So it's all over and we can get back to our normal lives, or at least try to remember what exactly it was that they involved, and then take things from there, let's not try to run before we can walk, shall we? In the end I made a last ditch attempt to salvage some dignity from what has been a punishing World Cup campaign, logging onto the internet betting account with ten minutes to spare before kick-off to throw a last desperate virtual fiver at the first outcome that came into my head, which was 2-1 to Italy in 90 minutes. I was throwing good money after bad, of course; as we now know, the smart money was on 1-1 after extra time, the Italians to conquer their long-standing aversion to the penalty shoot-out to emerge victorious, and, as a bonus double, the French captain and talisman Zinedine Zidane to open the scoring with a cheeky penalty then get sent off for headbutting an Italian in the chest after he called his mother a whore in Spanish. I would imagine you would have got about 35000-1.
Just five minutes had elapsed since the World Cup reached that dramatic denouement, and the pitch was still awash with delirious Italians acting in what you have to say was a most unitalian manner. Left-back Grosso was parading along the touchline in a giant foam tricolour hat, while the bearded midfielder Gattuso had stripped down to his underpants (giant white Y-fronts that looked like they could have come from British Home Stores) and was dancing around the centre-circle like a demented garden gnome. Back in the BBC studio, however, the mood was altogether more sombre. A Gary Lineker-led inquest had begun, with furrowed brows all round- and a universally damning verdict on the red-carded French playmaker:
'He must be absolutely ashamed of himself in the dressing room there- the loneliest man in the world'
'A sad stain on a glorious career- what a shame it has to end like that!'
'He's let the team down, the fans down- but most importantly, he's let himself down'.
Well, I suppose they had a point. And I suppose the BBC can't exactly be seen to condone foul play, so it would have been too much to hope for one of the panellists to come up with the idea that entertained us at work this afternoon- namely that the disgraced playmaker, instead of trooping disconsolately past the gleaming trophy on his way to the dressing room, should have realised he had by now nothing to lose and snaffled the thing up off its trestle table, stuffed it up his shirt, and ran really quickly out of the stadium. I'm sure it would have taken a good twenty minutes for any of the 68000 witnesses to realise that what they had just seen had really happened- by which time the ever-elusive Zizou, taking advantage of the enviably uber-efficient German public transport system, could have been safely aboard a fast train to Marseilles, from where he could have boarded a boat and gone into hiding in his grandma's house in deepest Algeria, where of course nobody would think of looking. Now that would have been a way to end a career in style.
Where was I going with this, again? Oh yes- I don't think we should be too hard on Zizou, and would like to counter the sanctimonious bleatings of Lineker and his ilk by offering the following five-point plea in his defence:
1- You would think the World Cup until extra-time in the final had been conducted in an atmosphere of unparallelled fair play. In fact the opposite was true. Ever since Thierry Henry reacted to Puyol of Spain's slight push in the chest by throwing himself to the ground and writhing in agony holding his face for the best part of ten minutes, this tournament has offered an unappetising spectacle of pampered players diving, elbowing, and flinging themselves to the floor like tantrumming toddlers at bed-time. Any tournament where the thuggish Wayne Rooney can stamp on an opposing player's bollocks and still be held up as some kind of Corinthian role model (even if admittedly only by the Daily Mirror) has got to have plunged to a new low where sportsmanship is concerned. If we're going to damn Zidane for his actions we should at least be consistent, and damn the lot of them.
2- The Italian called his mother a whore, for God's sake. In Spanish. And then reacted to Zidane's really quite charmingly amateurish so-called headbutt (as Glasgow kisses go, this was a mere peck on the cheek, far from the declarations of undying passion to be witnessed along Sauchiehall Street at closing time) by launching himself into a treble backwards somersault and then lying immobile and wailing on the pitch until he was quite sure the officials had noticed his predicament. I wish they hadn't done, in which case Materazzo would have just had to stand up, dust himself down, and try to get on with the game as if nothing had happened. Which is, of course, what he should have done in the first place.
3- The match needed livening up just around then. I mean come on, nothing of note had happened for the preceding twenty minutes. As the spectre of penalties loomed, the French players were wandering around the pitch at walking pace, and if someone had placed a nice comfy sofa in the centre-circle the entire Italian midfield would have raced to curl up on it with a good book. This is not what you want from a World Cup final. You want passion. You want incident. You want the French captain to walk up to the nearest Italian and strike him clumsily in the chest with his head.
4 - You've got to say our man took his punishment with good grace. You know, unlike our brave boy Rooney, who is seen by 70000 people and fifty high-definition cameras kicking a prone Portuguese defender in the bollocks, then still tries to claim it was all an accident. I don't think Zizou thought for a moment he was going to escape unpunished- when the red card came he maintained his dignity, put his head down and walked. He really should have got a hold of that cup on the way past and stuck it up his shirt, but you know, you can't have everything.
5- This is Zizou we're talking about, for God's sake. The same man who single-handedly dismantled the Brazilians in the quarter-finals, at one point lobbing the ball quite calmly over the head of a fast-approaching hatchet man, collecting it as it dropped into space behind this bemused opponent, then sliding a geometrically perfect blindside through-ball into the path of an onrushing forward. And that's just the highlight of this week; the guy has been pullling moves like that for fifteen years. I think we can forgive him one moment of madness, don't you?
One moment of madness, after a decade and more of expressive virtuosity bordering on genius. Let's remember that in a footballing age increasingly dominated by identikit players lined up in rigid formations and coached by faceless timeserving functionaries to within an inch of their lives, here was a rare, ungovernable talent, capable at any moment of picking the lock of the stubbornest defense with a shimmy and a delicately-chipped killer pass into a space no-one else had seen open up. Let's remember Zizou for the good times- because we may not see his like again for a damn good while yet.