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Friday, July 07, 2006 - 03:49 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

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Four Years, Like That

So it's down to Italy and France, a nation dogged by a corruption scandal against a band of old fogies who rode back from the sunset for one last hurrah.

The games at the quarterfinals and beyond have been cautious to say the least, most of them giving out the vibe that the first goal would settle it. Germany barely recovered to level with the fancied Argentineans, with the refereeing going their way, eventually prevailing on penalties, which while a spectacle, isn't really football. France put three past Spain after going one down, and that is the extent of comebacks at the highest level.

A dash of fortune is perhaps required to tip the scales, once the remaining teams are good enough that only a terrible mistake, or a true stroke of genius - both not guaranteed to appear - can provide a breakthrough. Italy had that when they were giftwrapped their tie against Australia with a penalty out of nowhere.

England in contrast were simply not good enough. I would lay the best part of blame squarely at Eriksson's door. Over-rated maybe, but the guys he had at his disposal were, man for man, on a par with any other squad. The whole turned out rather less than the parts, and why only four strikers - two half-fit, one a specialized lamppost and the last a teenager destined for cold storage, I will never understand.

As The Sun's Jeff Powell sagely predicted years ago on Eriksson's appointment, England's "...birthright (was sold) down the fjord to a nation of seven million skiers and hammer throwers who spend half their lives in darkness". Indeed.

Neither the red card for Rooney, for I detected no malice in his stamp, but I am a blinkered fan. Thankfully the referee confirmed that it was not for the light shove on Ronaldo, for if that were to be penalised by a sending-off, surely all pitches would be far emptier at the end than at the start of a game. For all that, Rooney more or less blew it. He will have more World Cups to play in, so he may not dwell too long upon this.

Lampard simply went AWOL. His confidence was already shot to tatters before his undistinguished spot kick. Gerrard fared no better, as he seemed more afraid of missing than eager to score. No conviction in his attempt, no placing either. Owen Hargreaves deserved better. He set foot in Gelsenkirchen with little more than faint derision from his countrymen, but he was the watercarrier in a team without an identity, he took Portugal on single-footedly at times, and he was head and shoulders above any other Englishman that day.

But big names crashing down were the order of the day. Ronaldinho, tasked to conjure another title for an expectant Brazil side that have reached the last three Finals, found little space, and tried too hard. Every step he took, he scoured for the seed of a supernatural move that might come, even to the greatest, but once in a lifetime; He tried to force the magic, and it deserted him, like a lover too hotly pursued.

They say a mage is a man who can do anything, but as a man grows older and wiser, and more powerful, the path he can take grows ever narrower; Until at last he does nothing but what needs to be done.

Such was the dilemma facing Ronaldinho, who pursued the unexpected so much that it became expected. On one reverse flick, two men were instantly on his intended target. In the end a typically Brazillian defensive lapse granted Henry all the time he needed to beat Dida, as four yellow shirts ball-watched outside their penalty area.

The pedestals they build in South America for their footballing idols are tall and narrow ones; For a people to which the beautiful game is an instinct, a last-eight finish is an unbearable insult. The furious Selecao burnt their fallen star's statue, but he was hardly the only anointed one to go down in flames.

Ballack was another wardog with a bark worse than his bite. He was tipped as the only truly world class player in the German side, Kahn notwithstanding, but turned out to be just a normal worker for his team. There was nothing out of the ordinary, other than many shots that appeared contrived, probably in the hope that if one would go just in, he would have earned his acclamations. His enduring image at this World Cup may however be that of Grosso bending a first-time effort around him in the dying minutes of the first semi-final, the Italian leading fist to their knockout blow.

Don't get me started on Lampard, Gerrard and Rooney. Mainstays for three of the top English clubs, but nothing on the international stage.

I think it was the pressure, the great expectations, that got to them. How else was it that two countries of which relatively little was expected coasted to the end? Geography and pedigree may have something to do with it too. The semis were a continental affair, and in a few days we shall see if Italy have the pleasant problem of fitting a fourth star on their crest, or if France add a second to their other sleeve. No new winner will be forthcoming, and about that I feel mildly disappointed.

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