- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 9, 2006

HANOVER, Germany — Unless something dramatic happens in today’s final between Italy and France in Berlin, no single player will have stamped his mark on this year’s World Cup.

Past World Cups often are remembered for the performances of signature players. At the 2002 final in Asia, Brazil’s Ronaldo scored eight goals, and German goalie Oliver Kahn was brilliant. In 1998, Zinedine Zidane was the big star as France defeated Brazil. From the 1994 Cup in the United States, the names that stand out are Brazil’s Romario and Bebeto along with Italy’s Roberto Baggio. The 1990 finals in Italy were a bit of a dud, but the 1986 event was clearly dominated by Argentina’s Diego Maradona. And so it goes. …

Germany’s Miroslav Klose has scored five goals in Germany, but the unassuming star did most of his damage in the early rounds.

So will a player break from the pack today?

In his final game before he retires, will Zidane again turn on the magic and go out in glory? Zidane has the ability to make these finals his, but is that too much to ask of the 34-year-old master?

“We have Zidane, and Italy don’t,” French defender Eric Abidal said.

That’s right, but Italy does have a fortress of a defense, which may not add up to dazzling soccer but earns results. However, Italy has no goal scorer like the retired Baggio, whose No. 10 jersey remains the most popular among Italian fans here.

France, meanwhile, has a proven goal scorer in Thierry Henry, a player who has scored a bevy of sublime goals in the English Premier League and Champions League. Will Henry be the man finally to crack Italy’s solid defense, and could this game be the defining moment of his brilliant career?

“People talk about how difficult it is to score against Italian defenders,” said Henry, who has six career World Cup goals. “But I didn’t have trouble scoring against Italian teams in the Champions League, so I don’t see why it should be different this time.”

This World Cup has been marked by tight defenses and cautious attacking. Even veteran star Franz Beckenbauer, the key organizer of the event, bemoaned the lack of attacking.

“There were not many bad games at the final, but there were no real thrillers,” Beckenbauer told German sports agency SID. “If I had my way, the teams that play one striker would not be allowed into the tournament.”

The tournament began with flair as Germany downed Costs Rica 4-2 in the opening game, and there were plenty of goals in the group stages, but as the tournament advanced and the games became tougher, cautious play and tight defense took over.

“It was a joke,” added Beckenbauer, who won the 1974 World Cup as a player with Germany and then the 1990 Cup as a coach. “I was seriously annoyed by the lack of courage from some teams — how afraid the coaches were. There were hardly any shots on goal, and that explains the low goal quota. … There were no standout players.”

While France has Zidane and Henry as leading candidates to star in the final, Italy has played perfectly as a team. Italy has used all 20 of its allotted field players, and its 11 goals have come from 10 different players. Italian central defender and captain Fabio Cannavaro has been almost perfect, as has goalie Gianluigi Buffon, but defenders and goalies don’t dominate the headlines like goal scorers.

France features three players, including Zidane, who were lured out of international retirement to play in the finals.

“A lot of people placed too much emphasis on the age factor, but they’re beginning to focus on what we do on the pitch,” said French midfielder Patrick Vieira, 30. “We responded well, and this is the best answer we can give.”

Meantime, the often predictable Italians have lived up to their potential after falling in the quarterfinals in 1998 and the round of 16 in 2002.

“We’ve accumulated a lot of anger after two major disappointments,” Cannavaro said. “We put that rage to good use on the pitch, and you can see that at the World Cup — we are turning that anger into something positive.”

Today’s game is a rematch of the Euro 2000 finals in the Netherlands. In that game Italy led 1-0 until a late French goal sent the game into extra time, in which France won 2-1. France also dispatched Italy in a penalty shootout in the 1998 World Cup.

With a win today, Italy, which is unbeaten in 24 games, will become only the second nation to win at least four World Cups. Brazil is the only team to have won five.

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