The 2006 World Cup: a tournament better than many remember

The 2006 World Cup: a tournament better than many remember

THE WORLD CUP IS MAGICAL. For any fan of the sport, whether your country is participating or not, it is something to look forward to, and the fact that it only occurs once every four years makes the event stand out even more. A global phenomenon that unites the footballing fraternity, there is no “bad” World Cup – they’re all significant in their own way, and that makes it special.

The 2006 showpiece is one that is highly underrated. It was an event that had some of the world’s finest footballers – legends that included Gianluigi Buffon, Michael Ballack, Luís Figo, Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane – who were paired with some of the emerging stars of the game, players that are household names now, another long list that contains the likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Lukas Podolski.

This version of the World Cup is popular for many reasons, from great goals to Italy’s success amidst Calciopoli, to Portugal and Germany’s resurrection and several inspiring underdog tales. Played under the lights of Germany’s architectural genius, with the allure of the star power and the typical essence of the World Cup, this is one of the most underrated tournaments in the modern era, one that should be remembered by the purist for years to come.

[divider]GOAL OF THE TOURNAMENT[/divider]

One of the reasons the World Cup of 2006 became so significant was the excellent portfolio of goals that it had. Ranging from long-range screamers to well-worked team moves, the month-long extravaganza provided an array of fantastic goals, right from the off with hosts Germany kicking off against minnows Costa Rica in Munich, where a fresh-faced Philipp Lahm scored a wonderful strike from the left-wing as he intelligently swerved the ball past a stranded José Porras.

In an afternoon filled with plenty of goals, the last one would provide a preview of what was to come. Just before the end of the game, Torsten Frings sent a bullet past Porras after receiving a short pass from a free-kick that was probably perceived to be a cross by the Costa Rican defence. Frings’ strike was hit with such power that it would have even left the finest goalkeepers stranded.

The two goals on the opening day were replicated several times throughout the competition. Maxi Rodríguez and Joe Cole scored two strikingly similar yet vital goals. Cole’s came in a group stage encounter against Sweden where he received the ball while well outside the Swedish box following a clearance, chesting it forward to comfort and perfectly looping it over Andreas Isaksson. It was Cole’s chief highlight in an inconsistent England career and a moment to remember in an underwhelming Three Lions campaign.

Rodríguez’s goal carried more significance to it, seeing as it came in a knockout clash against Mexico in extra-time. With the tie poised at 1-1 heading into extra-time, Argentina patiently moved forward, closer to the Mexican goal in search of the decisive strike. A poor cross was sent in from the left side that fortunately fell to Rodríguez, who was on the edge of the Mexican box. He chested forward and used its trajectory to smash the ball into the roof of the Mexican net, sending the Argentines through.

There were also several other notable long-range strikes. Andrea Pirlo, who was having the time of his life in Germany, determining results and putting in man of the match displays frequently, took advantage of some poor defending to send in a scorcher against Ghana in the group stages. Tomáš Rosický, playing for the high-flying Czech Republic, also got his World Cup moment, showing his control and finesse to spur on his team to an opening day win, which would turn out to be their only highlight in a largely disappointing trip.

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While these goals took up a majority of the highlight reels, the old guard also strutted their stuff. The 2002 edition’s leading scorer, Ronaldo, added to his astounding World Cup tally with two goals in the final group game against Japan – the second of which exhibited the stunning movement and power that made him so prominent. Zinedine Zidane, who made Germany his playground that year, scored a few goals too, but none more iconic than the bold Panenka penalty in the final which agonisingly made it past the line as time and the entirety of France stood still.

Perhaps, the best goal of the tournament, however, and one of the best in the history of the sport came from Argentina in the group stages as the trounced Serbia and Montenegro 6-0. With a move to make your mouth water, they strung 25 passes together, patiently breaking down the Eastern Europeans and dissecting their defence bit by bit. The move culminated with Esteban Cambiasso, who was heavily involved in the passage of play, receiving a back-heel from Hernán Crespo and burying it into the Serbian net.

[divider]UNDERDOG TALES[/divider]

A quarter of the teams participating in the 2006 event were debutants, so it was highly likely that there would be at least one of the less-fancied sides having a campaign to remember. Angola, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Togo and Trinidad and Tobago were making their finals debut, while the Czech Republic, Ukraine and Serbia and Montenegro were partaking in the competition for the first time as independent nations, having previously been represented as part of Czechoslovakia, Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.

