Match Of The Tournament?
Germany 0-2 Italy (After Extra Time)
In the early years of the 1980s, whilst fighting against the perennial spectre of relegation, Stoke City went to Highbury for a Division One match against Arsenal. It was featured on “Match Of The Day”. Stoke, desperate for anything that they could muster from the game, threw eleven players behind the ball and played out a goal-less draw. In the post-match interview, the Stoke manager, Alan Durban, was quizzed over the entertainment level that his team provided. His answer became part of football folklore: “If you want entertainment, go to the circus”.
You may not agree with the sentiment that football is now too important to be mere entertainment, but I was reminded of it last night, as Germany played Italy. This match was much, much more than mere entertainment. Much more. It was news. It was a tragedy. It was a spectacular feat of endurance. It was competitive sport at it’s very, very best. It might not have pleased the part-time fans – there were no goals for 118 minutes, and the match was played more like a chess game than anything else – but anybody that appreciates the finer arts of the game, it was one that will live long in the memory.
I’ll spare you a full report. Let’s just suffice to say that two mental images will live with me for a very, very long time. The first is of the brilliant young striker Lukas Podolski, about five minutes into the second-half of extra-time, straining to get the ball like a marathon runner trying to cross the winning line, before stumbling and losing it. There was nothing ungainly about it. It didn’t look in any way embarrassing. It was a supreme athlete, who had already pushed himself to the limits of what his body could achieve, who was literally unable to do any more. It summed up what, to me, had happened to the German team. They had given their all against Argentina in the previous round. Their fuel tanks were empty. They had nothing left to give.
The second image was the reaction of Fabio Grosso, when he scored the first goal. I don’t know whether he was deliberately aping Marco Tardelli’s slack-jawed disbelief at knowing that he tied up the 1982 World Cup or not (I’m not expert, but I suspect that that image is as famous in Italy as Bobby Moore holding the Jules Rimet Trophy aloft in 1966 is in England), but it seems kind of irrelevant. That face is what it’s all about. That face is what it means.
Quite asides from this, the match was a victory on another couple of fronts that I wasn’t expecting. It was refereed excellently, and played in a spirit that did the whole tournament a credit. Also, Clive Tyldesley for ITV proved that, when not being burdened with his company’s apparent requirement to sound like A Voice Of Common Sense, he can be a fine commentator. I liked him many moons ago when he was on the BBC. One would hope for more of the same from him in the future.
The Germans – their magnificently over-achieving players and outstanding supporters, deserved better than this. To lose in the last couple of minutes of extra-time is a cruel, cruel way to go out. Ultimately, though, Italy had just a little bit too much for them. For an Italian population that deserves better than the terrible abuse of their trust that seems to have been going on in Serie A over the last couple of years or so, there will be at least a few more days of fantasy in Germany before they have to turn their attention back to something that no nation of passionate football supporters should ever have to face.