- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 6, 2006

MUNICH — So the stage is set for Sunday’s exclusively European World Cup final. For soccer connoisseurs fed on a weekly diet of Italian, Spanish and English Premier League club games, the final is a treat, but for the wider-world audience, the climax of the 18th finals in Berlin may be a bit of a letdown.

For the first time since 1990, Brazil will not be in the big game. It also will be the first championship match since 1982 without a South American representative. From that year, when Italy last claimed the title, through 2002 either Germany or Brazil was in every final.

Now the Brazilians are back home, wondering what went wrong, while the saddened but resigned Germans get a crack against surprising Portugal in tomorrow’s third-place playoff in Stuttgart. However, the World Cup winner will once again come from the exclusive group of seven — Brazil, Italy, Germany, Argentina, Uruguay, England and France — that has won all the previous titles.

The Italy-France matchup offers a bevy of talented players. The world will get to see three-time world player of the year Zinedine Zidane play in his last game. Zidane, 34, who was the key factor as France dispatched Spain and Brazil, had a quieter game in the semifinal against Portugal, but scored the all-important penalty kick. The wise old maestro, who came out of international retirement last August to help a struggling France qualify for the World Cup after it could only earn a tie with Israel, may be saving his best for Italy.

The French ace knows the Italians well, having played for Italian giant Juventus from 1996 to 2001 before his record $75million move to Real Madrid. And Zidane certainly deserves this encore performance. There are few European players who can be mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Brazilians Ronaldinho and Ronaldo. Zidane has helped France conquer Brazil twice in World Cup games. That said, the smart Italians, probably the most balanced and well-tuned team at these finals, could be the ones to stop midfielder Zidane and his aging French partners.

French coach Raymond Domenech downplayed the fact that this was Zidane’s last game and tried to keep the focus on France and not just one player.

“Zidane is already a World Champion,” Domenech said. “He has a photo on most walls in Marseille and by coming back he has given this team something lasting and given the French public real dreams, but that has been the case for the last 10 years. You have to remember that we are playing in a World Cup final, not Zidane’s testimonial.”

Waiting to inherit Zidane’s mantle for France is Frank Ribery, the speedster blessed with dribbling skills and energy.

Italy played as a unit in its dramatic victory against Germany, showing discipline on defense.

A number of Italian players go into this game with their club futures in doubt. Five players, including three key stars — goalie Gianluigi Buffon, captain Fabio Cannavaro and striker Alessandro Del Piero — are not sure what they will face when they get home. Their club Juventus is at the center of a match-fixing scandal and looks certain to be relegated two divisions. The struggles back home may give them the incentive to play even harder, especially for their old teammate at Juventus, Gianluca Pessotto, who was seriously injured while trying to attempt suicide by jumping from a building last month.

Italy may be the favorite by a slight edge, but on its way to the final France has beaten three teams — Spain, Brazil and Portugal — who went through the group phase with spotless records. Italy’s defense, led by the brilliant Cannavaro, has been solid and given up just one goal — an own goal in a 1-1 draw against the United States.

Zidane yesterday was named on a list of 10 nominees, including Cannavaro (Italy), Maniche (Portugal), Michael Ballack (Germany), Andrea Pirlo (Italy), Gianluca Zambrotta (Italy), Thierry Henry (France), Buffon (Italy), Patrick Vieira (France) and Miroslav Klose (Germany), for the Golden Ball as the tournament’s MVP.

At the final, Italy, known as the “Azzurri” (Sky Blue), will wear its blue jersey, while “Le Bleus” of France will be in all white.

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