2006: The overlooked great of modern World Cups

Words By Alex Hess Illustration by Philippe Fenner
July 18, 2018

What makes a great World Cup? It’s a question to which there will, quite rightly, never be one right answer. And while there is no real agreement on which is the best of them all, the discussions do provide another consensus of sorts: the World Cups that weren’t so great.

Because as debates rage over the merits of 1970, 1982 and, with giddy prematurity, 2018, other tournaments are notable by their absence. The World Cup of 2006, held in Germany, is one such case – and perhaps, in this regard, one that history has treated rather harshly. Let’s examine the case for the defence.

While some superstars scaled new heights that summer, others left early as mortified and denuded emperors – both things equally vital for a truly memorable tournament. England’s golden generation, arriving with book deals pre-signed and wags in tow, limped out lamely and flew home from Germany with the sound of the world’s schadenfreude ringing in their ears. Brazil’s front four of Kaka, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Adriano were largely appalling, underpowered and overfed, the reigning champions pitifully less than the sum of their parts. They were the flip-side to the tenacity of Fabio Cannavaro and the spellbinding splendour of Zinedine Zidane. More on him later.

It wasn’t just players that made that summer great: the quarter-finals provided some world-class managerial incompetence as José Peckerman managed to see out 120 minutes of a knife-edge quarter-final against Germany without deeming it necessary to summon a 19-year-old Lionel Messi from the bench. With the world imploring the coach to bring on his wunderkind, Messi sat out the game in the dugout, gazing on helplessly as his team were duly beaten on penalties – a shootout described by Germany manager Jurgen Klinsmann as “like a Hitchcock movie”. What immediately followed was more akin to Jackie Chan fare as both squads converged on the sideline to trade kicks, punches and petty insults. Never let it be said that 2018 was the World Cup of shithousery.

That would have been the tournament’s “nark” box happily ticked, had it not already been well and truly fulfilled with an all-time epic in the previous round. Few in their right minds would dispute that the best tournaments require a generous helping of bloodthirsty violence and to this end, 2006 dished up one of the masterpieces of the genre. Portugal v Holland – aka the Battle of Nuremberg – featured a total of 16 bookings, four sendings off, a pool of salty tears from Cristiano Ronaldo, who had literally been kicked out of the game, some astonishingly shameless savagery and the marvellous final snapshot of the red-carded players from both teams sat shame-facedly by the side of the pitch watching the latter stages play out.

If that was something of a guilty pleasure, there was no guilt to be had in the tournament’s first semi-final, when Germany and Italy met in Dortmund to enact one of the greatest games in World Cup history. As with the tournament as a whole, goals were at a premium – there were 147 in Germany compared with the 169 of Russia 2018 – but this match, poised at 0-0 after 90 minutes, was proof in itself that goals are not a prerequisite for mind-bending, white-knuckle football.

It was everything a bona fide heavyweight game should be: tight, tense, technically faultless and decided on moments of breathtaking awe. Italy’s first came after Andrea Pirlo gave a masterclass in not playing a pass: holding onto the ball for an unfathomable amount of time before releasing it at just the right nanosecond to unleash Fabio Grosso – the picture was there in his head all along, it was us mortals that couldn’t see it – the left-back sweeping home with dead-eyed precision.

The second was a sumptuous counter-attack, started by the imperious Cannavaro and finished with a sublime first-time curler by an onrushing Alessandro Del Piero. To my knowledge a more beautifully shaped shot has not been hit in any game, at any level, before or since.

Compare that game with – for argument’s sake – the one between France and Argentina this summer and the upshot is a non-contest: fun against fulfilment, a Snickers against a steak, a superhero blockbuster against a slow-burn epic.

And if a great tournament needs great stories, then perhaps 2006 gave us the best story of them all: one with an enigmatic hero, some epic showdowns, a fatal flaw, a pantomime villain and a heart-wrenchingly tragic finale.

Zidane had announced long before the World Cup that he would retire immediately after it, so even before the tournament begun the sense of drama had taken on a tantalising, faintly unreal quality. This was the greatest player of his generation – who had already emerged from international retirement to help his country qualify – going into the biggest tournament on the planet, captain’s armband around his bicep, knowing that each game could be his last.

That he then managed to put in some of the finest displays of a magical career added extra theatre to a story that barely needed it. To say Zidane carried France to the final would be overstating it, but certainly he was at the heart of all that was good about the side, a talismanic figure from whom the team drew strength. He also scored in three of the four knockout games and adorned the match in which he didn’t score – the quarter-final against Brazil – with one of the all-time great individual displays.

“Zidane was the first French player to leave the pitch but the majesty of his performance will remain seared on the memories of those present,” the Guardian’s Dominic Fifield reported from Frankfurt. “He was as glorious to behold as it was agonising for Brazil to endure.”

Zidane was indeed untouchable that night, reaching a level – when opponent, occasion and individual influence are all factored in – perhaps matched only by Diego Maradona in 1986. Certainly the challengers from the modern era – Rivaldo against Valencia, Ronaldo at Old Trafford, his namesake against Sweden in 2013, Roy Keane in Turin – all fall short in one criteria or other.

By the time the final came around, Zidane’s penalty having done for Portugal in the last four, the stars had aligned for him in a way that defied belief. Were it submitted as a Hollywood script, even the most lenient producer would have laughed it off for being too cheesily implausible – yet this ludicrous trajectory continued apace when he opened the scoring in the final itself with a spot-kick floated, panenka-style past Gigi Buffon.

Of course, we all know what happened then. Just as the heartwarming ending was in sight, it all came crashing down with Shakespearian brutality. Zidane’s headbutt wasn’t just an iconic football moment, it was the iconic football moment, quickly mined for laughs by The Simpsons, Family Guy, novelty singers and countless thousands of YouTubers. It was a meme before memes existed.

Quite rightly, Zidane’s walking past the trophy on his way off the pitch, head bowed, remains the enduring image of the modern age. To have an all-time great hit the peak of their powers at a month-long quadrennial tournament is unlikely enough as it is. To get exactly that, with the man in question playing out such a compelling rise-and-fall tale on the world stage is too good to be true.

All this is making barely any mention of the winners. And Italy’s triumph wasn’t without its weighty significance either, serving, however glibly or tangentially, to offer a modicum of redemption to a national game that had only just been thrown into dark disrepute by the epochal Calciopoli scandal.

Greatness is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but there’s little doubt that on the pitch, the 2006 World Cup ticked a fair few boxes. Yet its greatest legacy was something altogether different, something infinitely more meaningful that any headbutt or wondergoal or toe-to-toe showdown.

The tournament’s effect on German society was quietly enormous, and the effects long-lasting. In a country where the notion of ardent mass-patriotism had long been seen as inseparable from something unspeakably toxic, that summer showed that the two need not be bedfellows: that national pride needn’t equate to poisonous nationalism.

As the writer David Winner put it, that summer saw “a great throwing off of guilt and shame and nervousness about German national identity”. Over the course of a month, the Germany flag went from being something that was conspicuously absent from the streets of the host nation to being proudly ubiquitous, and a country that would soon claim the status as Europe’s level-headed power-base, a model of rational calm amid the post-recession storm, began to feel at ease with itself.

Every time a World Cup comes around – and a fair bit in between, too – we are bombarded with Fifa’s craven company men telling us about “football’s power to bring people together”. Nearly all the time that is self-serving nonsense. This was a rare occasion when it truly applied.

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