The Azzurri defied the odds and silenced the doubters
Posted: Wednesday July 12, 2006 12:23PM; Updated: Wednesday July 12, 2006 12:23PM
The Italian players fought the overrated label all tournament long and ended up breathing life into an otherwise drab World Cup.
I was wrong, Italia. Wrong to doubt you, wrong to criticize you, wrong to think that you were overrated, overscandalized and overmatched.
Scusami, Fabrizio. ScusamiMichele. ScusamiFranco. And, most important, scusamiPaola, "la mia bella Italiana," who is now thoroughly enjoying making me eat all my pre-Cup Italy-bashing words. She is particularly fond of the following passage I wrote: "To be honest ... I think Italy will have trouble advancing from its group."
Nice going, Nostradamus. Now I owe Paola dinner at Nobu. (I might have to sell my laptop to pay for it, but what the hell -- cute Italians don't visit me very often.)
But I'd like to say to the Azzurri one more thing: Grazie. Thank you for showing us that soccer is not about how much individual talent you possess (see: Brazil), but about how the players interact. And thank you for giving us something to remember, something even more unexpected and astounding that Zizou's headbutt.
Up until the semifinals, this had been, for me, a most bland and unremarkable World Cup. No real Cinderella team, not very much good soccer, too many cards, too many dives, and ultimately only one transcendent goal -- Argentine Maxi Rodríguez's volley against Mexico.
FIFA tried to counter the negativity with the glorification of Ghana. It fit well with the soccer suits' commendable efforts to promote diversity (even while the referees consistently screwed the African teams). But I was amazed how many people were "impressed" by the Black Stars in the Brazil match. They lost 3-nil! What's impressive about a 3-0 loss in the Round of 16? It isn't even a moral victory, when compared with past Cinderella runs by the likes of Cameroon and South Korea.
As it turned out, the truly exciting story was the Azzurri. They arrived in Germany tattooed with more question marks than Puma symbols: Did they really deserve their seeding during the World Cup draw? Was Francesco Totti healthy? Were they too inexperienced? Who was going to score the goals? How would the scandal back home affect their performance?
There was something about this Italian team that rubbed people the wrong way in the beginning. Angered by the match-fixing scandal, irritated by the fact that the Italians' ego, external pundits hoped the Italians would collapse like vultures waiting for the sick gazelle to expire.
And the U.S. match seemed to bring their hopes to fruition. The Azzurri drew 1-1 after enjoying a 10-9 player advantage for most of the second half. Surely, this was the death knell.
But no, it was more like cardiac resuscitation. The next game, they beat the Czechs, comfortably, then slipped past Australia in the Round of 16 (I don't care what anyone says: That was definitely a penalty). And in the quarters, they strutted to a 3-nil win over Ukraine.
All the ugliness, the kicks when they were down, spurred them on. Their fans started to believe and they all took strength from everyone else's negativity, like Dark Side siths or Nietzschean übermen -- growing stronger from that which did not kill them. Even the apparent suicide attempt of Gianluca Pessotto, a former teammate to several of the Italian players, didn't get to them.
They arrived at the semifinals having conceded only one goal. Suddenly, everyone re-examined them, and what they saw was a thing of beauty: the quintessential team, a highly tuned machine, a Ferrari, whose parts fit together perfectly.
The entire team played in Serie A -- the very league was under fire from magistrates, journalists and FIFA bigwigs -- and they struck a blow for the value of having national-teamers playing in the same league. They were familiar with each other -- Gennaro Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo, from the Milan midfield; Fabio Grosso and Marco Materazzi, new teammates at Inter; Fabio Cannavaro, Gianluca Zambrotta and Gianluigi Buffon, from Juventus (at least until Juve is sent down a few divisions later this week).
On defense, their familiarity impressed most. During the final, I literally gasped in awe of the Italian defense. It wasn't the catenaccio of old, but something more fluid, refined, selfless. At one point, I started laughing, like the first time I saw Michelangelo's staircase at San Lorenzo in Florence, because sometimes laughter is the only possible reaction to impossible beauty.
The indisputable leader was Cannavaro, the captain. He played as if Jupiter had possessed his body, particularly after his former Juventus teammate Pessotto's suicide attempt. He won everything on the ground, everything in the air. He was a gladiator, the perfect spiritual machine -- cold fusion, perpetual motion and a heart the size of Mount Etna.
Twenty years from now, when I think back to the '06 World Cup, I will remember the following image first: Cannavaro, standing at midfield during the penalties, his arms folded, his face as tight and hard as a statue of Aeneas. His stoicism held during the first four penalties.
Then, when Grosso's kick won the trophy, Cannavaro exploded, with joy, with relief, with pride. And with a certain amount of "up yours" to all of us doubters.
And so, all I can say in the end is: Scusami Italia, e grazie mille.