I heard both semi-finals on medium wave radio. I was in Herefordshire, driving, and the combination of constantly-changing speed limits and nests of safety cameras kept my concentration well away from the games. In these circumstances it’s often the case that part of my mind will still be listening, unbeknownst to me consciously, and that part will alert the rest seconds before – and it always is before – something good happens. Or something marvellous: in 1998, that part yanked me back to the radio to hear Marc Overmaars’ glorious run and goal against Manchester United – the goal that was the real starting point of Arsene Wenger’s exultant, unlucky Arsenal teams. (I’m MUFC. What sort of dullard could fail to enjoy Arsenal, all these years, or feel lucky to have been around at the same time as them, or acknowledge that, really, they have been the best club side in England in important ways since the game began?)
Nothing pulled me back to the radio in either semi-final, but I came away from Italy v Germany having taken a sense from the commentators’ tones of voice that everything had been right with the world for an hour and a half, which BBCi’s generous highlights have now confirmed. It’s that air from the radio I’ll remember, though: somehow radio is more “football” than telly, making it possible to believe that this game, now, is the same as, from the same stock as, the kind of match I’d catch from Radio 2 under the covers late at night in childhood. I’ve seen footage of young John Barnes dribbling through a Brazilian defence – the way he realises that he isn’t making it up a crucial moment before the Brazilians realise that he isn’t making it up, and then the goal – but I heard the real thing live on radio, and let me tell you, the real Barnes goal against Brazil was a far greater thing than the film suggests. Thinking about that now brings the voice of Peter Jones to my ears, but if it wasn’t him that night, it is now as they say.
Italy have been playing a short-passing game to greater and greater effect as the tournament has gone on, and the sheer sense of movement and diagonals they generated against Germany stood out against the brave, limited horizontals and verticals of their opponents. It looked exhausting. The German could play his long pass and move the ball out of his part of the field, then breathe; the Italian had to think about moving into a position to receive a pass immediately, and make it a good position. As such, it wasn’t possession football – this didn’t resemble Brazil’s masterclass in that category against England four years ago. It was more reminiscent of England’s play against a quite different Brazil in 1970.. (I don’t want to take the comparison between Italy and that incomparable side any further).
Only Italian tiredness opened the game up to Germany, and although the Italian defense threw their bodies in front of everything, I couldn’t help twitching in frustration as chances went unused.
It’s asking a lot for all this to mean anything. There won’t be a new winner of the World Cup. If France win, there’ll be a very old one! and, unlike 1998, it won’t be a win that ushers in a period of French dominance of global football. Had Portugal made it to the Final, perhaps one could have talked about their golden generation (and, again in the highlights, they were more like footballers against France than in their ugly, lucky scramble past the English).. I’d have left that to others.
World Cup 2006 isn’t going to leave us anywhere.. whatever happens in the Final, it’s been a fine tournament, allowing most of the best sides into the quarter-finals at least, even if the best of them all, Argentina, were sabotaged by a change of attitude and remarkable substitutions. It’s been a team tournament – no single player has come forward to dominate. Zidane has performed decisive cameos, which isn’t quite the same thing; Klose has banged in plenty of goals (and that’s the best way to put it, isn’t it?) and Ribery has been my Premiership player of the competition (I know he hasn’t, doesn’t.. but he would, wouldn’t he?) We’re going to reach the end knowing what we knew at the beginning, as to which the best sides in the world are, but a World Cup is a hard thing to win, and I see Argentinian, Spanish, Brazilian and English heads in my mind nodding, and saying, a World Cup is a hard thing to win.
The last classic tournament was Euro 2000, in which England, inspired by the presence of national hero Kevin Keegan.. that ended with Italy v France and a match memorable for the stink of fear that poured off it. Although we’ve no ten-minute shows of brilliance from Louis Saha to look forward to, my hunch is – actually, I’m feeling very positive about this. Someone slip the players some vodka, turn down the heat so they can run, make the pitch too hard for diving, and have at it. France to win a classic, Henry and Del Piero to sky-write; no cards.