| GAULS VS...
The sky had indeed looked like falling on their head, till the French transformed themselves from a gang of Geriatrix to an army of Asterix. Can captain Zizou wrest the ultimate laurel wreath in this month named after Julius Caesar'
For 62 years between 1920 and 1982, the French never beat the Italians. Since then, it has been vice versa. In World Cup games, they are split 2-2. In Euro 2000, the French scalped the Italians
They will appropriately be led by a centurion. Fabio Cannavaro picks up his 100th cap on Sunday. With three defenders nominated for Best Player (Zambrotta, Buffon and Cannavaro), the Italian rear looks like the fabled Roman phalanx
Watch Latina songstress Shakira and 400 performers liven up pre-match festivities with a “love parade”. No Cacofonix to gag and tie up after the match, though
France and Italy are form finalists. Scan the last four weeks of the 2006 World Cup finals and seek out the finest players and an all-star team would probably include a majority from the two nations who duel in Berlin’s Olympiastadion.
But, like the historic old venue itself, something about this final sits awry.
In the stadium’s case we are talking aesthetics. The grand old lines which have stood the test of 80 years amid a variety of political and military assaults look ill at ease beneath the steel and plastic canopy which passes for the essential roof. (Also, the stadium is elliptical in design, which is an insult to distantly seated fans who thought they were paying significant sums to be close to the action).
Similarly, Les Bleus and the Azzurri are not quite those whom we expected to find as the last men standing.
France, champions in 1998 and fading in 2002, were fortunate to survive qualifying and started down the group trail like a bunch of strangers all in search of the fastest route home. Italy, neighbours in both geography and in rickety procession to Berlin, have put in only one “real” performance, against hosts Germany in the semi-finals. These are, then, minimalists ' finalists who have put a necessary economy of effort and whose status as finalists is defined through an ability to seize the opportunities which came their way.
Italy benefited from a comparatively easy group and the fact that Argentina, whom they feared, were knocked out by Germany, whom they did not. France played a fine final half hour against Spain in the second round, then benefited from positive thinking and a misfiring Brazil in the quarters.
Pele, who continues to be an enthusiastic spectator at the World Cup despite Brazil’s demise, has a fascinating take on these finals. He sees them as the first finals that have not been dominated by one major goal-scorer and says he has been more impressed by defenders and midfielders than strikers.
That, frankly, is not good news for the game in general or this concluding game in particular. Fans want to see goals and, for all the spectacular nature of some of the early strikes ' Rosicky, Frings, Lahm, Gerrard, etc ' they have been disappointed.
For the majority here that has not mattered significantly because the German hosts progressed to the semi-finals and that kept the home audience happy. But if France and Italy are typical of what these finals have offered, then we might ' at the extreme ' be in for a repeat of 1994 when a goalless draw between Brazil and Italy was decided by a penalty shootout.
That was for the only time' so far.
Creative players will not be lacking in Berlin. It has been a privilege to see Zinedine Zidane enjoying a second footballing youth as he stands on the brink of retirement. This final will be his last game and the romantics will want a French victory so that the great Zizou can go out gloriously in Roy of the Rovers style.
Across midfield will be Italy’s Andrea Pirlo, a superbly balanced footballer who thinks the game as diligently as he works it. Pirlo possesses Zidane’s gift of being able to move one way ' and take a defence with him ' while sending the ball in the opposite direction. Italy’s defence being pretty rock solid, Pirlo needs do that only once and the game will be over.
France has a problem. To shore up midfield the French use Arsenal’s Thierry Henry as a lone striker and this is not his ideal working style. Henry needs a support worker to help create space into which he can inject his killing pace. Thus, in their six games thus far, the French have scored a measly eight goals, even fewer than Italy’s 11.
Of course, the final could be a rip-roaring game with a stream of goals at both ends. Imagine Henry, Zidane, Florent Malouda and Franck Ribery testing the acrobatically magnificent Gianluigi Buffon at one end while Luca Toni, Pirlo and Francesco Totti bombard a frighteningly unpredictable Fabien Barthez at the other.
Do not, however, imagine it will turn out like that. “Respect” is an overworked word these days. In tune with the linguistic times, there may be more respect at play in the World Cup final than we need on football’s grandest occasion.