Italy’s Golden Moment

In the waning moments of overtime in its World Cup semi-final against Germany, Italy attacked with dramatic results. The strategy led to two goals and a last-minute victory over the tournament hosts. Afterwards, Italian coach Marcello Lippi attributed the team's uncharacteristic offensive mindset to its dread of letting the game end in a shootout. Italy had never won a World Cup match on penalty kicks, exiting three of the last four tournaments (including its loss to Brazil in the 1994 final) via the excruciating one-on-one duel.

But the penalty shootout is ultimately—both its defenders and debunkers largely agree—a crapshoot. And if you shoot craps often enough, one day your number will come up. So it was Sunday night in Berlin, as Italy's number—a fourth World Cup championship—came up big. Italy converted all five of its shots to beat France, after a sometimes exhilarating, sometimes desultory and, occasionally, stunning, 1-1 tie.

Much was made of the opposing goalkeepers in anticipation of this dramatic end, with everyone giving the advantage to the athletic, 6' 4" Gianluigi Buffon over the flamboyant 6' Fabien Barthez. But neither even came close to making a save in the shootout. The difference, as it so often is, was a single glitch and, in this case, a miniscule one. David Trezeguet, a gifted scorer lacking the trust of his coach, had languished on the bench for most of the tournament. He picked the worst possible moment to prove his coach right, clanging his penalty attempt off the bottom of the crossbar from where it fell harmlessly to the ground in front of the goal line. After three more Italians converted, the last fittingly made by Fabio Grosso who had saved the day for the Azzurri previously against both Australia and Germany, the trophy was headed home to Italy for the first time in 24 years.

Italy won this game and a few more in this championship not by being the best team on the field—France outplayed Italy for almost the entire second half—but by always finding a way, indeed several different ways. And there's no real argument with that. There will be countless bar discussions over which team played the prettiest soccer—my vote goes to Argentina at its best—but none over which team had the greatest instinct for survival.

This Italian team showed a little more offensive flair than some of its recent vintages. But in the end it triumphed, as so many great Italian teams have, on the back of its defense. Buffon was virtually impregnable, scored upon just twice in this tournament, once on a French penalty kick and the other an own goal in a tie against the United States. In the overtime, he made a brilliant one-handed save off a Zinedine Zidane header to maintain the tie and, ultimately, to force the shootout.

But the best player on the field today and throughout the tournament was the 32-year-old Italian captain Fabio Cannavaro, the smallish central defender who plays twice his size and with an unequalled combination of brains and heart. Though the key center of Il Muro ("the wall"), he seemed to be everywhere he needed to be, poking the ball away from the French attackers or muscling them off the ball. (Lilian Thuran, the French central defender who plays alongside Cannavaro at the Italian soccer club Juventus, was almost as good throughout the tournament.) It may be his final international game for Italy and, if so, should have merited a small share of all the attention that went to Zidane. Winning, however, should prove more than ample consolation.

Zidane, 34, the French captain coaxed out of retirement to invigorate a lackluster French side, had done just that through the last several critical games—dangerous on free kicks and deadly on penalty kicks. But when he produced the game's most stunning moment, it wasn’t good news for France. Zizou had already scored the French goal and came close to a game-winner with an overtime header reminiscent of the two he scored in the 1998 final against Brazil. But with many rooting for one last brilliance to cap his career, Zidane instead flashed some ill-timed temper, head-butting an Italian defender away from the ball and exiting his last game for Les Bleus on a red card. (The cheap-shot was actually worthy of two red cards and should rate a long, meaningless suspension.) Many will deem it an incomprehensible blunder, but Zidane's temperament has, at times, been his weak suit. In France '98, he took a stupid red card in the team's opener against South Africa and was lucky his teammates rallied to give him his shot at redemption. There will be no opportunity for redemption from this last one and the blemish will be an ugly, final note on a great career.

For Italy, it is quite the opposite. This hard-fought, well-deserved World Cup championship is an exquisite moment on the giant blemish that is the Italian national game. It will be days before the celebration begins to peter out back home. But when it does, there will remain a scandal of gambling, match-fixing and other venal sins for the country to confront. More than half the Italian team plays for four elite Italian clubs that have been implicated and that are likely, as part of the punishment, to be relegated to Italian soccer's minor leagues. Coupled with the great World Cup championship, Italian soccer this day is the perfect embodiment of beauty and the beast.

The same could be said for Germany '06. The offensive showcase that delighted fans in the opening game, Germany 4 Costa Rica 2, did not prove to be a portent of lovely things to come. (In the next 63 games, only Argentina 6, Serbia and Montenegro 0 matched the goal total.) One could only find what ensued beautiful if yellow and red happen to be your favorite colors, as referees upstaged the players in a vain attempt to discourage the dangerous and resurrect the game's majestic flow. It was an ill-conceived plan. But by the semis, the worst of the refs had gone home. And while the remaining matches were not exactly showcases, far more ferocious than beautiful, all were competitive and intensely dramatic. The World Cup, for all its flaws, remains a singularly thrilling competition. The only disappointment now is that we all have to wait four more years to live it again.