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Poetic justice for Italy?

Italian football is a living, breathing paradox. Their players have so much technical ability, but the first lesson they learn is not to concede; a passionate, romantic view of the game is often married to utter cynicism.

Such is their inner belief that their national team can still win a World Cup despite their domestic championship falling apart at the seams because of a match-fixing scandal, which could send powerhouse clubs Juventus and AC Milan into the lower leagues.

Many teams at this World Cup have talked a good game (England springs easily to mind), only for the expectations of imminent glory to prove nothing more than hot air. Italy, on the other hand, tend to deliver. Four World titles speak for themselves and from my seat in the press box at Berlin's Olympiastadion on Sunday night, the joy sparked by this triumph was unbridled.

Winning is all matters in the land of 'calcio' and no Italian was celebrating any less because victory over the French in Berlin was only secured on penalties.

Indeed, for most fans and observers of the Squadra Azzurra, Sunday's spot-kick triumph was nothing more than poetic justice, coming on the heels of a hat-trick of World Cup shoot-out losses (against Argentina in the semi-final of Italia'90, to Brazil in the 1994 Final and at the hands of France in the quarter- finals of 1998).

'Yes, you can say penalties are a lottery and that it's not the ideal way to decide a game but that's the system in place and in this exercise, Italy had the strongest nerves,' declared Italy World Cup winner in 1982 Antonio Cabrini, who had the misfortune to miss a first-half penalty in that Final.

'I felt Zidane's sending off gave us the psychological edge. It couldn't have been easy for the French to lose their captain and creative genius and I was confident we'd come out on top in the shoot-out. After losing so many big games on penalties, we were due to have our day in the sun. I'm overjoyed, full marks to our guys. No one trembled in a real pressure situation.

'All in all, I think we deserved this title. We produced at just the right moment, in the knock-out phase. The team looked really sharp in the quarter-final with Ukraine, I thought we were by far the best team in the semi-final win over Germany and we did what we had to in the final. France are an excellent side but I thought we shaded it in terms of team organisation and sprit.'

Arrigo Sacchi, the boss of the Italian side which lost in a shoot-out to Brazil in the 1994 Final, was not at all surprised that the Azzurri and the French were only separated by a David Trezeguet penalty that smashed against the bar.

'This was always going to be close-fought, highly-tactical affair between two sides who were very similar in style, strong at the back, hard-working in midfield and quick to spring counter-attacks,' reflected Sacchi.

'The first-half belonged to Italy, while France had the better of things after the break. I thought we might have some joy in the air at set-pieces and so it proved. If Toni's header had gone in rather than hit the bar, it might have been a different game. Penalties have killed us in the past. It was nice to prevail this time.

'I'm delighted for Marcello Lippi and his squad. In the most difficult of circumstances, they are bringing home another world title and they can't be praised enough. Lippi has done an extraordinary job. He has put together a team of intelligence, technical ability and heart. Captain Fabio Cannavaro sums up the team perfectly. There was no better central defender than him at this tournament.

'Of course I'm sorry for Zinedine Zidane. He had to be red-carded for his attack on Materazzi. I hope it doesn't detract from what's been a marvellous career. We won't see his like again. When I was at Real Madrid last season [Sacchi was technical director at the Bernabeu], the view was that he was finished. We didn't doubt his professionalism but he didn't quite have the motivation and enthusiasm. The coaches at Real didn't think he could play a game every three days. How wrong we all were. Zidane has been another player at this World Cup, quite magnificent.'

Zindane was, indeed, great player, whose kind we are unlikely to see again, but what a shame about the farewell, but whatever prompted him to head-butt Italian stopper Marco Materazzi at such a crucial moment in extra-time?

True, Materazzi has a long history of thuggery and winding up opponents, but a player of Zidane's great experience should have known better. His red mist moment may well have cost France the Final, a conclusion, however, that few of his compatriots were willing to publicly air.

'It was terrible to see him sent off him,' sighed France's World Cup winning coach of 1998, Aime Jacquet. 'How do you begin to explain what made his blood boil. There was some provocation, some words were exchanged. Zizou is someone who reacts to things and didn't know how to control himself. It was so sad as I sincerely thought he was going to lift the Cup.

'France gave a great performance, one which deserved a lot more. All through the second-half and in extra-time, they looked the most likely to win. The Italians looked tired, we had the initiative and were superior technically. I was expecting Henry or someone else to score at any moment. Unfortunately, it didn't happen. The Italians did what they do best, soaking up the pressure and breaking up the game up. Sadly it wasn't to be in the shoot-out. With players drained mentally and psychologically, it's hit or miss.'

Ex-Marseille and Bordeaux manager Rolland Coubis also had trouble coming to terms with Zidane's red-card: 'It was so out of character. He's such a reserved, sensitive bloke who normally never even raises his voice. What he did was wrong but I still feel for him tonight. It all started so well for him, with that chipped penalty which took some guts and skill to execute. I'm not sure Zizou will tell the world what Materazzi said to him. But I'd love to know what made him blow a gasket.'

So the German nation can return to normality now that the sporting extravaganza has popped its final champagne cork, but it seems there is a mood over here is that they will only stop the party when we're good and ready. Anyone who thought that the German public would pack away their flags, replica shirts and face-paint after their semi-final loss was in for a shock.

The atmosphere in Stuttgart - where I watched Germany beat Portugal to secure third-place - was at fever-pitch, with fans besieging the team hotel and frenzied celebrations into the wee small hours in the city's central square, the Schlossplatz.

A few hours later, there were more scenes of mass ecstasy in Berlin, with Jurgen Klinsmann and his boys greeted by an estimated half a million grateful supporters at the Brandenburg Gate.

Outsiders may think the Germans were overdoing the euphoria, but it wasn't just a case of paying thanks for a bronze medal. Perhaps for the first time in their troubled history, Germans feel they can show love for their country without guilt and that is something to party over.

So it's all over for another four years - roll on South Africa in 2010.


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