Wednesday, June 28, 2006


It's a handsome looking bunch, isn't it? After the motley collection that turned up in the last eight in 2002, the line-up for this weekend's quarter finals is the footballing equivalent of a Mr. Universe competition, just without as much baby oil. No disrespect to Senegal, Turkey, USA and South Korea, but allowing for Ukraine as the sole bearer of aw-shucks condescension (the 'Jack and the boys go to Rome' of this World Cup, if you will), the remaining competitors are the icing, the cherry and the marzipan on the cake of world football.

So who'll be the heavyweights with the knockout punches?

Having spent the past few weeks in Germany, I feel a good deal attachment to Klinsi and the jungs. For a nation with their majestic football history, their status as figures of ridicule in football in recent years must have been a difficult one to take. Although they won the European Championships in 1996 and reached the World Cup final in 2002, they have not had a truly great team since that of the late 1980s and early 1990s, those more recent achievements being by-products of weak fields and their own ingrained tournament savvy.

So can this callow bunch ride the current wave of home enthusiasm past the Argentines, the team whose brilliance has been fully unveiled only once in this tournament so far, but which lurks menacingly there? In their favour, they have a nice settled side; in Jens Lehmann, Philipp Lahm and Michael Ballack they have world class performers; in Bastian Schweinsteiger, Lukas Podolski and Christoph Metzelder exciting young talents and in Bernd Schneider, Miroslav Klose and Torsten Frings hardy pros in top form at the right time.

It all sounds like a classic German formula, until you consider whether they have really played anyone of substance yet. The memory of Paulo Wanchope waltzing through their defence in the opening match against Costa Rica must put a smile on the faces of Hernan Crespo, Lionel Messi and Javier Saviola, and Germany, at times in the group matches, ceded control of the game in midfield, a surely precarious weakness if Esteban Cambiasso can wrest domination from Ballack and co., and hand the keys to the semi-final to the master locksmith, Juan Roman Riquelme.

Germany will be hoping for a return to the hesitancy which has afflicted Argentina in the two games since the glorious thrashing of Serbia & Montenegro, and more specifically for Nicolas Burdisso's injury to persist and leave the dangerous Schweinsteiger/Lahm axis with the opportunity to exploit Lionel Scaloni's shortcomings. The hosts have the bark of their fanatical home support on hand, but the biting potential of Argentina, if their teeth are fully bared, should prove lethal.

As I mentioned earlier, Ukraine provide the heartwarming novelty factor much like Ireland in 1990, and, again like us 16 years ago, meet the Italians in the quarters. One envisages the parallel being stretched even further as well, as the Italians, fitful though they have been, and in beating Australia, downright fortunate, should manhandle the newcomers out of the tournament with all the ceremony of Neapolitan hoods extracting a gambling debt.

Italy should, therefore, find themselves in a semi-final, but only in a typically obdurate, pragmatic sort of way. Not for the Italians the pomp and circumstance of group stage thrashings or confident displays of WOW! football. A sneaked, jammy penalty here, an early-goal-and-sit-back there, a late breakaway sealer against tired legs to top it's all been there from the Italians this time around.

With the rumblings of the corruption controversy (which took a dark turn with the reported suicide attempt by new Juventus sporting director and former Azzuri player Gianluca Pessoto yesterday) continuing, it's staggering how Italian the whole world of calcio is looking at the moment.

I would even go so far as to foresee Friday evening's second quarter a little like this: Ukraine start full of heart and effort, the hard running Voronin and Kalinichenko doing their utmost to work a sniff at goal for Andriy Shevchenko, when the Italians steal upfield for a corner, say, in the 9th minute. The ball is turned in off Alberto Gilardino's shoulder with the Italian striker in an offside position, but the goal stands.

81 minutes of unimaginative Ukrainian toil (the parallels with Ireland in 1990 keep coming, don't they?) later, Tymoschuk is sent off for a last-man foul on Totti, who converts the penalty, and the Italians advance.

Or some variation thereon. Like the scorpion in the story, don't blame them. No, it's just their nature.

Tomorrow: England, Portugal, Sven, Phil and the small matter of the great 1998 World Cup Final Charity Reunion Match....


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