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World Cup Diary, Day 32
25,000 Feet. Seat 11B. JFK to LAX. July 10. 2:05 PDT.
It was all a bit World Cuppy. World Cup finals usually are. Occasionally close to promising, never quite fulfilling, left me a bit empty. You look forward to a World Cup final like sex with your hot new girlfriend. But when it's over you realize the sex was kind of odd, she was never really that hot, it went on way too long and wasn't really a satisfying way to end your one-month relationship. And someone's leaving all upset. In this case it was Zinedine Zidane. And millions of French men. Eughhh!
Point of clarification for my wife -- this whole analogy refers to a time way before marriage.
I called it so wrong. I was convinced that a slow, disjointed game would favor France. In fact, France played quicker from the outset and scored after a suspect penalty decision. But then Italy equalized. France had the chance to kill it in the second half, didn't get a legitimate penalty call (fair enough) and failed to press their advantage. Thierry Henry was substituted before Zidane imploded -- the two best French penalty takers out of the game. Bizarrely, Italy seemed unwilling or incapable of being positive enough to apply their man advantage. But they didn't need to. We go to a shootout. David Trezeguet hits the bar for France, Fabio Grosso steps up, and I am ready to augur the kiloton of karma which I have boldly predicted since Fab-Gro fell over as deliberately as a Barnum clown in the Australia game. Then he hits it, slots it, with nary a whiff of karma or suspicion of karma-like consequence. Much Italian running around, gesticulating and weeping ensues. Andrea Pirlo is named Man of the Match by a FIFA technical analyst who'd been watching the German version of "Deal or No Deal" on his VIP-seat entertainment system. Fabio Cannavaro gave a master class. And I was, when it all came down to it, happy for Italy and even for Fabio Grosso. Perhaps, in the grand scheme of karma-worthy things, a young Italian's transgression pales in comparison to centuries of cultural and culinary arrogance, the whole concept of le job-sharing, and stubborn, Francocentric refusal to acknowledge that they all speak bloody good English. Whatever. They're French toast. The Feast of San Gennaro is coming early this year. There is actually rioting in Little Italy.
And because of the Faustian deal I made with Lowell from North Carolina in my last post, I am resigned to a life of no football to watch in America. Just Andrea Bocelli singing to Elmo, again and again, as I try to listen in to Chelsea's result against Torquay United on the BBC World Service as they struggle to fend off relegation to the conference.
I didn't have much time to absorb the final. Went straight to a wedding -- a wild and unconventional affair which, I find, is pretty much par for the course for any event held on a boat, with an open bar, when dozens of Australians are involved. They were all so happy that Italy had won, and I realized this, as we circled Manhattan for the fifth time, about the oh-so-wide world of sport. When you're English, the Americans and the Australians seem to win everything, and if anybody else happens to win something, the Aussies claim it anyway. Because of the makeup of Australian society, an Italian, Croatian, English, German, French, Portuguese or Spanish victory would be basically Australian. Brazilian, Swedish or Ecuadoran? Australian, because they also wear yellow shirts. Dutch? Orange is thisclose to yellow. Argentina? Angola? Start and end with the same letter. USA? Former British colony. Mexico? They like a beer too, mate. African nation? Similar weather. Asian? Same qualifying zone. These guys have it covered.
But as we cruised back down the Hudson River and drifted to a float in the glassy waters under a lit and enormous Lady Liberty -- a gift from France somewhat less significant than Zizou's inexplicable head butt -- I started to ponder the massive questions of this World Cup, the unanswerable flotsam and jetsam left bobbing on the surface of the murky deep ocean which massively separates (but perhaps not so massively as before) the footballing continents of the Americas, Europe and Africa. Or as the Australians like to call them -- Greater Oz.
So here are the...
Davies World Cup Diary Unanswerable Questions of the 2006 World Cup and the Post-2006 World Cup Era
1. How did Italy manage to play in those scratchy shirts?
Unfathomable. Unknowable. Inexplicable. I couldn't even manage the walk from the Odeonsplatz U-Bahn stop to Schiller's Bar in mine -- a journey of less than funfund zwanzig meter! I love German humor.
2. Is there any alternative to penalty shootouts?
Yes. Don't know what it is, but there is. I still kiss football, and this in no way diminishes the drama or credibility of the game. If anything, it raises the stakes. But it's just not beautiful. And England can't win while they remain. Don't listen to anyone who says they're part of the game for good. Football has changed gradually, but perceptibly, for 140-something years. Penalty shootouts are positively modern innovations. As is the concept of substitutes for tactical reasons. What Zidane did Sunday used to be completely legal. We've seen bigger changes, and FIFA has a bunch of other smaller tournaments to experiment with alternatives. Might never happen. But for mostly objective but also completely subjective reasons, I hope it does.
3. Is Germany a confident new country ready to embrace once again its patriotic fervor and sense of wir-sind-die-welt-meister-ness?
I think you know where I'm going with this. Let's hope not, but I must admit to growing rather fond of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Franz Beckenbauer. And Torsten Frings.
4. Will England always be pants?
I have two words for you -- Steve McClaren! Henceforth, notwithstanding, heretofore, more than likely, chronic pants.
5. Does England coach Sven Goran Eriksson know anything about football or does he just wear little glasses that make him look like he knows a lot about football?
Ninety-nine percent of the British population think they know more about football than Sven. But I know just how tricky and stubborn these Scandies can be. I guarantee he goes off somewhere else and is successful. Just bear in mind my record with guarantees.
