This one had something for everyone. For starters, the best team—Italy—actually did win. And they did it with incredible defense and solid ball-control, rather than with a scintillating offense. Sure, they won ugly, but the ugliest moment in the entire tournament had to be the flagrant foul committed by Cup MVP [Golden Ball winner] Zinédine Zidane at 109 minutes in.
Arguably, by getting himself kicked out, with a match destined to go to penalty kicks, he lost it for his team. Delivering a head-butt to Marco Materazzi, that will no doubt be endlessly broadcast for months to come, Zidane unfortunately ended his career by returning to his street-fighting/street football playing roots in the mean streets of La Castellane, a tough suburb of Marseilles. Replays would show that Materazzi evidently provoked the reaction by tweaking Zidane’s nipple.
A silver lining of sorts is that even this world-class player definitely has human frailties. Apparently, Italy knew how to take advantage of them.
Other moments, for those of us who can’t stand needless hype and hero worship, was the lackluster performance of perennial favorite Brazil. It would seem that young willing talent was left to languish on the bench, so Ronaldo could virtually sleepwalk through games, in order to obtain what was to me a completely meaningless career goal record. A guilty highlight for me was about 70 minutes in, when it was clear that Brazil began to realize that they actually could lose to France.
Brazilian star (although not in this tournament) Ronaldinho and others were exhorting their teammates to crank it up. And, crank it up they did, but to no avail. In fact, it was almost pathetic. Still, for a team and its fans, that believe that they just have to show up to make the semifinals, reality set in—hard.
As to the US team, the less said the better. Although they were inexplicably rated number 5 before the tournament began, their performance was frankly rotten. I’m no expert, but I simply cannot believe that Bruce Arena was the best available coach or that the team he fielded was the best available, either. Saying that, the miserable showing of Landon Donovan, who then returned to Major League Soccer and dominated, gives you an idea about how far we have to go to get up to snuff in this sport.
Why, you might ask, DOES the US lag behind in soccer? Several factors are in play.
One is that since 1964, The American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) has hijacked youth soccer with its “it doesn’t matter if you win or lose/everyone plays at least half the game” flower child philosophy. Sports without competition is clearly not what kids want (although their parents might) because if it were, 42 years later, the US might have a decent national team!
Instead, kids that do want a competitive soccer program have to search for expensive club teams, that do not exist nationwide. Generally, high school soccer programs don’t carry the prestige or support of football programs, except at elite prep schools, but then lacrosse is a prep school sport, as well.
In the meantime, saturation TV coverage of baseball, basketball, and football—all ideally suited to insertion of commercials—fills the hearts and minds of most American youngsters. More than that, the idea is instilled that sports is a spectator, rather than a participant activity. After all, to succeed in at least football and basketball (with only a few exceptions), you clearly cannot be a normal size person. Ironically, it is with the two non-TV sports—soccer and hockey—that normal size people dominate.
Finally, we have a somewhat low-rent idea of what athleticism really is. Based on our sadly tiny attention span, Americans believe that a wide receiver running 40 yards in four seconds, and then going to the sidelines to suck in pure oxygen, represents more of a feat than running nonstop for 90 minutes in a soccer match.
Baseball statistics junkies seem to forget that when Babe Ruth was setting home run records, his team was also dominating. Such does not apply to our current home run kings, juiced up or not.
As the demographics of baseball age and die off, and football continues to bore, with 15 seconds or so of action followed by at least 30 seconds of nothing, and maybe a commercial, and world parity comes to basketball, soccer will finally reach some prominence in this country.