SPORTS

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June 28, 2002

Some fables from the World Cup: Three blind mice and the boy who cried foul

With two minutes remaining in the first half of sudden-death overtime, another questionable call against La Squadra Azzurra left them a man down for the remainder of their stay in Asia. Steadily approaching the dreaded penalty kick period, and with both teams mounting the strongest of their counterattacks, South Korea appeared the inevitable victors. Brilliant saves by Buffon were all that were standing in the way of a truly inspired Korean team. Perhaps it was the home team advantage, specks of blue amid a rolling sea of red that brought on Korea's second wind, allowing them to equalize in the second half and gain momentum in overtime. More than likely, however, it was a pervasive sense of superstardom that long ago ruined the "Pretty Team," and resulted in the biggest upset to date of the 2002 World Cup.

Italy's catenaccio looked rusted as it fell back on the long limbs of Buffon. After a series of dangerous shots and crosses, Buffon launched a long boot downfield. A gentle ball to his feet was all Totti needed to turn into the penalty area. What looked destined to be Totti's first moments of grace in an otherwise disappointing three-game performance, ended in utter misery for the Roma superstar and all of Italy. Totti easily fought off his markers to gain a half step on the Korean defenders when he launched to the ground toppling the ball. Referee Byron Moreno blew his whistle, and went groping for his cards. Surely, I thought, a member of Korea's defense would receive at least a yellow card and the potentially winning penalty kick would be taken by Totti—the latter was a scary thought on its own. Instead the Ecuadorian mouse issued Totti a yellow card for his theatrics, his second of the game.

After reviewing the foul, it was clear that Totti was played aggressively in the box, and indeed may have experienced a foul. Coach Trapattoni was convinced of injustice and pounded on the glass shield protecting a nervous group of FIFA judges, but the call, not Totti, remained. From this point on, virtually all Italian composure was lost. Trap' could not keep his hands from flying above his head long enough to do his trademark whistle. Di Livio dribbled in circles. Gattuso, who came in for Del Piero, played poorly on defense and was characteristically absent on offense. It appeared that Italy had three players, and not coincidentally none of them were in the midfield. Vieri, Maldini and Buffon were the only Italian players still standing in overtime. Meanwhile Korea, spurred on by nearly 40,000 boisterous red shirts, was playing better than thought possible. Hoping to upstage their Japanese co-hosts, who bowed out to Turkey hours before their own match, Korea, led by striker Ahn Jung-Hwan, chased every ball and charged forward. After having missed several opportunities, persistence paid off for Jung-Hawn who headed a perfect cross beyond Buffon for a dramatic 116th minute win. South Korea's squad, who has never seen the Final 8, fell to the ground in glorious disbelief. At that second my mother had a minor stroke, I knocked over my third espresso, and my brother broke our TV with a beautiful side volley.

But if this is truly an upset, how did Korea advance, if not by pure skill and hard work? Was it the home field advantage? Certainly the heat and humidity coupled with the Korean support in Taejon played some sort of determining factor? Yet, Italy is no stranger to heat and humidity (brought up by North African winds during the summer), and they have had plenty of time to adjust to Korea's own climatic blend. Furthermore, even if a strong home crowd gives you the so-called 12th player on the field, Italy would be expected to crush a S. Korean team of 15.

Alas, we know exactly what the Italian media will claim as the true problem, the referees. Having been called back on at least three goals since entering the tournament, Italy has not received any favors from the three blind mice. It seemed understood that the questionable calls in both the Croatian and Mexican matches (where Italy had goals taken back on late offsides calls) were sure to slide so long as Italy advanced. Now that Italy has been knocked out of the tournament, I will give the Italian tifosi thirty seconds before they start crying of the injustices of this World Cup. I can hear my family and friends now: "Porco dio a Non e giusto! Gli arbitri erano pazzi" (It's not fair. The refs were crazy).

I, a true tifoso of coach Pozzo's 1930's metodo style soccer, suggest that all Italian fans look within themselves to find the ruination of calico. No, it is not the catenaccio style that has suffocated National Italian soccer, nor is it the questionable arbitrating; rather the catenaccio and poor refereeing are direct manifestations of a more perilous infection spreading among the most prestigious levels of soccer, melodrama.

The catenaccio formation and senseless arbitrating are the perfect combination for an audience addicted to piss-poor theatrics. Il catenaccio (the chain or bolt), an utterly defensive structure ensures that the practicing team controls the ball in their defensive quarter of the field. In Italy's case this year, it was comprised of two defensive midfielders playing with a solid three man defense. This formation better mirrored the metodo of the 1930's, yet Italy proved incapable of moving comfortably out of their defensive quarter. The key to winning with the catenaccio is sending long balls to one of three offensive players. Attacks are made infrequently, which brings tension to a boiling point each time a striker touches the ball. The strikers are consistently the stars of the team, and have come to be treated more like ruling aristocrats than athletes. When you add mysterious calls from blind men carrying whistles, you have the longest running, nationalistic soap opera. The referees ensure that there is no script for the act, and the catenaccio creates protagonists out of its forwards.

