Before I start, let me clarify that I am considering the world cups which I have watched. I rather not comment about the ones before 2002, because I haven’t seen them live, so to not upset the pompous, bombastic and loud mouthed so-called football puritans and elitists.
First of all, everything about the 2002 FIFA World Cup was amazing and unpredictable. The cup had returned to the land where it was revered, unlike in 2002 when it held in Japan/South Korea to increase the Asian market of football. The stadiums were jam-packed and fans were out in force. Germany is smack-dab almost the equidistant from all points of the footballing world. The whole setup was professional in every sort. People expected an exciting cup and oh boy! Things got so exciting at the end, that it was impossible to get through a match without either plucking all your hair out or biting you hand off completely. What a euphoria! The underdogs went all the way, brushing aside all the favourites.
Let us start with the debutants, the first timers, containing Czech Republic, Ukraine, Togo, Angola , Trinidad and Tobago, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Serbia & Montenegro. All of whom other than T&T sported decent squads, in case of Ghana, Ivory Coast and Ukraine some of the best players at that time. You had Zidane, Thuram, Del Piero and Figo all making comebacks. Everyone knew that this was going to be the last world cup played by the generation of footballers who were the most diverse and talented bunch ever. Beckham was retiring alongside Figo, Zidane, Materazzi, Totti, Shevchenko and many others. You would not see Zidane play football again professionally after this cup. What a nauseating yet nostalgic moment! Even my idol Oliver Kahn was going to disappear. This was also the world cup where you would see the future of football play in global stage: Ronaldo and Messi.
In the group stage, we witnessed the thrashing of Serbia and Montenegro by Argentina. Germany cruised through with Ecuador. England somehow made it by playing their brand of school football, closely followed by Sweden. Argentina and Netherlands pretty much smashed their way through the knockout stages, no one other than Ivory Coast expected anything less. Following them were Portugal, Mexico, Italy, Ghana, Brazil, Japan, Switzerland, France, Spain and Ukraine. Only Japan looked like a surprise package in this group.
Knockout stage was the maddening. You couldn’t take your eyes of the matches. Argentina toiled against Mexico finally going through with the help Maxi Rodriguez. Italy winning against Australia with the help of a controversial penalty at the dying moments. Switzerland failing to convert even a single penalty against Ukraine in the penalty shootouts( world cup record). England rescued by a David Beckham freekick against Ecuador. Brazil thrashing Ghana 3-0, treating us to some samba magic. France came from behind to defeat Spain 3-1. But the match of the round was Netherlands vs Portugal. It was like watching a wrestling match. Both set of players refusing to back down from any sort of confrontation. Punches flying. Kicks to the chest. It was basically a pub brawl. 16 yellow cards and 4 red cards, imagine the chaos and mischief. Not one player left the ground scratchless on that day.
The quarter finals proved to be another roller coaster. Germany and Argentina faced off, keeping the score 1-1 by the end of extra time. Germany won 4-2 in penalties. Italy showed Ukraine the exit door, cruising to 3-0 victory. France faced Brazil , in what was billed as a fantastic and heart racing match. Zidane completely owned every Brazilian player on the pitch with is around the worlds and robanos and all the other Spanish mumbo jumbo names for tricks. The way Ronaldinho and co were humbled was a spectacular scene. France had basically knocked out the tournament favourites. The respect in the eyes for Zidane showed me true reason why football is loved some much. The match between England and Portugal proved a very emotional one for Manchester United fans. Rooney was sent off for stamping on a player’s manhood( that is what I inferred from the replay). Ronaldo (Cristiano) was the one who pestered the ref to make that decision. Both teams played out a somber and boring draw. Portugal won on penalties, as England continued their trend of screwing up in penalties and not making any impact in cup even though they always have a good team. To everyone’s dismay, David Beckham announced his retirement just after the match. I cried with him when I saw his press conference.
Semi-final was a all European affair. Italy vs Germany was some of the best end to end stuff you will watch. There no respite whole match. It was scoreless till the 118th minute. Then came the moment. Andrea Pirlo laid a gem of a pass for Fabio Grosso , for him to tuck the ball in the far post. This was the same man, who not long ago, was playing in the 3rd division on Italian league. Alessandro del Piero finished the game of with a classy finish. Germany would once more falter before the ultimate prize. It hurt more because this was a great team consisting of great players, many of them had a chance to lift the cup at home soil. France won against Portugal with Zidane scoring a penalty. The game was as boring as the scoreline, 1-0.
Here we arrived at finals. Two teams who were not given any chance made it. France, with a mediocre squad barely qualifying somehow made. Zidane, the god (if you don’t agree go get your head checked), brought the team so far along on his shoulders. He had to come out of retirement to help France qualify. Then there was Italy. Team made of ageing superstar and mediocre fringe players. All of them were legends for their clubs but hadn’t achieved anything significant in global arena. Also the whole squad was still shocked with the Calciopoli betting scandal. Every player had some acquaintance who was named in the scandal. But they made on sheer will and teamwork. The collective hard work was completely visible for the world to watch.
Zinedine Zidane opened the scoring by converting a controversial seventh-minute penalty kick, which glanced off the underside of the crossbar and into the goal… before bouncing back up, hitting the crossbar again and bounced out of the goal. Marco Materazzi then levelled the scores in the 19th minute following an Andrea Pirlo corner. Both teams had chances to score the winning goal in normal time: Luca Toni hit the crossbar in the 35th minute for Italy (he later had a header disallowed for offside), while France were not awarded a possible second penalty in the 53rd minute when Florent Malouda went down in the box after a tackle from Gianluca Zambrotta.
At the end of the regulation 90 minutes, the score was still level at 1–1, and the match was forced into extra time. Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon made a potentially game-saving save in extra time when he tipped a Zidane header over the crossbar. Further controversy ensued near the end of extra time, when Zidane head-butted Materazzi in the chest in an off-the-ball incident and was sent off. Extra time produced no further goals and a penalty shootout followed, which Italy won 5–3. France’s David Trezeguet, the man who scored the golden goal against Italy in Euro 2000, was the only player not to score his penalty; his spot kick hit the crossbar, landed on the goal line and went out. They joy watching the Italians celebrate. The team which was given no chance had just shown the world that football is never played on paper, what matters is what you do in the pitch.
A special mention to Zidane. Man he did everything he could only to lose his head at the end. He accused Materazzi of insulting his sister but god knows else happened. But the way he carried France on his back was awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping and humbling. Here is a man who taught Brazilians a thing or two about Joga Bonito and dribbling. Deservedly he got the golden ball, the best player of the tournament.