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World Cups tend to mark the end of football eras. Played only every fourth year, they are the natural place for the greats to call time on their international careers.
This is clearly the case with one of the teams in Sunday’s Berlin showpiece, France, for whom the match will bring down the curtain on a footballing golden age.
For Italy, by contrast, a fourth World Cup victory would be portrayed as the first triumph for a new and hopefully less cynical epoch. While scandal tarnishes their achievements at home, the country’s footballers would have proved beyond all reasonable argument that they are the best on the planet.
Few matches in history can have brought the attainment of so many truly significant landmarks. For France, the final brings the last appearance by the best player ever to wear the national colours – Zinedine Zidane – but also perhaps by the third-best, Lilian Thuram.
For Italy, it will mark a century of caps for Fabio Cannavaro, the country’s nonpareil captain and, for all Zidane’s quarter-final heroics, undoubtedly the tournament’s outstanding player.
In these last difficult weeks for Italian football, the Juventus player has been a model leader, a national icon as Diego Maradona once was for Argentina and Franz Beckenbauer for West Germany.
Cannavaro’s form here has been all the more extraordinary given the very personal way in which the country’s agony has affected him. His former central defensive partner and Juve sporting director Gianluca Pessotto remains in hospital after apparently throwing himself from a building at the training ground. When he was told, Cannavaro rushed from a press conference in horror.
What is more, in recent games he has had to do without his current partner at the heart of the Azzurri defence, Alessandro Nesta, who has been sidelined with a groin injury. He must, though, be getting used to coping at World Cups without him: the unlucky Nesta also missed Italy’s defeat by South Korea four years ago and by France four years before that.
That defeat, on penalties, marked the continuation of a depressing sequence for Italian fans that has seen their side fail to register a victory over Les Bleus since the 1978 World Cup in Argentina.
The sequence continued in the final of the 2000 European Championships, when a golden goal by David Trézéguet saw Roger Lemerre’s men complete a come-from-behind victory.
That defeat will have been particularly hard to bear for Alessandro Del Piero, the veteran Juve striker who had played only a bit-part in this tournament before coming off the bench to break German hearts with a deft second goal in Tuesday’s semi-final.
Del Piero missed two good chances in Rotterdam to hand Italy a two-goal lead before Sylvain Wiltord’s injury-time equaliser took the match into extra time.
These are the sort of demons that Marcello Lippi’s men must exorcise if they are to emerge on top tomorrow.
France, who will probably field five – and conceivably as many as seven – of those involved in the Euro 2000 final, will be anxious to maintain their hard-won superiority over opponents who used to beat them for fun and who once thrashed them 7-0.
Reliant on ageing limbs, they have placed so much of a premium on energy conservation in Germany, never once resorting to extra-time, they might have been sponsored by the Green party.
Now, though, there is no more reason to hold back. Why would Zidane and Thuram have bothered returning at all to international football if not with one eye on this match? For fellow 1998 squad members Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry, meanwhile, tomorrow’s game represents a second – perhaps final – chance for personal fulfilment. Vieira played all of 16 minutes in the 1998 final and Henry not at all.
Earlier this week, the French striker appeared keen to emphasise that tomorrow’s big match was not all about Zizou. “It will be the end of Thuram’s international career as well. And [Claude] Makelele’s as well, maybe,” he said.
After playing with great intelligence, but apparently well within himself, in the tournament so far, it would be no surprise if the Arsenal talisman stepped up a couple of gears tomorrow. With Cannavaro breathing down his neck, he may have to.