Sunday, July 02, 2006

world cup: the europeans meet . . . the europeans

The World Cup heads into its final week, with what most people thought the two best teams (Argentina and Brazil) both out and four continental powers (Germany-Italy and France-Portugal) left to contest the semi-final round. I'm picking an Italy-Portugal final, which means that you can probably book your ticket for France-Germany, as my choices are entirely emotional and I've been wrong in every previous round. It is noteworthy that Italy has yet to give up a goal (other than one by their own player) in the tournament, and that the Portuguese coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, seems incapable of losing a World Cup match, although he may have an advantage in that he always coaches Portuguese-speaking teams. France and Germany will llikely be favored, anyway.

Much of the commentary has as always focused on referees and coaches' decisions, Argentina's choice to take its playmaker, Juan Riquelme, out and fail to bring young star Lionel Messi in against Germany topping most people's list. (Had Argentina won, these would both have been seen as brilliant.) Italy has been particularly fortunate in that its "one game on, one game off" strategy has nonetheless allowed it to proceed to the semi-finals. Yet it seems to me there is a broader point here, one brought home especially by France's triumphs over Spain and Brazil which are to this point the biggest surprises.

France's advantages derives in large part from the fact that--with the exception of the Brazilians and perhaps the U.S.--it is the only genuinely multi-racial team in the tournament, having black (Thierry Henry, Patrick Viera), white (Frank Ribery) and North African (Zinadine Zidane) stars with widely diversified talents and abilities. The French victories have been particularly sweet, in that both the Spanish coach, Luis Aragones, and some French politicians have suggested the team had too many "foreign" stars for their respective tastes. Such fears do not seem much to have bothered the players on the team, or for that matter the hordes of French fans who waved the tricolor and cheered wildly in the best version of the Marseillaise since Humphrey Bogart stopped in Casablanca. The French may not win the tournament, but they certainly make the anti-immigrant rage in several western countries look a bit silly, not the least because they accomplished their victories on sheer merit with nary the slightest advantage over their opponents.

For Italians, the World Cup has begun to conjure images of 1982, when the azzurri won their last and only postwar championship. Then too, there was a scandal, albeit involving the team's star player (Paolo Rossi) rather than the whole soccer establishment; then too, there had been some uneven play in the early rounds; and the final game was won against . . . Germany, although on neutral Spanish territory rather than Germany itself. Will history repeat itself? Chiedermi il 10 luglio (ask me July 10).


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