- The Washington Times - Monday, July 3, 2006

HANOVER, Germany — Maybe the Americans have it right, after all: The only way to decide a real champion is with a best-of-seven series.

Soccer is a funny game. In a single-elimination tournament like the World Cup, a lot of things can happen that keep the best team from winning: the referee makes a bad call, a player is red-carded, a clear penalty kick is denied. Or, as has been the case in these finals, a game comes down to a penalty shootout in which a few 12-yard kicks decide the fate of a team and history.

Of course, it’s impossible to play a series at the World Cup. Players need at least three days to recover from a grueling match — they run about seven miles a game — and the tournament would go on for months if winners were decided in a series. That’s why champions in club soccer are decided over a season of 30 to 40 games.

In an American-style best-of-seven series, would Germany beat an Argentina team that played the best soccer at the finals? It’s not likely. Would France beat Brazil? The French looked dreadful in the opening round, producing only ties against South Korea and Switzerland and a win over little Togo.

But on the day that mattered most, France, led by the soon-to-be retiring Zinedine Zidane, outplayed Brazil. France now faces a semifinal match against Portugal, a team that through pure muscle and a few good penalty shooters finds itself in the semifinals for the first time in 40 years.

The team with the best players clearly was Brazil, but it has been eliminated. Ronaldinho, voted the world’s best player, looked tired after a long season with his club, Barcelona, and never found his rhythm in Germany.

England, with its lineup of stars from the prestigious English Premier League, also is gone. Germany, with its blue-collar players led by young, American-influenced coach Juergen Klinsmann, is in the semifinals. The Germans face Italy, a team that couldn’t beat a nine-man U.S. squad in the opening round but always starts slow and saves its best for last.

On any other day, Premier League stars Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard convert penalty kicks with ease, yet when it mattered most they choked in the shootout with Portugal. Meanwhile, a Premier League reject, Helder Postiga, converted his kick for the Portuguese.

A lot comes down to luck — and the split-second decision of a referee — at the World Cup.

Italy is in the semifinals after a win over a weak Ukraine team, and it made it that far only by beating Australia on a suspicious penalty kick in the final seconds.

Wayne Rooney received a red card for stepping on a player who had clearly fouled him. The referee easily could have given Rooney a yellow, but, urged on by Portuguese players, the Argentine went with the red.

Strangely, England, which stumbled and fumbled in this tournament, played its best soccer with only 10 men on the field.

Poor, old Ivory Coast played well but was unlucky enough to be stuck in a tough group with Argentina and the Netherlands, while Portugal had to deal with only Angola and Iran.

“Life is a learning curve,” said Brazil’s young star, Robinho. “We learn when we win, but you also learn when you lose.”

Robinho, 22, is likely to see a few more World Cups. Not so with David Beckham, 31, who yesterday announced his retirement as England’s captain.

“Our performance in this World Cup has not been good enough, and all the players are hurt by that more than people realize,” he said.

So now it’s down to four teams.

A young German squad will go against the clever Italians in Dortmund tomorrow. The aging French stars face a Portugal team led by the subtle Figo, with his Elvis sideburns, in Munich the next day.

Will skill, luck, a referee’s dumb decision or a few penalty kicks decide who plays in the final?

Let’s hope the best team wins. But alas, soccer, like life, is not fair.

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