Certainly I am not the first observer to comment on the gratuitous use of rolling, reasonless clutching at an ankle, or exaggerated falls in the world of soccer. In fact, cracking down on theatrical improvisation is at the forefront of FIFA's objectives this year. Therefore yellow cards are immediately issued when a dive occurs. Very few teams have escaped without noticing this new initiative (Italy, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico have all been made to look particularly silly this year). And with the exception of Brazil and Germany, the highest-paid players on the favored teams have left for home. If this year's quarter-final qualifiers tell us anything, it is that diligence and honesty can overcome experience, superstars and poor acting. Given these results I highly recommend against betting for the more favored German and Brazilian teams in the semi-finals (June 25 and 26).

Italy was ranked in the top 5 upon entering the World Cup. Their chances seemed to soar when they were placed in the easiest group, and then received a technical pass, despite a loss to Croatia and a tie with Mexico, into the final 16 after Croatia lost to Ecuador. I could see virtually no competition down the line before the semifinals. I could not have been more excited about Italy's prospects. Yet each and every time Doni, Totti, Tommasi, Gattuso or Del Piero rolled, I cringed out of embarrassment. As my brother commented, "they didn't need medical attention and a stretcher, they just wanted to pour water over their heads to reactivate their hair-gel." It was clear, theatrics and vanity has saturated the World Cup. I was nauseous. I noticed myself switching mid-game to root for England when they played Argentina, because Ortega and Batistuta (the latter of which was my favorite player when we both lived in Florence) could not keep the hair out of their eyes or their arse off the pitch. I never feel right cheering for the US, yet after watching Hernandez and Blanco cry and stumble like spoiled toddlers, I wanted Mexico out of sight.

Italy's last game of the 2002 World Cup failed to provide me with a break in my vomiting spell. Totti, my alternative favorite after Trap' denied his country the glorious gift of the Coda di Cavallo, looked like a baby elephant with the ball. Where was the dodging Roma striker I promised my first-born child to? It was even worse to watch him in a shoulder-to-shoulder challenge. His gorgeous sandy blond locks outlining his chiseled Romanesque face as he crumbled like the anorexic supermodel he pretended to be. It was pitiful. Yet my pride never faltered—I yelled at him from my couch the words Baggio once told a lackluster Del Piero, "just one goal and the whole world will love you!" As I said those words, Totti broke through the defense, and in a millisecond I knew my team would see the quarter finals. But instead of watching Totti celebrate, I stood mouth ajar watching him lay on the grass, then argue with Moreno, then leave the stadium.

Totti, as I imagine him now, is feeling more self-righteous than ever. With Totti's mane to the camera, I could not make out what he said to the referee, but he looked more assertive in those 15 seconds than he has since leaving the Serie A. As he rose to his feet there was no guilt on his face, no childish smirk, no sense of trickery, just outright anger at what he physically and verbally claimed was a foul. Given that I have seen the replay about 25 times, I will give Totti the benefit of the doubt on his last tumble. He was fouled. Italy should have been given the penalty kick to win the game.

Yet I still claim that Moreno is not to blame. Humans are creatures of habit, and referees are no exception. Totti's regular dives into the penalty box have been played out ad nauseum in at least half the games of this Cup for each and every referee. It is a regular crying contest for attention, and that is a dangerous and pathetic way to play soccer. It is only a matter of time before the teams calling wolf actually get caught calling wolf in the presence of one. So this time Totti was really fouled, and big surprise, Moreno was not predisposed to believe him. And rightfully so, every other time Totti et al. took a dive it was on the ref's shoulders to cover up the spectators' laughs with the hiss following the yellow card. Fortunately you get two chances before getting kicked out of the game. Most consider the first a warning, and the best avoid that warning out of a commitment to their sport and team. The weakest rely on deception and promote treachery, even after they are warned. Thus, who can empathize with a bunch of fakers when that same injustice they have perpetuated eventually turns around and bites them on their own culo?

Totti is merely one of several drama students in the 2002 World Cup. Unfortunately for the World, and Italy in particular, we were not given the opportunity to see what a fabulous and innovative striker Totti can be when he relies on his athletic prowess instead of his melodrama. Why this was the case, only Totti knows? I think it best that we let soccer move on as an honest sport, and ridicule those prissy superstars. I commend FIFA for heightening the attention given to theatrical improvisation on the soccer field. I advise FIFA's President Sepp Blatter to ignore the claims made against the referees, to retract his own condemnations, and to tell those complaining to stop crying wolf. I truly hope Italy takes their early defeat to heart and gives the world a team ready to fight for the next World Cup. I beg the Azzurri in the name of my mother, who is getting old and cannot handle another heart attack, win one for your fans—it may only take a kick in the ass and a few haircuts.