July 10, 2006

World Cup W-L record

The Hollywood script would've had Zinedine Zidane's cracking header in the 104th minute smack the back of the net, not the right glove of Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. It would've been the perfect ending to the career of one of the all-time greats, with Zidane walking off the field one last time as a world champion.

Such art would not be imitated by life. Instead, Zidane did his best Wayne Rooney impression.

Six minutes after nearly scoring the go-ahead goal, Zidane let his frustration get the best of him after exchanging trash talk with Italy's Marco Materazzi. Zidane's blatant charging head butt into Materazzi's chest dropped the Italian defender to the ground and drew a deserved red card from referee Horacio Elizondo. That stunning turn of unsportsmanlike events deflated France's hopes for a second World Cup title as Italy went on to win on penalty kicks (unless you thought the French weren't toast without Zidane and substituted stars Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry).

Up until Sunday, this World Cup had been transformed into Zidane's farewell tour, with his rejuvenated 34-year-old legs showing off the skills that earned him three World Player of the Year awards. We should remember Zizou's magic when looking back on Germany 2006, but the fact Zidane lost his cool in the heat of the world's biggest soccer game places him among both the World Cup winners and World Cup losers.

Here's the complete scoreboard from 30 days and 64 games of the world's biggest sporting event:

WINNER: Fabio Grosso – As the story goes, the Italian defender was playing fourth division soccer just five years ago. (The American parallel: A beer-league softball player getting signed by the Yankees and then starring in the World Series.) Grosso is now an international hero after converting the two biggest shots in Italy's run to a fourth world championship. His one-timed strike against Germany at the end of overtime sent Italy to the finals, and his penalty kick capped the shootout victory over France.

WINNER: Fabio Cannavaro – Italy's little big man in central defense put on a textbook display every time out. The Juventus star routinely beat taller forwards to the ball and snuffed out scoring chances with speed, agility and toughness. If you can't fully grasp what the Italian captain did for the Azzuri, think of Ben Wallace dominating on D – but by a guy standing just 5-foot-9. Given the circumstances surrounding Zidane exit, Cannavaro would have been a more-deserving recipient of the Golden Ball as the tournament's best player.

LOSER: Francesco Totti – Was he even on the field for Italy's last two games? The match reports indicate he was. Granted, Totti was nowhere near 100-percent fitness after hurrying to recover from a broken ankle in February, but the AS Roma star is simply too talented not to make some type of impact. Other than his winning penalty kick against Australia, Totti was invisible.

WINNER: Franck Ribery – The argument could be made that Ribery was France's most consistent player in its run to the championship match. In a lineup full of thirtysomething legs, Ribery helped provide the pace in the French attack and was relentless in applying pressure on the opposition. Widely regarded as the best player in France's top league last season, the Marseille winger was already being sought by the Man Us and AC Milans of the soccer world. It's safe to say he raised his stock even higher.

WINNER: Jurgen Klinsmann – It wasn't long ago that the German media and fans nitpicked him for his L.A.-to-Germany commute and then ripped him for his team's lackluster play in the run-up to the Cup (a 4-1 loss to Italy had people calling for his head). But after leading the Germans to a third-place finish, Klinsmann is being hailed in his home country as a hero and suddenly finds himself in big demand (at least by wishful-thinking American soccer fans). Klinsmann didn't win the tournament, but he accomplished what he set out to do: prove that his country can play attractive attacking soccer.

WINNERS: Shameless divers – The caution-happy referees ruined the tournament further by rewarding bad acting, as forwards fell down in the box if a defender so much as breathed on them. If FIFA was serious about eliminating diving, it would increase the degree of difficulty by reviewing the offenders' fake actions and suspending them after the fact, just like it does with overly aggressive tackles. Until then, players will continue to imitate Greg Louganis/David Hasselhoff.

LOSER: Ronaldinho – Like his teammates, the reigning World Player of the Year kept it in cruise control, failing to show a sense of urgency until Brazil fell behind in the second half against France. He had one last chance to rescue the Brazilians (and salvage his own poor World Cup), but his 89th-minute free kick from close range sailed over the cross bar as the French recorded the upset of the tournament. Ronaldo was ridiculed for being overweight, but at least he scored.

LOSER: Frank Lampard – Yes, Rooney's red card against Portugal was costly, but England's scoring problems can be directly attributed to Lampard's offensive ineptness. The Chelsea midfielder failed to score a single goal despite attempting a tournament-best 24 shots, and his passing touch was uncharacteristically off. He also missed the first penalty kick in England's shootout loss to Portugal. Lampard may be one of the world's most complete midfielders, but you couldn't tell by his showing in Germany.

LOSERS (AND WINNERS?): Manchester United – Their 20-year-old star striker (Rooney) lost his temper yet again after being sent off in the quarterfinals against Portugal. Their 21-year-old star winger (Cristiano Ronaldo) no longer wants to play in the Premiership because of the flak he's getting in England for his involvement in Rooney's red card. Sir Alex Ferguson may have to find replacements for Ronaldo and Ruud van Nistelrooy. … Then again, if it's true that Italy coach Marcello Lippi will become an assistant/heir apparent to Sir Alex – and that Italy's match-fixing scandal will make free agents out of its star players – then guess where some of that talent could land?

LOSER: Jose Pekerman – Turns out, the only person in Germany who could stop Argentine teen wonder Lionel Messi was his coach (now former coach). Pekerman inexplicably left the game-changing Messi on the bench in the quarterfinal loss to Germany, opting to substitute Hernan Crespo for Julio Cruz. He also yanked star midfielder Juan Roman Riquelme for no good reason late in the second half, too. Argentina had played the best soccer of the tournament at that point and should have gone farther had Pekerman's meddling not gotten in the way.

WINNERS: Australia and Ukraine – The Socceroos made the most of their first Cup final appearance in 32 years by reaching the round of 16, where they gave Italy one of its toughest games in a 1-0 loss. Ukraine didn't play the prettiest soccer but managed to use its archaic Soviet style of play (known as "collectivism") to advance to the quarters.

LOSER: Landon Donovan – Bruce Arena gets most of the blame for the United States' embarrassing performance – why, all of a sudden, go conservative with a single striker? – but Donovan deserves his share of the criticism for yet another disappearing act in Deutschland. Having failed in two separate stints with Bayer Leverkusen in the German Bundesliga, Donovan had that deer-in-the-headlights look again, never wanting the ball, and when he did gain possession, he was incapable of generating scoring chances. His decision to pass and not shoot inside the penalty area against Ghana will be his signature 2006 World Cup lowlight.

LOSER: U.S. Soccer Federation – And they thought the last-place finish in France '98 was rock bottom. After investing so much time and money the last eight years to put American soccer on track to win the World Cup by 2010, U.S. Soccer suffered a setback bigger than the France debacle, especially after the progress made four years ago in Korea/Japan. With the "greatest America side ever assembled" (at least, that's how ESPN/ABC billed it) crashing before the knockout stages and ending up last in its group, there are more questions than ever about the U.S. national team. Arena is right about one thing, though: For America to become the world's best, it needs its top players to go overseas and play against the best. That, and widen the talent pool by mining the inner cities for better athletes.

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