Of all these debutants, a Ukraine side consisting of Andriy Shevchenko, Anatoliy Tymoshchuk and Andriy Voronin went the furthest. Having started off with a 4-0 defeat against Spain, they replied in the next match with a 4-0 win of their own against Saudi Arabia, before crucially winning their final group game against Tunisia to progress. In the next round they overcame Switzerland on penalties after a 0-0 stalemate, but fell to eventual champions Italy in the quarter-finals. It was an impressive run, one they could take pride from. To this day, this remains their only World Cup appearance.

Ghana and the Czech Republic, two debutants paired in one group alongside Italy and the United States, had contrasting fortunes, although not quite in the way many had predicted. The Czech Republic were an amazing side who had done particularly well at Euro 2004 by reaching the semi-finals, and were touted to go a long way once again, with much of the side retained by coach Karel Brückner. This included the likes of Petr Čech and Pavel Nedvěd.

Ghana, meanwhile, entered the tournament with a young team, with just one player over the age of 30 and an average age of 24.6 – one of the lowest at the finals. The Africans had players scattered across the top leagues in Europe and a Serbian coach in Ratomir Dujković who had worked wonders with the team, helping them blaze through the qualifiers.

The two teams began their campaigns in the way many would’ve expected – Czech Republic with an impressive win over the USA and Ghana with a loss against Italy. The next round saw the two square off, the turning point for the two sides’ fortunes. Ghana, inspired by their two most accomplished players in Michael Essien and captain Stephen Appiah, sealed a hard-fought 2-0 win and earned the advantage to progress to the next round.

The Black Stars then overcame the USA in the final game, while the Czech Republic fell to Italy, meaning that Ghana would become just the fifth African side to make it past the group stages. They would come up against the defending champions and the tournament’s most successful team, Brazil, in the next round. Unfortunately, the star power in the Brazilian side overwhelmed the young Ghanaians.

Order  |  World Cup X

Elsewhere, the likes of Australia and Ecuador did well, making it to the Round of 16. Both sides qualified for the finals for just the second time, and coincidentally made it to the knockout rounds for the first time. Australia relied largely on luck, making it past a group containing Brazil, Japan and Croatia with a win, a draw and a loss. Meanwhile, Ecuador, who were more pragmatic in their approach, won two of their group matches, losing to Germany in the final group game.

Both teams narrowly lost out in the next round. Ecuador were solid in their match against England, succumbing to a trademark David Beckham free-kick 60 the hour mark in Stuttgart. Australia, meanwhile, had to watch an out-of-shape and out-of-form Francesco Totti convert a controversial penalty in the 95th minute of the match. The two teams came to Germany with reasonable optimism and left Europe with their heads held high.

[divider]REFEREES, NOSTALGIA, DÉJÀ VU AND REGRET[/divider]

Referees are always under scrutiny at major sporting events, and 2006 World Cup was no exception. An event filled with dubious decisions made this particular edition memorable and laid solid claims for the greater implementation of technology in football.

Perhaps the most shocking refereeing error arrived courtesy of the experienced Graham Poll, who came into the tournament as one of the most renowned referees in the world. However, in a group match between Croatia and Australia, Poll mistakenly brandished three yellow cards to Josip Šimunić before sending him off. The reaction was wild, with Poll sent home from the finals and subsequently heading off into retirement from international tournaments. He said: “The laws of the game are very specific. The referee takes responsibility for his actions on the field of play. I was the referee that evening. It was my error and the buck stops with me.”

In the eye of the storm alongside Graham Poll stood Russian official Valentin Ivanov. In a Round of 16 clash between the Netherlands and Portugal, which was set to be a tie of two contrasting styles, the referee’s strict officiating made him the man on most headlines the following morning.

The Portuguese were renowned for their physical, gritty brand of football that took them this far, and a few cards, especially in a tie of this magnitude, were likely. Both sides, however, were not afraid to stick their studs into challenges and the match ended with the referee going to his pocket 16 times to result in 16 bookings and four subsequent marching orders. Giovanni van Bronkhorst and Khalid Boulahrouz were sent off for the Dutch, while Deco and Costinha, two customary sceptics, were shown the red card for Portugal.

In a match consisting of a diverse range of violations, including bad tackles, diving, headbutts, time-wasting, dissent and handballs, the officiating team were kept busy throughout. The aftermath saw FIFA president Sepp Blatter ironically call out referee Ivanov for his poor handling of the situation, claiming that there should have been a yellow card shown to the referee. The accumulation of cards matched the previous record of most yellow cards issued in a single World Cup encounter from four years ago, and just like Graham Poll, Ivanov’s work in Germany was complete.

