Jul 102006
 

Italy took the biggest prize of them all in the cup late last night.
Celebrating Italians in Helsinki
And it wasn’t a bad game at all. Both teams played active offense, and both had several scoring chances throughout the two hours. But it was the goalies’ skill that finally turned the game into penalties, and not the usual (and expected) extra-careful play by the teams.

The penalties were impeccably shot – just one miss in ten. For the french this time, this was actually the first time Italy won a penalty contest in the World Cup. Ever. And Trezeguet’s shot was a good one, and an inch off a score. But an inch off, in the end.

However, it’s not the penalties that will be remembered from this game, but Zinedine Zidane’s ugly exit from international football. After all, he was not really expected to go out on a red card following a cruel headbutt on Materazzi.

But then again, it’s not his first violent outburst on the field. He got redcarded for stomping on a saudi-arabian defender in 2002 Cup, and has previous experience from a long head-butt-related ban from the champions league.

Celebrating Italians in Helsinki
Materazzi (in addition to ever-present Cannavaro) was clearly the man of the game. After all, he caused the french penalty, scored Italy’s goal off Pirlo’s corner, trashtalked Zizou out of the game and finally scored in the penalty contest. Quite a show from someone who was supposed to be just a substitute – but Nesta’s injury changed all that. Cannavaro, on the other hand, just mastered the italian defense – challenging whoever he could, and instructing others whom he couldn’t. No wonder Italy was the least-scored-against team in the whole cup.

Watched the game in Vltava, in downtown Helsinki. And ran into a huge crowd of celebrating Italians after the game (including all three I’m on a first-name-basis). The local cops took rather a bright view on the folks. And I’m sure that we saw just a palest possible image of what was actually going on all across Italy.

Jul 092006
 

So, Bastian Schweinsteiger pretty much single-handedly demolished the Portuguese hopes for the bronze medal in the cup. Scoring two goals, and shooting one more via a convenient bounce off the defense is about as good as you can get in a game like this.

Portugal wasn’t bad, but seemed a step or two behind. The story of the Golden Generation slowly draws to a close – fittingly it was a hookup between Figo and Nuno Gomes who scored the lone goal for Portugal.

Then again, not many picked the german team to go this far in the tournament, and it’s clear that the oft-criticized Jürgen Klinsmann gets a clean record from this one – the italian offense just proved too much to handle in the semifinal.

Jul 052006
 

So, after a controversial-ish penalty, it’ll be France who joins Italy in the final game.

And Portugal is relegated to trying to equal their finest hour on saturday, the bronze from the ’66 cup in England. Perhaps forty dry years inbetween have been enough.

Jul 042006
 

Well, if the azzurri approached every game with the attitude and poise they exhibited in the extra time, football would be so much more enjoyable to watch.

I don’t know what made Marcello Lippi change his tactics to an all-out offense, perhaps the specter of penalty kicks (Italy’s 0-of-3, Germany a 4-of-4). But it sure was pleasant to watch. Rampant attack netting two goals and two shots on posts.

Whoever faces Italy in the finals will have their hands full if they retain this form.

Jul 022006
 

So the quarter-finals are now over, and the field has narrowed to just four teams vying for the trophy.

And the biggest news obviously is that Brazil is not within the quartet. They got solidly outplayed by France and sent out of the contention. The team just never got clicking in the game, and the 0-1 margin is so low because of the goalie’s heroics. The offense got shut down by the tight french defense, and the lack of a playmaker in the midfield meant that the attacks were less than optimally coordinated. Ronaldinho was just a shadow of his brightest moments in Barça, and instead of him it was good old Zidane and Ribery, the new french winger, that displayed most technical prowess.

But it’s hard to place the blame of the unexpected exit on any single direction. Complacency might have been a factor, the #1 favorite position was not necessarily the best place to start from. Parreira’s insistence of starting Ronaldo brought jeers (and kudos, when el Gordo finally laid Gerd Müller’s scoring record to history). A more thorough re-thinking of the offense might have been advisable, especially after the formidable display put on in the Confederate Cup last year. For example Robinho and Fred really stepped up and delivered in the game against the Australia, when the rest of the team seemed indifferent.

In the other game on saturday England got trounced by Portugal for the second time in a row. And again on penalties, just like in Euro 2004. Portugal put on a good, albeit ineffective, show, and will have their hands full against France on wednesday. And less said about Mr. Rooney’s crotch-stomping activities, the better. England put on a good show underhanded, but were outplayed by the portuguese goalie in the penalties.

Jun 282006
 

This year’s pool didn’t go nearly as well as that of the Euro 2004. Didn’t get a podium finish, not even close.

France let me down once again, but an even worse disappointment were the czechs. But managed to suck pretty much in every group, and individual teams cannot really be expected to take the blame for sub-optimal guesswork.

Missed Klose as the first-round goal king, but chanced on the Serbians as the biggest offenders.

Jun 252006
 

Portugal advances to quarterfinals after beating Netherlands in one of the most card-ridden games ever.

The teams finished with nine men on the field, thus Deco and Costinha will miss the game against England. And Cristiano Ronaldo’s status is unknown after an ugly tackle from Bouhlarouz. Who, incidentally, was the only one deserving a red card, the other three were awarded for lesser offenses.

Jun 222006
 

First properly watched Brazil’s game finally showed the team playing well (was in Tallinn to see Metallica for the first one, and utterly mistimed the second game – saw just the second half).