6. Can the U.S. ever win this thing?
Only seven nations have ever won the World Cup, plus Australia, which makes eight (these guys are going to slap about a dozen gold stars on their shirts for South Africa 2010, which many Australians actually claim to be their own World Cup because of similarities in accent and shirt color). Of course the U.S. can. And I think they will. In my lifetime, which based on my level of stress and workload might not be that long to wait. The U.S. players should certainly comfort themselves by the fact that they were the only team to not get beaten by the Italians. And they did it with nine men. But the U.S. needs more and better football players to choose from, more competition for places, and more kids from all backgrounds growing up to play the sport. It's not enough to say that as soon as the best American athletes start playing "soccer" they'll dominate. By the same argument, there are a thousand point guards in Europe way better than Tony Parker. Just like the top American football players and basketball players, the top soccer players need more than athletic ability, they need genuine footballing intelligence -- rarely taught, it tends to be learned on the streets or observed. But the game is on the rise in the U.S. I see football being played everywhere. There is more and better football on TV and in American stadiums every year. And you don't see another emerging nation with more potential, more organization, more concerted desire. Oh, and three more things -- Nike, adidas, Puma. They're kind of a big deal. And so are you.
7. Who will be the new U.S. coach?
If Arnold can become governor of California, anything is possible in the U.S. We should really think out of the box. Klinsmann? Van Basten? Sven? Predictable. I like the following:
(A) Howie Mandel -- he's really hot coming off "Deal Or No Deal."
(B) Star Jones Reynolds -- No one would want to make her angry.
(C) Al Pacino -- He's played a coach, he was occasionally convincing, he has lots of Euro credibility.
(D) Barack Obama -- Weird, but I had a dream while I was in Germany that he was really good at football. A sweeper, like Beckenbauer. Maybe he should play, not coach.
(E) Stallone. Stop or Obama will shoot!
8. How can MLS and U.S. Soccer capitalize on the success of this World Cup?
MLS (in order of priority) -- Soccer-specific stadiums, alliances with top European teams, bums on seats, sign big players. But don't get me wrong, they're working on all of this, and the league is completely headed in the right direction. No, it's not as cool as the World Cup. No, it's not as important as the grand old leagues of Europe. But it's improved every year since its inception and is financially stable.
U.S. Soccer -- If there's no way out of CONCACAF (and after researching how Henry Kissinger got Pele to play for the Cosmos, anything is possible), the U.S. needs to play tougher friendlies, in big cities, even if it means hostile crowds. Let's quickly get footballs into the working-class neighborhoods. Let's hire a really aggressive coach who is known for identifying talent and bringing young players through.
9. What does the future hold for Cristiano Ronaldo?
Sure looks like he's going to Spain. Someone told me he's the new gay icon. Hilarious.
10. How will the soccer haters change their angle after the success of the World Cup?
Be prepared, American "soccer" fans, the rules of engagement have now changed. The soccer haters are now going to accept that the World Cup is awesome, but only because it comes along only once every four years, doesn't have any serious competition from American football, is now in HD (and everything is great in HD), and is watched mostly by kids and immigrants, of whom there are too many. They will take every opportunity to belittle the American team, players, league and future prospects. To which your response is, my God, you sound exactly like the French.
11. What the heck do we do now?
Well, the World Series of Darts is coming up on ESPN next week. Excellent beer-fueled substitute. And go and see "Once In A Lifetime" at the movie theater, you'll really love it now. Several top European teams are coming to the U.S. in late July and August, including Chelsea (with about 15 World Cup stars), who are playing the MLS All-Stars in Chicago. In mid-August, the German and English leagues kick into action -- and every game is on television or at your local pub. Get into it, follow a team with your favorite World Cup players even if it's Arsenal. If you happen to be a manager at ESPN and for some reason have gotten lost on ESPN.com and happen to be reading this, I think it's time to sit down with the U.S. Soccer Federation and talk about how to make the U.S. games a bigger deal on the network -- bigger cities, bigger rivalries, bigger concepts. Also, I think ESPN should try to get part of the English Premier League package when its contract comes up and make a concerted effort to build the profile of the Champions League. And how about stealing the rights to Euro 2008? Not that dissimilar from the later stages of this World Cup.
12. What will Zidane's legacy be?
He won the Golden Ball. He has been a legend amongst legends in the world game. I have never seen any international soccer player inspire as many hard-core U.S. sports fans as Zidane did with his performance against Brazil. I think the head butt will be a footnote -- this was not a Kermit Washington moment, and "vicious, vicious" might have been an overstatement. Illegal, yes. Wrong, yes. But Materazzi went down awfully hard for a big fella.
So play some mournful music and fly in some military jets forming a live, in-the-sky graphic out of red and white smoke. Here's what I'm finally for and against today:
For: Unprecedented U.S. passion for the World Cup, being gracious to departing coaches, MLS, Clint Dempsey, The Gooch, Joe Cole's goal against Sweden, the people of Munich, Schwabing, the Kaisergarten, Michael Ballack coming to Chelsea, Torsten Frings, the Autobahn, Owen Hargreaves, Aaron Lennon, the thousands of U.S. fans who traveled to Germany to support their nation, the fans from all over the world who make the World Cup so special, the three journalists (all from Africa) who actually spoke to me, South Africa 2010, my wife, my kids, my card, American Express.
Against: Just one thing narrow toilet paper.
Michael Davies is a British-born television producer whose forthcoming projects for ESPN include the World Series of Darts and the documentary film "Once In A Lifetime" about the New York Cosmos, which will air on ESPN in October after being released theatrically by Miramax in July.