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ON SOCCER

A title, by kick or by trick

Gianluigi Buffon was pumped up after David Trezeguet hit the crossbar.
Gianluigi Buffon was pumped up after David Trezeguet hit the crossbar. (Getty Images Photo / Martin Rose)

BERLIN -- Maybe the best team won this World Cup, maybe it didn't. But one thing is certain. The most clever team won it. The most cynical team won it. The team that was the truest exemplar of what this tournament was about and of what soccer has become.

In a Cup that was remarkable for its lack of scoring, for its record number of red and yellow cards, for its flopping and rolling, Italy knew more than any of the other 31 teams how to lift the golden trophy at the end. The only surprise was that the Azzurri, finally, made five penalty kicks out of five.

That had always been their downfall -- in the 1990 semifinals, in the '94 final, in the '98 quarterfinals. That was why the Italians busted a gut to beat the Germans in overtime, because they had no stomach for the lottery. Last night, with French icon Zinedine Zidane tossed out of the match in disgrace for head-butting Marco Materazzi, the Azzurri were willing to spin the wheel.

So, after 120 minutes had produced a 1-1 deadlock, the men in blue stepped to the spot, one after another, and blasted balls past Fabien Barthez. When Fabio Grosso put the fifth one in, his teammates exploded with joy and relief. After two dozen years, they were on top of the world. It would have been nicer if they could have done it in a different fashion.

A shootout is no way to decide the planet's biggest sporting event. It wasn't in '94 when Roberto Baggio booted one over the crossbar and Italy lost to Brazil. It wasn't last night. But this is what the game has come to. You win by thwarting. You win by frustrating. You win by scoring one goal -- preferably off a set piece -- and then slamming the door and dead-bolting it.

The Italians invented that game with their padlock catenaccio style and they still play it better than anyone. The difference now is that when they have to get a goal, they can get one. When they have to make a penalty kick -- or five of them -- they can do it. That's how they beat the Australians, with a penalty kick on the last play of regulation. That's how they beat the Germans, with two goals in the final three minutes.

And that's how they beat the French after falling behind, 1-0, on Zidane's penalty kick in the seventh minute. It took the Azzurri only 12 minutes to equalize, on a header by Materazzi off a corner by Andrea Pirlo. It was a classic bit of Italian trickery -- Materazzi wrapping an arm around Patrick Vieira's shoulder from behind and pulling him down just enough to get an open look at the goal.

The English may have invented this game (one of these years they'll actually get around to playing it), but the Italians know all of its tricks, all of its angles, all of its shadows. If Machiavelli was around today, he'd be a midfielder for the Azzurri.

The Italians won this tournament the foolproof way: They were the only team that didn't allow a goal from the run of play. But they also won it because they played their rivals for suckers. Grosso dashes into the area, sees Australian defender Lucas Neill down and makes sure he trips over him, setting up the winning penalty. Gianluigi Buffon makes a show of lollygagging on a goal kick as the clock is running down in overtime, letting the Germans think his teammates are willing to go to a shootout. The Italians respond with a knockout shot.

Last night, though, was their masterpiece. Zidane was the man who had engineered France's victories over Spain, over Brazil, over Portugal. If he was given space to work his magic again, he would deliver a dagger to the Azzurri's heart and they knew it. So they nipped at Zidane all night, never quite fouling him, but driving him mad. They understood that in Argentina's Horacio Elizondo that they had the ideal ``play-on" referee, who had no patience for players pleading for fouls.

Every time Zidane found himself on the ground, his frustration grew. He left the field after injuring his shoulder colliding with Fabio Cannavaro in the 81st minute, but returned moments later.

When Buffon tipped his likely winning header over the bar in the 104th minute and Zidane screamed in disbelief, he was on the verge of a crackup. All it took was an annoying arm around his waist by Materazzi and Zidane blew a gasket. After 110 minutes, he couldn't take any more.

Zidane waited for Materazzi to come back upfield, then turned and put his head squarely into his tormentor's chest. Materazzi went down as though he'd been hit by a cannonball, Elizondo showed Zidane the red (just as he did to England's Wayne Rooney), and France's greatest soccer hero found himself walking into retirement, passing the trophy on its pedestal as he left the field.

That was when Italy won the Cup. Les Bleus couldn't risk going for the winning goal a man down and the Italians weren't going to try. ``They were obviously waiting for the penalties," said French coach Raymond Domenech. And this time, the Azzurri made them, every one, and sent them dancing into the streets from Milan to Messina.

It may be the last happy moment for Italian soccer for a while. This week, a special tribunal is expected to rule on the match-fixing scandal that could devastate Serie A, with Juventus, AC Milan, Fiorentina, and Lazio expected to be demoted. Maybe that will be poetic justice, maybe it won't be. But this is what the game has become.

Related content:
 ITALY 1, FRANCE 1 (5-3, ITALY): Cool blue
 WORLD CUP NOTEBOOK: Sequel coming soon
 NORTH END: Cup of pure joy
 GLOBE EDITORIAL: Boston's Big Italy
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