James Lawton: Zidane's fall into darkness was the final act of betrayal

The brilliantly organised tournament in Germany promised redemption for a troubled game but negative coaching and players with no conscience defeated the forces of progress
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Few cities on earth are less likely than Berlin to mistake a mishap in sport for the tragedies of real life. Yet even in the bustle of Friedrichstrasse, near where Checkpoint Charlie used to stand, it is impossible to put aside the extent of the damage Zinedine Zidane did to himself and to football in the gaunt Olympiastadion on Sunday night.

He was supposed to leave a light burning in his permanent memory. Instead he brought a peculiar darkness, a fatalism that might have played well here in one of the cabaret clubs of another age.

Yesterday, in the tortured wake of an 18th World Cup that had promised, briefly but gloriously, nothing less than the regeneration of a game dying of greed and deceit, football played its usual trick in the face of a crisis of public belief and respect. It fussed over the details of a disaster. Was Zidane's red-card punishment for his shocking head-butt of Marco Materazzi illegally imposed? Was video evidence, not the eyes of the match officials, the reason why a horrible distortion of football justice - the possibility that Zidane might have stayed on the field and influenced a game he had already mutilated - was avoided? Perhaps these are indeed matters of administration worthy of investigation, but do they carry us within a thousand miles of the real problem? Of course not.

Football's fundamental need is not a review of its rules but a scourging of its spirit. That one of its greatest players, a father of four sons, a man surely aware that every nuance of his performance, even the expression on his face, was being examined in close-up by a television audience of more than a billion, should behave, with such shocking suddenness, like a back-alley thug, is perhaps the ultimate example of how the game of the world so frequently loses not only its head but also its conscience.

No less depressing for some, no doubt, was the overwhelming suspicion that Zidane's victim, Materazzi, now taking the salute of his proud nation, had provoked Zidane with some sickening insult from the gutter, maybe a sexual allusion, after touching his nipples, or perhaps a flash of the racism which is such a relentless problem in the Italian game.

That, for the time being at least, had to be speculation. The reality was that Zidane had produced not a crowning statement of his a brilliant career but an act of barbarism. The artist had turned assassin, and, as any civilised law insists, provocation is never a defence.

The resulting extent of disillusionment in those who focused on Germany and its splendidly organised tournament as a point of renewal is surely now impossible to exaggerate.

Even the joy in Italy, where there was justifiable pride in the resolution of a winning squad who might easily have been overwhelmed by the corruption scandal that has caused such dismay among followers of great clubs like Juventus and Milan, was so brittle you had to wonder how close it was to a hysterical statement of denial that the nation had been betrayed, utterly, by Il Bello Calcio. The foot soldiers had won, magnificently in the case of heroes like Fabio Cannavaro and Gianluca Zambrotta, but where had they been left by the generals? They had been marooned without certainties the moment the great tournament ended in a barrage of fireworks and silver paper and broken promises.

Yes, broken promises. A few weeks ago football seemed to be following some mystical summons towards redemption. The Germans, so derided in their own land as a potential embarrassment rather than a glory, were playing with magnificent application, Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski striking so hard that their status had changed, almost overnight, from derided "Polish rats", to stalwarts of the Fatherland. The Africans of Ivory Coast and Ghana played football of heart-touching honesty and speed - even Didier Drogba, a man derided by his own Chelsea fans as a serial cheat, seemed to find the best of himself, playing with a rousing strength of purpose.

The Spanish were a revelation, the Brazilians, as usual, were in waiting, and then, in Gelsenkirchen, a week into the tournament, something extraordinary and moving happened. Argentina played like gods; they persuaded some of us that their 6-0 dismantling of Serbia & Montenegro, a few days after winning a fine match with Ivory Coast, had set a daunting, even magical standard. If anyone could beat Argentina, and wipe the smile off Diego Maradona's face, they had the right to call themselves great champions of the world.

Whether that was a reality systematically destroyed by the Argentina coach, Jose Pekerman, who granted hardly a peek at the mesmerising talent of Lionel Messi and was suicidally cautious when he had the Germans at the point of breakdown in their quarter-final, is one of those many football questions that will probably never be resolved. What, sadly, is not in doubt is that the 18th World Cup was already locked into betrayal.

Cheating was the killer, and if England chose to believe that most of it was located in the strategy of the man who rejected them, Luiz Felipe Scolari, and the play of the hugely gifted Cristiano Ronaldo, that was maybe one more way of excusing their own desperate failure to meet the challenge that is placed before every allegedly significant football nation every four years.

