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France v Italy is not the final that most students of form picked out before the World Cup began. But it could have easily been predicted by anyone who charted the tournament’s history.
When it’s in Europe, European teams are dominant (though the logic behind this has long since disappeared). And World Cup winners beget World Cup winners: since only four European countries have won before (including England, which would have been too absurd), it had to be some combination of France, Italy and Germany.
Simple, really – except that it wasn’t. In contrast to Italy, whose victory over Germany on Tuesday is already being elevated to the game’s pantheon, France lurched into the final with their least convincing performance since the opening week.
Sunday will reveal which outcome is the true one. Either the old French warriors, persuaded to get together for the sake of their country by their seemingly ineffectual and eccentric coach, will pull off one last act of heroism before riding off in glory – which is the oldest storyline in Hollywood. Or their Italian adversaries, bound in adversity by accusations of infamy, will prove their manhood and virtue by defeating the foe – which is the second oldest.
But it is worth dwelling for a moment on those who won’t be present on Sunday. The most extraordinary performance in the semi-final came not from Zinedine Zidane nor even Cristiano Ronaldo (who, for better and worse, has perhaps been the most compelling player of the tournament), but from Luiz Felipe Scolari, the Potuguese manager.
Scolari expended far more energy during the 90 minutes than any of the mere footballers. He stalked the touchline, looking like the landlord of a particularly rough pub at chucking-out time, desperate to get rid of the drunks before the police arrived. He alternated between
serious attempts to control events
and frequent gestures of complete despair.
Scolari has a reputation as a top-class coach, based on his record in World Cup finals with Brazil and Portugal, which until Wednesday stood at 12 wins out of 12 and was enough for the English FA to try to lure him as successor to Sven-Göran Eriksson.
England have been gone from here nearly a week now, but it is still impossible to keep them out of the argument. Many of their supporters had clearly acquired semi-final tickets in advance, expecting their team to be in Munich, and came along anyway. The St George’s flag was deployed round the stadium almost as much as those of the competing teams, and the jeering of Ronaldo began at the start, well before his unsuccessful swallow-dive for a penalty, which suggests it relates to his dispute with the English rather than the French. (“Portugal: England’s oldest ally” – analyse and discuss.)
Maybe climate change is affecting national characteristics rather than the weather. The passion at this tournament has come from the Germans and English, not the allegedly hot-blooded Latins.
The exception to this theory was (as far as football goes) Eriksson of Sweden and England. Amid the national loopiness that accompanied England’s stagger into the quarter-finals, Eriksson seemed the coolest man of all. Of course, he wanted his team to win, just as he might want to finish his sudoku puzzle. But he didn’t look as though he would lose sleep over it.
It is thus impossible not to reflect on a parallel universe in which Scolari did become manager of England, who would have jumped from a managerial style of extreme detachment to one of manic intensity. Had Scolari turned in a touchline performance like this in the England job, he would have been driven out by press criticism after one match. And quite right too.
No wonder his players were undisciplined. It was not easy to see his tactical genius either. Portugal had exactly the same failing as England: they created plenty of openings, but were incapable of getting into the penalty area to turn speculative opportunities into serious ones. Yet for seven vital minutes late in the second-half, Scolari left his team, which was 1-0 down, with no recognised spearhead at all – just Ronaldo operating alone up front. It was unfathomable.
So was his subsequent attack on the referee, Jorge Larrionda of Uruguay; “We know these South American referees,” said the Brazilian Scolari. “They know how to kill a game.” He didn’t complain about the penalty award that won France the game. But he backed up Ronaldo’s implausible insistence that he should have had one in return.
Actually, one gratifying feature of the semi-finals is the extent to which the referees, Larrionda and Benito Archundia of Mexico, have restrained themselves: only five yellow cards in 210 minutes. Someone on high must have had a word.
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