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Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Bedlam for Soccer Fans: Grosso, Pirlo & Co. go through

Okay. I've mentioned that I've been watching the World Cup matches with friends at the Red Sea cafe in North Oakland. Well, about sixty of us soccer fans got treated to "one of those matches" again today.

It wasn't so much that it was a "great match" in the first 90 minutes. It was fantastic soccer, but not great. It wasn't so much, either, that the teams did not engage in bits of strategery and over-dramatic stuff. They did. Hell, when the Italian midfielder Gattusso pretended to "pal" around with his German counterpart Michael Ballack after a collision and then, I'm guessing here, pinch him with his hidden hand...the crowd at the Red Sea murmured with a somewhat disgusted admiration at the ballsiness of the gesture.

Here's the thing.

World Cup soccer should not be about penalty kicks. The team that wins should be the team that decisively did what was needed to win. Italy in those two overtime periods was that team. (To be frank, Italy's goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and lead defender Fabio Cannavaro have epitomized that mindset the entire tournament.) In effect, with fans the world over praying for a decisive outcome and jadedly estimating that the Germans knew they would go through on penalites...something happened to change that outcome in Dortmund.

The Italians, who haven't been known for playing attacking soccer these last decades...ran for their goddamned lives. They played smart, they changed pace, they constantly sought the "clever trick" that would see them through. Their subs...Gilardino, Iaquinta, Del Piero...interlocked with the rest of the team on the hunt for the key to end the match.

And they found that key when Alessandro Pirlo...denied by Jens Lehmann minutes earlier...savvily looked like he was about to shoot once again and instead dumped it off to a defensive player....Fabio Grosso. Now, Grosso's shot...a left-footed first strike which curled around Lehmann and will live in the dreams of about 379 million soccer-playing kids around the globe...had all the force of immortaility the second if left his foot. And it was just that, immortal. It will live forever.

At the Red Sea in Oakland, it was as if the gods had parted the waters.

No penalties...no "false outcome"...no cynicism...just the beautiful game in all its beauty. A goal to end the match with justice. What a gift to soccer fans the world over!

Of course, Pirlo's move...passing to a defender...would have been harshly judged in retrospect had the outcome been different. (Just as the match would have changed permanently had not Buffon lifted his fist at...just...the...right...moment...to block a scorcher from German striker Lukas Podolski.) That is something to keep in mind whenever someone is lamenting a sporting outcome. This isn't rocket science...or perhaps, given the state of rocket science, it is...regardless, sports is a decidedly human endeavour and we judge players later on decisions made in the heat of the moment, when everything is still up in the air.

In the end, of course, this was one for the fans. This was one for those tired and jaded of boring outcomes and cynical play. The beauty of the Italian strikes...Del Piero's last-second goal being no less gorgeous...was commensurate with the intensity and decisiveness with which the Italians gave themselves to the play in those last 30 minutes.

Ah, proportion and justice! The Germans played well, but not well enough. They were too young and their goal-keeper's magnificient efforts could not save them.

This game was won on a decisive and impossible-to-stop shot. It could have been very different, but it wasn't.

Italy 2 - Germany 0. Soccer fans are smiling the world over.

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