But this game, against Japan, was of decent quality. Though the japanese attack, not known to be formidable in any sense of the word, did have some uncomfortable spearheads through the defense. But defense held, apart against a single shot – and the offense put in four. Including two from the rather maligned Ronaldo – putting him in an even position with Gerd Müller in the scoring statistics, both have now scored 14 times in the world cup.

Australia joins Brazil in the second stage – they drew against Croatia in a foul-plagued game (one croat managed to pull three yellow cards, must be some sort of record).

Not many expected this from the aussies, but then again, “experts” have repeatedly been proven wrong in the tournament. This time around I decided not to follow the pick in every game. It tends to dampen the enjoyment when score is exactly right half an hour before the final whistle, and you’d just wish the teams would be frozen on the field.

Jun 122006
 

Nine points behind the leader in the office pool.

Not too far back, but not very comfortable either.

Scoring is simple – three points for the correct result (home/visitor win or a draw) and a point per correctly picked goals.

No five-point games thus far on my sheet, but several of the four point-kind already.

But that’s just eight games down the stretch, the forty remaining ones will alter the balance of power many times over.

Jun 092006
 

A more traditional game, scoring-wise, than the first one of the tournament.

Rather enjoyable, no matter what.

But that’s probably just the lack of pretty much any football watched in a couple of months talking.

No aversion to finnish commentators yet, but the Sami Hyypiä/Teemu Tainio show on the halftime is beyond hope in its amateurishness.

Jun 082006
 

The kickoff just one day away, it’s time to take a trip down the memory lane of past games.

2002 is remembered less for the brazilians fifth championship than the taint of unsportsmanlike conduct – chief protagonists of which were Brazil’s Rivaldo (a truly swan lake performance against Turkey) and the referees who ensured that South Korea beat both Italy and Spain. France sucked horribly, which was a nice bonus.

In 1998 Ronaldo choked in the finals and the french cruised to an easy victory. Spain choked. But played an entertaining last (but meaningless) game after a very disappointing tournament.

The 1994 games were hosted in the US, a definite football wasteland. Saw almost the full tourney in Utah, rejoiced at Bulgaria’s surprising demolition of the germans and after returning home watched the final, Brazil beating Italy on penalties, in a hopelessly jetlagged state in the middle of the night.

In 1990 Brazil played a horribly ineffective game against Argentina, and lost on Claudio Caniggia’s goal on the opponents lone decent offensive move. Rijkaard and Völler engage in a spitting contest that ends in multiple red cards. Africa arrives on stage, with Cameroon almost reaching the semifinals.

For the 1986 games in Mexico the Lavonius clan bought its very first VCR (and ended watching the games live anyway). Maradona’s “hand of god” gets proven only long after the games. Brazil ousted in quarterfinals when Zico fails to score on a penalty (to be fair he was cold, having just been put onto the field).

Brazilian dream team plays beautiful soccer in the 1982 games, but loses to Italy after disgraced Paolo Rossi’s hat trick in the second round.

Not much recollection of the 1978 games. Apart from wondering why perfectly good toilet paper is tossed on the field after the hosts narrowly beat Netherlands in the final game.

Jun 072006
 

The football pool at work seems to be turning into rather a good competition – with more than 25 people already having turned in their coupons we’re now set to break the record from Euro 2004.

Yahoo has collaborated with fifa to create a nifty pick-your-team game. Now’s the chance to choose the very best the teams can field and outguess tens of thousands of opponents with your selections.

Jun 062006
 

Ronaldinho gets new shoes. Amount of digital work on this video is a subject of much debate – the strikes do seem unlikely, but there’s no denying that the man’s a dribbling genius.

And yeah, I’m a sucker for football commercials on television anyway. Rarely do the players get to display their skills on the field, defenses being locking up tighter year after year.

Jun 052006
 

Like so many other old media institutions Hesari has a world cup blog as well.

Succeeded in buying the heavily soccer-based national geographic in the Hauptbahnhof of München. Five copies left, only one with the map supplement. Have to admire the sleight of hand of german shoppers.

Jun 042006
 

Allianz Arena Saw the Allianz Arena, the new football stadium. Trivially reached via the S-bahn.

From afar, the security around the area refused access closer to 150 meters or so.

And yeah, it is a very peculiar-looking building. Even in daylight, let alone at night when the exterior can be lit up in multiple colors (chosen to match those of the two home teams, of course).

Jun 032006
 

World Cup logoThe world cup is everywhere here – the official logo ubiquitous, and t-shirts of both fifa-sanctioned and rather dubious origin for sale in shops and stalls.

The jerseys are expensive as ever – despite having an obvious hole in my wardrobe at the “Brazilian Visitors Jersey”-space, the 65 euro price kept me away. After all, it’s the yellow/green-combination everybody knows and loves – the blue/white is just a mandatory necessity.

And there’s no getting away from the stars, former and current. Ballack is, as the midfield dynamo, the most prominent – but by no means the only one on the streets. And good old Jürgen Klinsmann (or Klinsi, as he’s affectionately called) is back in the limelight as the coach.

So yes, let the games commence, the host country seems to be well-prepared.

May 312006
 

Football pool initiated at work. For the first round games and nine bonus questions as tiebreakers (though the 48 games ought to scatter the scores quite well). Using the same system as last time (Euro 2004), and definitely aiming for more participants (had 30 two years ago).