Away from dodgy booking decisions, there were other refereeing controversies that sparked infuriation. Italy were given a dubious penalty against Australia in the Round of 16 following a dive from Fabio Grosso very late in the game, while in the same round, Brazil dumped Ghana out in a match that saw Adriano score from an offside position. Prior to that, Peter Crouch hilariously scored against Trinidad and Tobago along with some help from Brent Sancho’s dreadlocks. The inevitable shouts for goal-line technology were made by Argentina and Roberto Ayala after his goal was disallowed against the Ivory Coast early in the tournament.

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Elsewhere in the tournament, there were other notable jiffies. England, a side that has always brimmed with talent yet rarely managed to impose their authority in a major tournament since 1966, were backed to go far in Germany. Coming into the tournament as the joint-second favourite, along with Germany and Argentina and ahead of eventual finalists France and Italy, this was the last chance for the so-called golden generation to have something to celebrate.

Just four years prior, they had three of the best midfielders at the peak of their powers amongst their squad. Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes in one team would have been any manager’s dream, but their mismanagement forced the latter to head off into international retirement.

Sweden, Trinidad and Tobago and Paraguay were in England’s group. They were largely unconvincing, despite winning two of their three matches and drawing the other, finishing as group winners. Still, there was hope as Ecuador came next, but once again, England faltered to expectations despite succeeding. Up next came Portugal, and although you could give them the benefit of the doubt following Wayne Rooney’s controversial sending-off and Cristiano Ronaldo’s ensuing wink, they would finally fall in the only way they know best.

Penalty heartache would strike again as Lampard, Gerrard and Jamie Carragher would fail to send the ball into the net as Portugal’s efficiency would pay off. After an eventful goalless draw, Portugal would progress to the semi-finals, winning 3-1 on penalties.

Like England, South America’s finest, Argentina and Brazil, disappointed too. They were strongly tipped to meet each other in the final after both sides did well in the group stages. Even their legends were on form. Ronaldo became the World Cup’s greatest goalscorer while Crespo, Javier Saviola and the imperial Juan Román Riquelme were on song for Argentina.

For the latter, it was penalty heartbreak as they fell short against their old foes Germany in the quarter-finals. Brazil, who had enjoyed a smooth ride up until the last eight, were single-handedly destroyed in one of the World Cup’s greatest individual performances.

[divider]ZIDANE’S MASTERY[/divider]

If the World Cup was an orchestra, then Zinedine Zidane was the centrepiece on the podium, soothingly conducting and graciously running the show. Even at 33, he was the team’s poster boy having come out of international retirement to help the team qualify for the finals. But prior to the tournament, it had already been announced that he would be hanging up his boots permanently, no matter the result in Germany.

With one of the oldest sides in the tournament, France brought along a host of household names. Despite that, just like the two World Cups before, all eyes were on the magnificent Zidane, who would write his own story.

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The French captain’s form coming into the tournament was not the same as previous World Cups. With retirement on his mind, he was nowhere near the level that would normally be expected of him. His final season at Real Madrid was average by his standard, and a major renaissance would have been required if France were to progress.

Having struggled in the group stages, qualifying as runners-up behind Switzerland following two draws and a win on the final matchday, France were paired against a high-flying Spain side in the last 16. Coming up against several players that he had met in his time with Real Madrid, many predicted that these were the last few minutes of Zidane’s illustrious playing career.

In Hannover, Zidane played at walking pace, constantly drawing tackles and beating them with ease. He was creating chances at will, and the early blip of going down to a David Villa penalty didn’t stop him. Having not been at his best in the group stages, this was the return to form that France needed. Spearheaded by their captain, their comeback was on and, after equalising through Franck Ribéry, the second half was a Zidane masterclass.

Around the turn of the century, France were winning tournaments and Zidane was the greatest player in the world, full of composure. His showing in 2006 matched that. France had the experience – and it paid off. Patrick Vieira scored the second late in the game, but even after 85 minutes of an all-action exhibition, Zidane wasn’t done. He ended the game with a late goal after receiving a Sylvain Wiltord pass, cutting in past Carles Puyol and onto his right foot before sending it past Iker Casillas at his near post. It was a masterclass, but one that would be bettered in the next round in one.

