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Jul 10, 2006

Italia - Campioni del mondo

BERLIN - Italy, World Champions: It sounds a little strange. I for one needed some time to take it in after Fabio Grosso's goal in the penalty shoot-out generated an explosion of enthusiasm around the stadium and in the Italian section of the Berlin press box - much to the annoyance of someone with a French accent in a private box above us who showered us with water.

But that Italy won the biggest prize in football should not for a moment seem as incredible as many may want you to believe.

Italy, after all, entered the World Cup with one of the best squads in the competition, and it was obvious the damning revelations about the scandals at the very core of Italian football would either wound the players and play havoc with their concentration or help create a common purpose and actually help their focus.

It turned out to be the latter, despite some awkward and forgettable moments; like when captain Fabio Cannavaro all-but praised disgraced former Juventus director Luciano Moggi before a strong rebuke by new Federation commissioner Guido Rossi produced a few words of correction.

At one point, coach Marcello Lippi harshly criticised the press pack's insistence in calling him at all hours in order to know in advance who'd play and who wouldn't, but all the controversies after that were of the international variety, with one German newspaper cunningly trying to get an over-reaction from its Italian counterparts through some crude words.

During the World Cup, nations in general lose their sense of humour and are hyper-sensitive to criticism; so when dealing with the Italians please never use more than one of the following words in the same paragraph: pizza, mafia, spaghetti, waiter. Make a mistake and you'll be deluged by an avalanche of humourless, stinging, paper-wasting tirades in retort.

Sunday's final was just the first time in his 29 matches in charge that Lippi has chosen the same starting XI as the previous match, but despite the decision to stick with the side which memorably triumphed in that tense and emotional semi-final against Germany there will be a those Italian fans who woke on Monday with a tinge of regret that Italy's World Cup winning match was probably their worst performance of the tournament - except for the slugfest against the USA.

Perhaps it would have been silly to expect flowing football against a team like France which proved to be more athletic and experienced than Germany, but the fact is Italy barely strung together more than three passes once the rhythm of the match was set by Zinedine Zidane's 7th minute chipped penalty.

It was a night of huge celebration for Italy and Italian football, and nothing can take anything away from that. Not even the booing from most of the stadium once Zidane had been sent off: as soon as they got home, the boo-birds will have understood from the TV footage the recklessness and stupidity of the French captain's head-ramming, although you still have to wonder what exactly Marco Materazzi must have told him to provoke such a head-less reaction.

There were too many theories swirling about in the hours following the match to try to identify the right one, but a lip-reader and a blow-up of the scene may help.

Oddly for a side that had shed its reputation for playing conservative football, with Zidane already in the dressing room, Italy failed to apply any pressure in the remaining ten minutes. There was an uncomfortable feeling that once again fate was going to turn against Italy and bestow the same last-gasp disaster that had been meted out to Germany only a few days earlier.

After all, Italy had been unable to duplicate their enterprising form of the knock-out stage; mainly because Perrotta in left midfield had been forced back by Sagnol and Ribery while Zambrotta, on the opposite side, was worried by a combination of the speed and energy of Malouda and his own fear of getting another yellow card after the one he'd received after only five minutes.

France's savvy use of space and the closing down of Italy's one-twos combined with too many injury stoppages, too many throw-ins, too many misdirected or intercepted passes to halt the game's flow on both sides.

All of which added to the strangely subdued atmosphere.

The crowd, no doubt comprising a huge number of neutral fans, perhaps on corporate tickets, simply refused to show any emotion until they started booing Italy at the end which made for an anti-climactic finale, especially when one considers the third place final only 24 hours earlier in Stuttgart had been a delirium of noise and enthusiasm.

In short it was a forgettable game if you measure it with the yardstick of memorable moments from the month-long tournament.

But in Italy few will have cared that the Azzurri stopped short of reproducing their best form. Winning is all that matters, and for many Italians the feeling of being World Champions must have been difficult to absorb.

Despite the street parades, the fireworks and the explosions of joy in front of the big screens it will take some time for the realisation of the moment to sink in.

A generation has almost passed since Italy last lifted the top trophy in world football and people will have simply not have known what to say in offices on Monday except "Campioni del mondo" (world champions), which was still being shouted ad nauseam through the Berlin night and dawn.

Newspapers and columnists had already started noting that the Azzurri's run to the final would perhaps signal a new wave of optimism and national pride, and that the Italians usually find reserves of strength when they're with their backs-to-the-wall.

Even though the exhilaration of victory sometimes leads to hastened conclusions it is difficult to view the World Cup win without considering the corruption scandal and the fact 13 of 23 in the squad may find themselves belonging to Serie B clubs in a matter of hours.

Regardless, Italy had a spring in its collective step on Monday morning having enjoyed the celebration of a historic achievement.

We always knew we could produce great footballers, but a World Cup win does not mean that everyone will be a good citizen and that no-one will try to jump queues, avoid parking in a double row, dodge taxes or pay bribes to public officials...


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