Sunday, July 09, 2006

ATH: ITALIA VIVO!

What a shame to see Zizou end a magnificent career in such a dreadful way. He will regret that forever i'm sure. The cup was literally his, the glow had settled all around him, regardless of who the victor might have been. It was a sad end to a strange tournament.

Now that it has finished, let's dispense with all the hoo-ha about the group of death. I said early on that our group was the toughest. That the second (Czechs) and fifth (U.S.) ranked temas in the world were sent home from the first round should say something. And all our disappointment at our own finish is mitigated somewhat by our sole shining moment having come against the World Champions. Nevertheless, we were lackluster, and in the end Italy was just plain formidable.

Top of the world
Italy wins shootout with France for fourth Cup title
Italy not only won its fourth World Cup but also stretched its unbeaten streak to 25.
Posted: Sunday July 9, 2006 4:50PM; Updated: Sunday July 9, 2006 5:55PM

BERLIN (AP) -- Italy let France do nearly anything it wanted Sunday, except win the World Cup. That belongs to the Azzurri, 5-3 in a shootout after a 1-1 draw.

Outplayed for an hour and into extra time, the Italians won it after French captain Zinedine Zidane was ejected in the 110th minute for a vicious butt to the chest of Marco Materazzi. It was the ugliest act of a tournament that set records for yellow and red cards, diving and, at times, outright brutality.

And it was the last move for Zidane, who is retiring.

Without their leader for the shootout, the French only missed once. But Italy, rarely strong in such situations, made all five. Fabio Grosso clinched the Azzurri's fourth championship, and his teammates had to chase him halfway across the pitch to celebrate.

Only Brazil has more World Cups, five.

Until now, no team since the last Azzurri champions in 1982 had to endure the stress and anguish of a soccer scandal. Rather than be disrupted by the current probe ripping apart the national sport back home, the Italians survived.

In the final, they outlasted France, which underwent a renaissance of its own in the last month. The French controlled the flow of play, only to fail to finish through 120 minutes.

Their only goal, Zidane's penalty kick in the seventh minute, was the lone score by an Italy opponent in seven games.

But the Italians put the ball into the net 12 minutes later on Materazzi's header off a corner kick. And then they held on in a game marked by sloppiness and venom.

This was hardly artistic on either side, and rarely did Italy threaten over the final 75 minutes. But the Azzurri ignored recent history -- they lost a quarterfinal shootout to France in 1998, when Les Bleus went on to their only championship.

Andrea Pirlo, Materazzi, Daniele De Rossi and Alessandro Del Piero all easily beat France goalkeeper Fabien Barthez in the shootout. The difference was the miss by rarely used David Trezeguet, which hit the crossbar on France's second attempt.

When Grosso connected with his left foot, the sliver of Italian fans in the opposite corner of Olympic Stadium finally could let out their breath -- and screams of victory.

On the trophy stand, amid hugs and slaps on the back, Materazzi placed a red, white and green top hat on the Jules Rimet Trophy. Captain Fabio Cannavaro then held it high as cameras flashed everywhere. An impromptu Tarantella by the players followed as silver confetti fluttered around them.

It was, by far, the prettiest sight of the night.

With a 25-game unbeaten streak dating back nearly two years, the Italians added this title to their championships in 1934, 1938 and '82 -- when another match-fixing investigation plagued Serie A.

The hero then in Spain was striker Paolo Rossi, fresh off a two-year suspension for his role in match-fixing. This time, there were a dozen stars and a coach, Marcello Lippi, who seemed to make all the right moves.

Italy won its first-round group over the higher-ranked United States and Czech Republic, and Ghana. Then it beat Australia on a controversial penalty in the second-half extra time that Francesco Totti converted.

It routed Ukraine 3-0 before depressing the host nation with two stunning goals in the final minutes of extra time for a semifinal win over Germany.

Gianluigi Buffon made the save of the final match in the 104th minute as the ever-dangerous Zidane fed Willy Sagnol on the wing and then slipped into the area. Sagnol's cross was headed into the top of the net with the Italian keeper soared high to knock it over.

By then, the sea of blue supporters for both teams seemed as exhausted as the players. The crowd let out a short gasp, and then it was back to the tense and tentative action.

Zidane used his head again in the 110th for a nasty foul, a butt directly into the chest of Materazzi, earning the French captain an ejection.

For the remaining extra time, the fans whistled their displeasure.

Both sides played nervous, sloppy soccer for 120 minutes, hardly befitting a World Cup final. There were far more mistakes than inspiration.

France's Thierry Henry went down in the first minute in a seemingly innocent collision with the impregnable Cannavaro. Henry stayed on the ground, clearly dazed, for two minutes before being helped off with an ice bag held to his head.

The striker soon came back and his first touch, naturally, was a header. It was a terrific one, too, falling at the feet of a breaking Florent Malouda.

Malouda stumbled -- many might say dived -- in the penalty area and Argentine referee Horacio Elizondo immediately signaled a penalty kick.

Zidane, whose penalty beat Portugal in the semifinals, lobbed it right as Buffon dived the other way. The ball struck the crossbar and fell 2 feet inside the net in the seventh minute.

For the rest of the half, the French showed little of the flair that carried them this far. And Italy tied it with one of its strengths: a set piece.

Mauro Camoranesi won a corner kick on right wing and was setting up to take it when Andrea Pirlo signaled Camoranesi to back off. Pirlo took the corner, a perfect spiral that found the head of defender Materazzi above France's Patrick Vieira.

Materazzi's header soared past goalkeeper Fabien Barthez to tie it.

Luca Toni hit the crossbar off another corner kick in the 36th.

Henry had the best opportunity in the second half, but Buffon lunged left to hand-save his right-footed drive. France got a scare, too, when Zidane fell on his right arm and shoulder and needed freeze spray applied before staying in.

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