brendan Bernhard can be reached at email@example.com.