The truth was that cheating was everywhere and infecting everybody - even England, as we saw when Peter Crouch yanked the hair of a Trinidad defender as he scored a vital goal on a night of draining ineptitude in Nuremberg. Portugal, no doubt, were wretched, particularly in their semi-final with France, where Ronaldo marred some superb passages of play with a relentless attempt to win a penalty from a referee he believed had been duped by Thierry Henry - the author of the most shameless piece of play-acting in the entire tournament.

All the time you hoped that the early momentum would be rescued, certainly that Brazil would eventually burst into life. But Brazil failed, as did so many players who had been loosely described as great. At the end of the tournament, the great French artist Michel Platini said that coaches had placed a dead hand on the tournament, insisting on religious observation of tactical plans rather than any genuine freedom of expression. But if Platini was right to assail some coaches - notably the near-paralysed Pekerman - his principal targets should surely have been some of those players with the huge reputations.

Pekerman was assailed for withdrawing his playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme, the choice of many as the player of the tournament in the early going. But the truth was that Riquelme did not grow in the World Cup. In fact, he shrivelled. When he was taken off against Germany he had become virtually anonymous.

It was true of almost all the men who were supposed to write their names across the German sky. The greatest disappointment of all was Ronaldinho, twice elected player of the year and a man who, before the ultimately ill-starred diversion created by Zidane, was supposed to turn the tournament into a personal coronation.

In Brazil's headquarters on the edge of the Black Forest you saw him work beautifully in training; a blue bandanna was worn against the fierce sun, and a smile was hardly ever off his face. But sometimes it was an enigmatic smile, and one made more so when he heard that the great legend Tostao, a star of Brazil's most spectacular World Cup triumph in 1970, was asking some harsh questions in his column back home.

The most pertinent one: "When is Ronaldinho going to show up here? Not the one who plays for Brazil - the one who stars for Barcelona. I haven't set eyes on him yet." Nor would he, we knew that, as the life drained out of him and his team in the quarter-final against France.

That was the high-water mark of Zidane. He played well against Spain, less well against Portugal in the semi-final, but against Brazil he changed the tournament, gave it a new core. That was true until the moment he threw so much away, when he turned and walked up to Materazzi welling all that unstoppable venom.

Italy were brilliant when they stopped Germany. They stripped down all the fierce qualities Jürgen Klinsmann had imposed in the face of such disdain. Cannavaro was immense, the player of the tournament beyond any doubt, but as the Italians added one good performance on to another, the value of a strong coach was increasingly obvious. You saw the relentlessness of the Italians, how they compensated seamlessly for the loss of Alessandro Nesta, and when it became obvious that they were serious contenders, despite several players of distinctly ordinary talent, notably Mauro Camoranesi and the plodding strikers, Luca Toni, Alberto Gilardino and Vincenzo Iaquinta, it was impossible not to make comparison with the work of England's Sven Goran Eriksson. Marcello Lippi plainly had both the respect of his team and vital control over them.

Eriksson's failure is well documented now; his apologists have presumably run to the hills or re-invented their view of a man who was supposed to develop the golden generation. What had to be said, when the World Cup had done the last of its business, was that England's lack of impact was one of the major disappointments.

Sometimes it is easy to exaggerate the foreign view of England's potential - often we are told what we want to hear, especially that we are still a major force in the game despite the fact that it is 40 years since the only success at this rarefied level and that the team are still to appear in the final of a European Championship. But this time there has been little pretence that England were a major force; the failure to strike any kind of rhythm was duly noted, and shrugged away. What does linger, with a still strong force, is the arrogance of Frank Lampard, who when England's misery was over made an impassioned attack on the English media. He had merely missed a few goals, and in view of all he had done for the country was entitled to more respect. There, maybe, we had the most basic problem: a failure to remember that true respect flows only from consistent achievement.

Now, when you look at the broader picture of this World Cup, you see that England were far from alone in their belief that there was not so much to prove.

Brazil's Ronaldo, the star of 2002, made an engaging speech on the eve of the tournament. He said that he still believed he had everything to play for, that the triumph of the last tournament was something for the history books and that now he would redefine himself all over again. He scored two against Japan, and one against the naïve defence of Ghana that took him past Gerd Müller's record, and he was widely acclaimed. But the truth was that mostly he was an embarrassment, so out of match conditioning that he could move only in a small arc that required his team-mates to deliver the ball to his feet, and in striking positions. That was one scandal at the heart of the great tournament; the other one that grew in ever increasing intensity was that level of cheating.

So many games were decided not by skill but a sleight of dubious hand. The dive is no longer an outrage; it is an intrinsic part of the game.