Next came Brazil in a tie that Les Bleus were regarded as the underdogs. The champions arrived in Germany with players at their peak in a stellar line-up that included Ronaldo, Adriano, Kaká and the leader of the glitterati, Ronaldinho. On a starry afternoon in Frankfurt, on a pitch full of legends, Zidane was the brightest light.

With his gold boots, he provided an epilogue for what the crowd in Frankfurt paid for, starting off by shielding the ball from Zé Roberto and Kaká, beating them both with a cut-back, and gliding forward with a classic step-over past Gilberto Silva before overhitting an intended pass to Thierry Henry. This was just the prelude.

He continued with an elegance rarely seen in football before, drifting past opponents and casually passing the ball around like it were a training match. Cafu and Gilberto Silva all kept close tabs on him, but he was in the mood to defy O Seleção’s finest.

Towards the end of the first 45, having picked up the ball in his own half following a clearance, he charged forward and, with a shimmy and a turn, left Lúcio grounded. He then came up, once again, against Gilberto Silva and left him for dead with another cut inside before passing it to Vieira, who was clear on goal. The decibel level rose each time he dribbled past an opponent, for the sheer brilliance of his runs wowed the crowd off their seats.

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The half ended goalless with France, who came in as the underdogs, looking like the favourites. When they returned for the second period, Zidane was back at it again. Vieira and Lilian Thuram took their chances from his set-piece deliveries, while a bemused Ronaldo was now the victim of another trivial Zidane flick over the top of his head. The turning point of the contest would soon arrive.

Coming from another set-piece delivery just before the hour mark, Zidane would go deep into the Brazilian box to an onrushing, unmarked Henry, who had a tap-in past Dida. The match would be decided by minor details, and Zidane provided it. France had the lead and the advantage, while Brazil, who looked beleaguered for the most part, had a mountain to climb, especially considering the mood the opposition captain was in.

Despite having the lead, Zidane wouldn’t stop the exhibition he had put on, and a quarter-of-an-hour before the end, he would complete Gilberto’s embarrassment. For a man who was aged 34 at the time, it was extraordinary how he was able to dance past his opponents, and this magician’s final trick of the night was the most impressive. Once again in his own half, he received the ball from Vieira, but his first touch showed too much to the Arsenal man. Zidane recovered, though, and spun past Silva, leaving the Brazilian midfielder open-legged, almost at the point of risking an injury had his posture been more awkward.

He would create a few more chances towards the end, first for Louis Saha and finally for Wiltord, but Henry’s goal was enough to win the match. Brazil looked exhausted. Despite losing by just one goal, they knew they were outplayed. Coming up against a team that had so much experience, it was one man that stole the show.

This was no ordinary performance, nor was it an ordinary tournament showing. These displays in Germany matched the levels of Johan Cruyff in 1974, Diego Maradona in 1986 and Ronaldo in 2002.

[divider]LATTER STAGES[/divider]

Germany, Italy, France and Portugal – four semi-finalists that came as a result of four astonishing World Cup stories. Germany, the hosts, were on the pathway to redemption following a horrendous showing at Euro 2004. The finalists from 2002, they hadn’t shown their best form in quite some time but, playing at home, they could never be written off.

The German football scene went through a major revamp following their failures at Euro 2000, and the 2006 World Cup reaped the first rewards of their evolved system. They entered the tournament with fitness issues concerning Michael Ballack and Lahm, while their back-line was less than convincing. But here they were, in the semi-finals of a tournament they were hosting, and they deserved every bit of their success to reach this point. Their opponents in the semi-final were Italy, who had their own backstories.

Stories of Calciopoli engulfed the Azzurri wherever they went. This squad wasn’t short on talent, but problems back home often made the front pages before the talent of the players. Juventus players were the ones truly in the spotlight – but they had to remain steadfast in their belief that they could unite the footballing community back home.

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On 27 June 2006, a day after Italy controversially overcame Australia, Juve’s newly appointed team manager and former star, Gianluca Pessotto, attempted suicide in the wake of Calciopoli. He survived but suffered multiple fractures and severe internal bleeding. The story left the team shaken; Italy even allowed Alessandro Del Piero and Gianluca Zambrotta to leave the camp and visit their former teammate. It was a scandal that affected the entire Italian football scene, but manager Marcello Lippi didn’t lose sight of the objective and carried on with respect and integrity.

