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Death or glory?

It is the end, and also a beginning.

The end of a World Cup that ranks, despite a shortage of goals in the knockout stages, among the finest. The end of Zinedine Zidane's career, provided a fitting finale by the reawakening of his unique talent. And, perhaps, the end to an era, however brief of European domination; will the four semi-finalists ever come from one continent again?

And thus a beginning for Zidane, who heads off into retirement. A more uncertain beginning, too, for much of Marcello Lippi's Italian team. Any match appears anti-climactic after the World Cup final, but their next competitive game could be against Arezza or AlbinoLeffe, Crotone or Rimini - and that is assuming no team is relegated more than one division.

Alternatively, the Juventus and Milan men in the Azzurri colours are conducting one of the best job interviews of all time and their new beginning lies with the club fortunate enough to secure their signature.

It is impossible to mention the World Cup final without the backdrop, whether Zidane's farewell or the most explosive court case in Italian football history. With four of Serie A's most glamorous clubs accused of match-fixing, it is both paradoxical and somehow entirely in keeping with Italian football that a public exposure of its seedier side has brought the best from a group of players charged with restoring the credibility of a tarnished sport in their country.

Under Lippi's wise guidance, a spirit has been forged that, in the context of wider problems, makes the loss of a player - something they suffered against the USA and Australia - appear just a minor setback.

The absence of Alessandro Nesta, among the outstanding defenders of his generation, since the group stages, has not been telling. With his central defensive partner Fabio Cannavaro in imperious form, Italy have not conceded without him; indeed Gianluigi Buffon has only been beaten by a miskick from right back Christian Zaccardo in the tournament.

But this is an Italian side that has married its traditional defensive strength to a more progressive approach. If not kamikaze attacking, there was certainly a spirit of adventure about Lippi's substitutions in the semi-final. Overloading the team with potential penalty-takers, he finished with four strikers on the field and two late goals to defeat Germany.

That there is beauty amid the ignominy is part of the paradox. The glorious second goal in Dortmund was curled in by Alessandro del Piero: none are associated with Juventus as indelibly as their record scorer. Not that he is accused personally, whereas Paolo Rossi had just returned from a two-year ban when his remarkable transformation from mediocre to magnificent won Italy the 1982 World Cup.

This time, 11 goals are the product of 10 different players. It is an accurate reflection, for this is a team effort. Even Francesco Totti, whose Roma best often appears elusive to the Azzurri, grew into the tournament after his winner against Australia. Luca Toni, his muscular strike partner, is alone on two goals.

Both the defence and the midfield have a case to be regarded as the best in the tournament.

In the latter, the refined Andrea Pirlo plays the anchor role with panache, prizing possession and distributing the ball shrewdly and stylishly while the tireless trio of Gennaro Gattuso, Simone Perrotta and Mauro Camoranesi offer endeavour in abundance.

And yet, they are often overtaken by the overlapping full-backs Fabio Grosso and Gianluca Zambrotta, each deservedly among the scorers. In front of the unbeatable Buffon, Marco Materazzi has brought a reliability few thought him capable of.

And, above all, there is Cannavaro. The immaculate Neapolitan centre-half reaches his century of caps - joining only Dino Zoff and Paolo Maldini - in the Olympic Stadium. Such is his timing of the tackle and superb anticipation that he is the foremost contender for the Golden Ball. Another of the Juventus contingent, he has helped restore order amid the chaos of Italian football.

Whereas Zinedine Zidane, boasting eight caps more, has created a delightful form of chaos of his own. Neither Spain nor Brazil recovered. While Italian football is a mixture of the admirable and the reprehensible, the team is consistent.

The French, in contrast, are a schizophrenic side. How can the insipid, disjointed assortment of players held by South Korea and Switzerland be reconciled with the inspiration and dedication in evidence against Spain and Brazil?

The simplest explanation is that Zidane has decided to savour his magical gifts while he can. After the anti-climax of the group stages, when it appeared the disgruntled maestro's final act may be a substitution against South Korea, he is making the most of his reprieve.

Since then, each expression of his individualism has aided the French cause, temporarily removing a baffled opponent from the game, the finality of each game liberating him further. Even at his peak in Euro 2000, his balance has never seemed better; this stolid, unexceptional-looking man has never appeared lighter on his feet.

But the revival is not solely attributable to Zidane. There is the welcome return of Patrick Vieira as a forceful presence in the centre of the pitch and the flowering of the talent of Franck Ribery, the impressionable youth surrounded by the veterans of France's ancien regime.

And there is Thierry Henry, whose gradual acceptance that Zidane tops the billing in the French side has made him the most threatening of the supporting cast. For, if the feeling persists that he can still do more, he has contributed to French goals in each of their past five games. Cannavaro will provide his fiercest test, and vice-versa.

And, one game from the kind of immortality few predicted for him, there is Raymond Domenech. Whereas Lippi's authority over the Italians is apparent, suggestions linger that Domenech is subservient to his senior players; that the return of Zidane, Claude Makelele and Lilian Thuram was a coup disguised as an entente cordiale; that the credit for the French renaissance does not belong to him. His reputation may lay in the hands of his most controversial selection of all, Fabien Barthez.

So forza Italia or vive la France? Italy's consistency is unrivalled but the French, at their best, are unequalled. There are more contrasts than similarities - though Totti will aim to emulate Zidane - and their motives are very different.

The phrase 'death or glory' is often inappropriately applied - and Gianluca Pessotto's condition lends it a sombre note - yet, in the context of Zinedine Zidane's footballing career, already dragged into extra time by the greatest player of his generation on the greatest stage of all, it seems appropriate.

And for Fabio Cannavaro and his colleagues, knowing football could become a shameful profession in Italy, have brought an integrity to a game tarnished by others.

So death or glory? Glory it is then.

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