So we are down to this: four teams representing nations that are practically all contiguous to each other. After years of qualifying matches held all over the Earth involving countries as exotic as they come, and a 32-flag fiesta enlivened by crazed courage of Trinidad, Cote d’Ivoire’s glimmers of genius and Argentina’s simmering tango, it turns out the best football is played in roughly two time zones bounded by the Atlantic and the Oder.
This World Cup has become the European Union Championship, which no doubt pleases the species of Euro soccer snob (particularly prevalent in certain Anglophonic newsrooms) who would prefer to return to the good old days of a 16-team finals and token participation from those hard-to-pronounce Third World countries. And while the endlessly dodgy refereeing arguably helped bring the Final Four into being—specifically via Italy’s survival on the controversial (I thought justified) penalty versus nervy, hard-as-steel Australia—you can’t really call any of the contenders undeserving.
Italy are less than fantastic, especially when they collectively hit the CHEAT DIVE STEAL button, but have quietly assembled a daunting tournament run: only one goal conceded (and that, the charitable own-goal against the USA) and, what, nine scored? By Italian standards that’s a drunken orgy of attacking football. Portugal are a weird brand of ugly: an unsympathetic, violent, brooding underdog. Ordinarily I’d be drawn to the only survivor not already tapped for the Jules Rimet Trophy Alumni Assoc., but I find Scolari’s boys pretty unattractive. But they walked through fire to get here, and may just have the unlovely grit to pull the surprise of the decade.
Germany and France, then, are the White Hats in this corral shoot-out, the final pairing that might possibly cash in this World Cup’s not-quite-realized promise. Ze Germans are doing their level best, at Sexy Jurgen’s urging, to turn cyborg efficiency into something resembling great soccer. Three cheers and a hurled stein of Munich’s finest to them—if they take the Enchilada, they’ll be deserving champions.
And France—well, what can you say about the sexy manhandling they gave listless Brasil? Granted, it’s always nice when THE SUPPOSED WORLD CHAMPIONS COMPLETELY FORGET TO MARK ONE OF THE WORLD’S TOP STRIKERS IN A FREE KICK SITUATION, but if soccer were scored on style points, France would have taken that match 10-0. (In other news, I hear Eddie Pope and Roberto Carlos are planning to open a defenders’ academy together.) Zizou—who is “officially” 34 years old but was actually carved out of living rock by killer alien Druids in 1200 AD—accomplished feats of wizardry that Ronaldhino et al are only capable of in the safety of a Nike studio. And hey—when samba fails you, why not slip on a Serge Gainsbourg disc, fire a Gauloise and think deep thoughts for awhile?
So here we are. My genetics say “Forza Italia.” My leanings as a semi-gay faux-sophisticated Blue State cosmopolitan insist on “Allez les Bleus.” Common sense tells me the Germans have it the bag. Which all means that Portugal will probably win the goddamned thing, but we shall see. That’s the great thing about the World Cup—anything can happen!
And if by “anything,” one means that the title will be decided by a bunch of teams that have won it all time and time again, that’s absolutely true.