The clash in Dortmund had plenty of sub-plots to it. Germany had never overcome Italy in a major international tournament, but they had the motivation of having never lost in Dortmund.

The match ended goalless after 90 minutes, and stretching it by another 30 wouldn’t have been advantageous to Italy considering Germany’s record in penalty shootouts. Fortunately for them, the deadlock was broken just two minutes before the final whistle as Fabio Grosso would curl a superb effort past Jens Lehmann after he received a pass from Pirlo. Just a minute later, the Azzurri would put the game to bed through the brilliant Del Piero. As Germany cried, Italy believed. Calciopoli, it was believed, couldn’t hold them back now.

In the other semi-final, France came up against Portugal in a clash that few would’ve predicted to see at this stage. After the win against Brazil in the previous round, France were flying high, and their team was a far cry from the one that entered the tournament low on confidence.

The French were, however, faced with problems before and during the tournament. A poor qualification campaign made many come out of retirement, and the political hostility at home wasn’t helping. Despite the joyous scenes everywhere, far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen didn’t seem too pleased with the squad containing several black players, but Thuram came out poignantly against him: “When we take to the field, we do so as Frenchmen. All of us. When people were celebrating our win, they were celebrating us as Frenchmen, not black men or white men. If he’s got a problem with us, that’s down to him but we are proud to represent this country. So Vive la France, but the true France. Not the France that he wants.”

Portugal, on the other hand, got to the last four the dirty way. Controversial wins over the Netherlands and England gave them optimism to overcome another European rival, and with a team that was equally as good, if not better, than their 1960s generation, they had reason to believe they could banish the demons of the Euro 2004 with a win on the big stage.

Portugal started strongly with the prominent triumvirate of Luís Figo, Cristiano Ronaldo and Deco in control of proceedings – but their stranglehold didn’t last long. Once again, the experience of France came in handy as they slowly started to assert themselves in the contest. Although not a vintage Zidane showing, he would have a decisive role to play once again.

Just after the half-hour mark, Henry was uncongenially tripped in the box by Ricardo Carvalho, gifting the French a penalty and a chance to gain a huge advantage in a finely-poised tie. Zidane stepped up and slotted it past Ricardo. For the next hour, France were in charge and became almost impossible to break. Fabien Barthez in the French goal was kept busy, but had no noteworthy saves to make, while Figo could’ve equalised late on. Nevertheless, it was a routine performance by Raymond Domenech’s team and they were through to the final in Berlin where Italy were waiting.

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And so to the final night at Berlin’s magnificent Olympiastadion. Zidane, the revitalised genius who tormented his previous opponents in the knockout rounds, was the centre of attention again and, just like the previous matches, he was in the mood for some fantasy football. Early on in the match, the French took the lead through their captain’s audacious Panenka penalty, but that lead was short-lived as Marco Materazzi’s leaping header from a Pirlo corner made for an entertaining opening 20 minutes.

Chances were few and far between. Zidane had another one late on but missed with a header. The match went to extra-time and everyone knows what that was famous for.

Penalties loomed and there came the moment for Fabio Grosso’s to play the hero again and score the winning spot kick. In a match of several stories, the most important one was arguably overshadowed by Zidane’s moment of insanity in extra time. Despite that, and probably to little consolation, he was rightly voted the tournament’s best player.

The next morning saw the back pages dominated by two pictures; one of Fabio Cannavaro lifting the World Cup trophy aloft and the other of Zidane walking past it in shame.

[divider]LEGACY[/divider]

It’s hard to label one World Cup categorically better than another for it’s such a subjective decision. It rests upon your journey as a football fan until that point. For many, the tournaments of their youth are always the best, for it was during those years that players still made us dream. We still had aspirations to emulate our footballing gods.

But even on a purely objective level, 2006 was exceptional. Controversy affected nearly every team, with political goings-on adding subplots that were hard not to be intrigued by. Then there were the players – a litany of greats. Some were coming to the end of their careers while others were just beginning. But go through the squad lists from 2006 and you’ll see how lucky we were to see the overlapping of two wonderful generations.

And if you’re still a sceptic, heads to YouTube and enjoy Zinedine Zidane for a bit. If for no other reason, his personal brilliance, the final straining of his drops of talent, was a thing of beauty. We rarely see individual performances of that level. And when we do, they’re worth holding on to.

As we look ahead to Russia 2018, we look back 12 years in time and hope that this year, we’ll get as much intrigue, excitement and quality as we did in Germany. 

By Karan Tejwani  

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