July 05, 2006

France 1, Portugal 0: Taking advantage of a very generous call on a trip inside the penalty area (from the same ref who called the U.S.-Italy game, btw), Zinedine Zidane once again put off his retirement party for another day, converting in the 33rd minute to lift Les Bleus to the Final. Portugal appeared to be the better team, controlling the ball for long periods in the second half, but had no one who could put the ball in the back of the net; the low point came when Figo missed a point-blank header less than ten feet from the goal in the final twelve minutes, after Fabien Barthez made one of his patented bobbles off a Christiano Ronaldo free kick.

Ronaldo was jeered at the entire game, no doubt due to the combination of the events Saturday, when he was front-and-center in the maneuvering that got Wayne Rooney sent off, but mostly because he wears that handsome, smug, shit-eating Tom Cruise grin. Nevertheless, he played exceptionally, giving his side numerous opportunities to score, but it appears that Man U may be about to perform a Perugia, and tell him to hit the road. A defense of Ronaldo is made here, in the middle of a column that is a hardy perennial in English sportswriting, the blanket attack on anything and everything that has to do with the Three Lions. It has all the classic essentials of such a piece: the personal attack on the coach, his assistants, and his team selection; the character blasts on the star players (Beckham, Rooney and Lampard); the indefensible notion that reaching the quarterfinals is tantamount to a national disaster; and, my favorite, the extolling of the Magical 1966 champions. Brian Glanville has written the same banal piece after every international tournament since 1970.

There's a kernel of truth to these attacks. England may have made the quarterfinals this time, but they never looked very impressive, and for the coach to select a teenage player who had never started in the bigs, at a position for which his squad was thin, in favor of other, more experienced players, then never seeing fit to use him during the tournament, deserves all the ridicule one can muster. But the notion that all England needs is a good coach to start dominating the World Cup is, frankly, nuts. Of the other major soccer powers, it draws from the smallest population base, thanks to the archaic division that allows Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to field different teams. England did win one World Cup, in 1966, because a) it hosted the tournament; b) Pele was injured; and c) the English got a terrible call in the Final that gave them an undeserved goal. The U.S. will win a World Cup before England wins its second.

And, of course, culturally, the present age is not a particularly rich time in English history. Its film industry is decrepit, churning out costume dramas and little else. Kylie Minogue is considered a major pop star. A culture that continuously spits out and relentlessly hypes the Spice Girls, Oasis, Guy Ritchie, Kate Moss, Coldplay, Robbie Williams and Kate Beckinsale, that elects and reelects the likes of Tony Blair, and that considers Christopher Hitchens, Julie Burchill, Tina Brown and Mark Steyn to be "public intellectuals", can't help but ensure that its athletic heroes are going to be drawn from the same low hanging fruit.

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