War in Berlin!
France will win their second World Cup in eight years if they beat a buoyant Italy in an all-European World Cup final that will be watched by half the world’s population.
The Azurri ‘ as the Italians are known around the world ‘ will be hoping to win their fourth World Cup final after success in 1934, 1938 and 1982.
The Italians might not be the best supported team in the world but they have certainly done very well to reach the final despite a terrible match-fixing scandal that has been raging on back home.
Turin club Juventus ‘ the pride of Italian football ‘ is being investigated by prosecutors for alleged match-fixing in a scandal that has already forced the club’s board to quit while coach Fabio Capello has also resigned.
Three other clubs ‘ AC Milan, Lazio and Fiorentina ‘ also face charges of corruption and a prosecutor recommended last week that all the four teams should be relegated into the Italian lower divisions.
Italian football league president Adriano Galliani, the vice president of AC Milan, has also resigned from the game.
The charges follow the publication in May of tapped telephone conversations in which the then Juventus general manager Luciano Moggi was heard telling referees chief Pierluigi Pairetto which match officials he wanted assigned to certain games.
Thirteen of Italy’s 23-man World Cup squad play for the four clubs that are being investigated and there were genuine fears that this would affect the Italian campaign in Germany.
But to their credit the Azzurri have done well to concentrate on their campaign and they are now just 90 minutes ‘ or possibly 120 minutes ‘ away from winning the World Cup.
This is the realisation of a dream that has lasted a long time,” their coach Marcelo Lippi told reporters after his team beat Germany 2-0 in their semi-final showdown.
Tonight’s game will be a repeat of the European Cup final in 2000 when the French won the trophy with a golden goal from striker David Trezeguet.
The Italians dominated the match for long periods but failed to finish off their opponents until Terezeguet’s dramatic intervention changed everything.
Six years later the Italians will be hoping for revenge on the biggest stage of them all.
But, whichever way you look at it, the focus will certainly be on Zidane who is retiring after this World Cup after more than a decade of great service to football.
Zidane leads a French team that has the backing of the world because of its multi-cultural face with more black players than their white teammates.
Some have even suggested that France is the only African team remaining in the tournament.
The French get a lot of support from Arsenal fans who identify themselves with players like Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Sylvian Wiltord.
Zidane is the son of Algerian immigrants who settled in France, his midfield partner Patrick Vieira is from Senegal and Thierry Henry is from the Caribbean islands.
Before the tournament, the French team was considered by many analysts as too old to make a mark and they earned the nickname Golden Oldies.
And after they struggled in the group games their critics targeted them but they have turned things around with their run to the final with the inspiration coming from Zidane.
“He’s Zidane but he seems to be surprising you,” French coach Domenech told a news conference.
“He doesn’t surprise us.”
Zidane is now widely regarded as the greatest French player of all time.
Until his emergence the greatest French player of all-time was Michel Platini.
Now a member of Fifa, Platini agrees that his countryman is a genius.
“Technically, I think he is the king of what’s fundamental in the game ‘ control and passing. I don’t think anyone can match him when it comes to controlling or receiving the ball,” said Platini.
Zidane even commands the respect of the coach who will be trying to destroy his World Cup dreams tonight ‘ Lippi.
“I think Zidane is the greatest talent we’ve known in football these last 20 years, yet he never played the prima donna,” said Lippi.
“I am honoured to have been his manager.”
Zidane is surrounded by great talent but he is the catalyst of the team and tonight he will either walk away as a World champion or in tears.
“For Zidane defeat would signal his farewell from the game in which he has been a dominant figure for so many years,” reads the official Fifa World Cup website.
Zidane scored a sublime goal as France sent Spain crashing out of the second round with a comprehensive 3-1 victory.
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War in Berlin
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He then swung in the free-kick beyond the Brazilian wall ‘ picking Henry on the back post ‘ who then turned the ball into the roof of the net as France powered past world champions Brazil in the quarter-finals.
Zidane was not expected to shine at this World Cup finals after poor form at Spanish giants Real Madrid where he has spent three trophy-less years.
Frustrated by a dip in his high standards and the failure by the Galacticos to win the Spanish championship, Zidane announced that he was quitting professional football after this World Cup.
In all fairness this was just supposed to be a quiet swansong for the Frenchman.
The man who everyone expected to shine was Brazilian midfielder Ronaldinho ‘ the reigning World Player of the Year.
But in their quarter-final showdown it was the Frenchman who dominated the show as Ronaldinho and his Brazilian team headed home after a terrible World Cup.
The lasting image of that game will always be that moment when Zidane, showing great skill, spun the ball over the head of Ronaldinho in midfield.
Then, with just a minute remaining, the Brazilian had a great chance to make his mark on the tournament when his team got a free-kick within range.
But Ronaldinho curled his effort just a yard over the bar and lost his chance to make an impact.
But while Zidane will be at the centre of attention, this will certainly not be a one-man show.
The French are solid in defence and they last conceded a goal in their second round tie when Spain took the lead.
They were the only team to stop the Brazilian strike-force with veteran defender Lilliam Thuram impressive throughout the match.
Then they also contained Luis Figo and Christiano Ronaldo in their semi-final clash.
Goalkeeper Fabian Barthez appeared to have been on his way out of the top after a horror spell at Manchester United.
But he has rediscovered himself and has done reasonably well marshalling the French defence although, when under pressure, he has shown a worrying vulnerability.
He spilled a long-range shot from a free kick taken by Cristiano Ronaldo in their semi-final clash and could have been punished if Figo had directed his header home from close range.
French striker Ribery has been one of the revelations of this tournament with his pace and trickery and the Italians will have to watch out for him if they are to succeed.
Then there is Henry.
He has certainly not hit the heights that we expected from him but he has been a success ‘ operating as a lone striker upfront.
He has two goals in this World Cup, including the unforgettable winner against Brazil, and remains his team’s biggest threat in the final third of the field.
Domenech wants his team to have one final push for the big one.
“What matters now is to go all the way. We can’t be content with that,” the French boss told the media after his team’s semi-final success.
“We must recuperate and start focusing. We must give all we have in the final to make sure we have no regrets.”
But the French know that they will have to work hard for their victory against a tough Italian side that has dome extremely well to get to this stage.
They might not have a talisman like Roberto Baggio anymore but the Italians, clearly, are now a solid unit playing as one family.
The Italians will certainly not be popular in Germany after knocking out the host nation with two goals in the final minute of injury time.
Relations between Italy and Germany were also rocked by the publication of a satirical piece on Der Spiegel newspaper’s website, which joked that Italians were “lazy and greasy, among other things”.
Italian captain Fabio Cannavaro led the protests.
“As an Italian and captain, I feel offended. These stereotypes applied to us come from an old culture that has been overly abused.
“It shocks me that this can happen in a civilised country like Germany.”
Key midfielder Gennaro Gattuso is expected to play a crucial role tonight and was also offended by the article.
“That article offended my father and every other Italian who worked hard for low pay.
“Germany has given Italians work in the past but our countrymen put in the effort and earned their wages.”
Well, Gattusso and his colleagues can give their nation something to cheer its spirits tonight if they can win the World Cup on German soil.
It should be a classic showdown and at around 10pm tonight – depending on your time zone – the world will rise to salute the new World Champions.
The world, too, will also remember to bid farewell to a magician called Zinedine Zidane.