Wed, Jul 12, 2006 - Page 19 News List

World Cup: Germany 2006 highlightssoccer's new challenges

WORK IN PROGRESS Although judged as an overall success, this year's soccer fest drew attention to all the on-the-pitch problems that FIFA now has to deal with

AP , BERLIN

Italy is ecstatic, Germany is proud, and the rest of the soccer world is in trouble.

Actually, so is Italian soccer, but at least the Azzurri have their fourth World Cup title to celebrate. Later this week, four of Serie A's most formidable teams, with 13 of the 23 national team players, face demotion in a match-fixing scandal.

That the Italians brought home the trophy in such stressful circumstances is laudable.

"I got my award. That's it right there," said Italy captain Fabio Cannavaro, gesturing toward the World Cup trophy sitting on a table in front of him on Monday morning. "I'm extremely pleased with what I have."

Also admirable is Germany's response to staging the most popular event in sports. The hosts made it a month-long Oktoberfest for the fans: no fighting, lots of fun.

"We know how this euphoria carried us through the tournament," tournament leading scorer Miroslav Klose said after Germany finished third.

Too bad the soccer didn't live up to those standards.

This World Cup set a record for cautions with 345 yellow cards, a 27 percent jump from 2002, and an astounding 28 red cards.

Lasting image

The lasting image of Germany 2006 will not be Azzurri players doing an impromptu Tarantella on the trophy stand, but France captain Zinedine Zidane turning his final act before retirement into pure thuggery.

Fabio Grosso's winning penalty kick in the final was overshadowed by Zidane's headbutt to the chest of Marco Materazzi in the 110th minute.

And this from the man named on Monday as outstanding player of the tournament, a three-time world player of the year.

Zidane's actions illustrate much of what is ailing international soccer. While the World Cup should be the ultimate showcase for the sport, this year it pointed out everything that needs to be changed before South Africa 2010.

For one, sportsmanship is almost nonexistent after kickoff. For all the pageantry before games, the calls to end racism, the shaking of hands by opponents and the exchanging of gifts, once the whistle blows, players ignore the rules.

They dive at the slightest touch, seeking fouls and cautions for the opposition. They tug on shirts or shorts. The elbows fly. Studs come up on tackles.

As often as not in this World Cup, they got away with it.

"Referees are only human, and let me say players are not making their jobs easier," said Franz Beckenbauer, the German soccer great and head of the local organizing committee.

"Players just fall on the ground, roll around and try to incite the referee. This is so exaggerated now what people are simulating," he added.

The problem with cracking down on such shenanigans was obvious to players, coaches and fans in Germany: Referees couldn't keep up with the pace of the game.

That led to inconsistent officiating at best. When officials are handing out penalty kicks for obvious dives and three yellow cards to one player in a match, the veracity of the World Cup is challenged.

FIFA must also deal with the length of the international schedule, which can ravage the World Cup. Players are exhausted from the long, difficult club seasons and the various tournaments. Many enter the sport's premier event running on fumes.

Unimaginative

Of the final eight games, fewer than half delivered compelling soccer. The most important one, Sunday's final, was sloppy, unimaginative and often dull.

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