Here was where the 18th World Cup took its greatest defeat. You can change as many laws as you like but you cannot legislate the heart and the conscience of the game. You can only appeal for the decency and spirit that it will take to put matters right. You can only hope that someone like Zinedine Zidane remembers who he is and what he is supposed to represent. No, you wouldn't want to talk about the tragedy of football in the shadow of Checkpoint Charlie. But then maybe you could make a small, sad point. You could say that if Zidane, the fabled Zizou, was supposed to be the best, what on earth can be made of the rest?

The best (and England's worst) of the greatest show on earth: The Independent's experts pick their highlights of Germany '06

James Lawton, Chief Sports Writer

* BEST PLAYER: Fabio Cannavaro (Italy)

* BEST XI: (4-4-2): Buffon (Italy); Zambrotta (Italy), Ayala (Argentina), Cannavaro (Italy), Grosso (Italy); Maxi Rodriguez (Argentina), Mascherano (Argentina), Ballack (Germany), Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal); Klose (Germany), Henry (France).

* BEST GOAL: Esteban Cambiasso (25-pass move, Argentina v Serbia & Montenegro)

* BEST GAME: Germany v Italy

* MOST DISAPPOINTING ENGLAND PLAYER: Frank Lampard

* LEAST DISAPPOINTING ENGLAND PLAYER: Owen Hargreaves

Graeme Le Saux, Former England Left-Back

* BEST PLAYER: Fabio Cannavaro (Italy)

* BEST XI: (4-4-1-1): Buffon (Italy); Lahm (Germany), Cannavaro (Italy), Mertesacker (Germany), Grosso (Italy); Ribéry (France), Ballack (Germany), Pirlo (Italy), Riquelme (Argentina); Zidane (France); Klose (Germany).

* BEST GOAL: Esteban Cambiasso (Argentina v Serbia & Montenegro)

* BEST GAME: Italy v Germany

* MOST DISAPPOINTING ENGLAND PLAYER: David Beckham

* LEAST DISAPPOINTING ENGLAND PLAYER: Owen Hargreaves

Sam Wallace, Football Correspondent

* BEST PLAYER: Fabio Cannavaro (Italy)

* BEST XI: (4-4-1-1): Buffon (Italy); Zambrotta (Italy), Cannavaro (Italy), Ricardo Carvalho (Portugal), A Cole (England); A Lennon (England), Pirlo (Italy), Ballack (Germany), Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal); Zidane (France); Torres (Spain).

* BEST GOAL: Maxi Rodriguez (volley, Argentina v Mexico)

* BEST GAME: Italy v Germany

* MOST DISAPPOINTING ENGLAND PLAYER: David Beckham

* LEAST DISAPPOINTING ENGLAND PLAYER: Aaron Lennon

Craig Brown, Former Scotland Manager

* BEST PLAYER: Fabio Cannavaro (Italy)

* BEST XI: (4-4-2): Agassa (Togo); Zambrotta (Italy), Cannavaro (Italy), Djourou (Italy), Schilla (Ghana); Barnetta (Switzerland), Pirlo (Italy), Sneijder (Netherlands), Kaka (Brazil); Podolski (Germany), Toni (Italy).

Substitutes: Lahm (Germany), Metzelder (Germany), Gattuso (Italy), Ribéry (France), Klose (Germany).

* BEST GOAL: Esteban Cambiasso (25-pass move, Argentina v Serbia & Montenegro)

* BEST GAME: Germany v Italy

* MOST DISAPPOINTING ENGLAND PLAYER: Frank Lampard - but only because I had such high hopes for him at the tournament

* LEAST DISAPPOINTING ENGLAND PLAYER: Rio Ferdinand - just ahead of the two Coles, Ashley and Joe

Glenn Moore, Football Editor

* BEST PLAYER: Fabio Cannavaro (Italy)

* BEST XI: (4-3-1-2): Buffon (Italy); Zambrotta (Italy), Cannavaro (Italy), Thuram (France), Lahm (Germany); Frings (Germany), Pirlo (Italy), Essien (Ghana); Zidane (France); Klose (Germany), Torres (Spain).

Substitutes: Lehmann (Germany), Miquel (Portugal), Gattuso (Italy), Riquelme (Argentina), Ribéry (France).

* BEST GOAL: Maxi Rodriguez (volley, Argentina v Mexico)

* BEST GAME: Argentina v Mexico

* MOST DISAPPOINTING ENGLAND PLAYER: Frank Lampard

* LEAST DISAPPOINTING ENGLAND PLAYER: Aaron Lennon

Comments