All eyes on Berlin for judgment day
BERLIN, July 8 (Reuters) - After more than two years of competition featuring 194 teams, 910 games and more than 2,600 goals, the World Cup will be decided on Sunday with either Italy crowned champions for the fourth time or France for the second.
A billion people will turn their attention to Berlin's Olympiastadion where two teams drenched in World Cup history will do battle in the 18th final.
The match has left bookmakers divided but is littered with fascinating sub-plots that fans of each side can cling to in the desperate hope that they are fated to triumph.
For France it is the opportunity to complete the circle of recovery after they were knocked out after the first round without scoring a goal four years ago.
Striker Thierry Henry's frustration goes back even further as he seeks to banish the bitter-sweet memories of 1998 when he watched the final from the bench as France triumphed 3-0 over Brazil.
And there is Zinedine Zidane, who retires after the match with his reputation as one of the game's greats long-assured but who craves the ultimate leaving gift.
Italy go into the game under the cloud of the domestic match-fixing scandal which might yet see half the squad playing second division football next month but which has also helped mould them into a formidably spirited unit.
They are also seeking revenge for the agony of the 2000 European Championship when the title seemed theirs before France snatched an injury-time equaliser then won it with David Trezeguet's golden goal.
While Zidane's departure seems to demand victory, Italy can point to a similarly neat and equally deserved last page scenario that would see their superb captain Fabio Cannavaro lifting the trophy on the occasion of his 100th international appearance.
However, all the historical twists will be forgotten on Sunday when the destination of the trophy will be decided not according to some grand design but more likely by a moment of inspiration or a fatal loss of concentration.
It seems certain that the match will be in keeping with the rest of the tournament as a cagey affair with little likelihood of a feast of goals.
That was certainly the case in their last World Cup meeting in the 1998 quarter-finals when France advanced on penalties after a goalless draw.
Five of the side who played in that game and went on to win the trophy and then beat the Italians again in the Euro 2000 final are in the squad for Sunday -- Fabien Barthez, Lilian Thuram, Trezeguet, Henry and Zidane but only Cannavaro and Alessandro Del Piero survive for Italy.
The grey edge to the French side was one of the reasons so few people gave them a chance in this competition but they have countered the critics with performances of increasing confidence as they dispatched Spain, Brazil and Portugal.
Italy too have every reason to back themselves. Their superb defence, fighting spirit and a coolness in front of goal that has produced 10 different scorers of 11 goals, took them deservedly past Australia, Ukraine and Germany.
Both sides are littered with potential match-winners and both have experienced players highly qualified in the art of stopping such performers.
Can Zidane possibly match his two-goal heroics of the 1998 final, can Henry deliver one of his special moments or can new boy Franck Ribery complete a dream tournament by scoring in the final?
Conversely can Luca Toni follow in the footsteps of 1982 hero Paolo Rossi, will Andrea Pirlo net one his sumptuous free kicks or could the rampaging Gianluca Zambrotta charge his way into the history books?
If not, there is always penalties.