But I love Italy, in spite of their continued associations with bad pop. Yes, Il Divo, I mean you. Back in '98, when I noticed them, I remembered them as a team shadowed by tragedy. In later years I have traced this melancholic instinct back to this photograph, which is my only other memory of USA '94 not related to Romario, or drug busts. Subsequent events in France did nothing to erase this impression. I have only a vague memory of Baggio in France, slipping in and out of the side like a shadow himself.
I have often asked myself if it is dishonest for a team like Italy, with no dearth of middling-to-exquisite talent up front, to rely on their defensive training to do so much of their work for them. In relative terms - do they merely do what any team would have done if they had the talents of Maldini, Nesta, Cannavaro and Zambrotta, as the latest and least of a long tradition, at their disposal? In absolute terms - should such a team not have made more varied demands on their surfeit of good qualities? We'll never know; but if it is ethically suspect to coast and coattail it, then they've paid for it repeatedly, in the most ridiculous, bitter ways possible. Penalties. Bad referee decisions. Petulance. Statistics. Over and over and over again. Never, since '98, have I seriously backed an Italy team to win a tournament. As far along as the quarter-finals in 2006 I was fully prepared to acknowledge the heartbreaking Argentina as just and proper world champions. [Of course, they have a long history in the bitterness and hilarity department themselves. I am putting the finishing touches on a very serious academic study of the correlation of the high incidence of alcoholism in Kerala and the tendency of its people to back Argentina in international tournaments as I speak.]
Italy are anything but heartbreaking. In fact, they're almost chronically impossible to feel sorry for. The players are always experienced superstars, the drama always fulsome and generally unpleasant, and the attitude, on the whole, smug and entitled. Could you ever cry for such a team?
Sometimes I look back at the miracle of pain and Roberto Baggio that was 1994, aka the World Cup I missed, and wonder if it's just the way history works, that he seems to have been the last Italian truly capable of breaking hearts, with his fragility and unworldly genius. I'm willing to put it down to the sentimentality of the new for the old - after all, Homer in the Odyssey makes that quip about no sons ever overreaching their fathers; some are just as bad, 'but most are worse' - but I think that, in the wake of such unexpected good luck and massive disappointment, it would have taken an enduring pair of tear ducts to find anything left to cry for. Perhaps future generations of French supporters will feel the same about their space cowboy team of 2006. [I hope they keep their close-to-hand victories in '98 and '00 in mind, to comfort them.] I don't know if that team were more or less likeable than their successors in Germany. But I don't think the memory of Fabio Grosso gambolling in the fields of Berlin will ever erase the image of that final missed penalty.
But perhaps it's just the way tragedy and its self-aggrandising elements work. The rhythms of club football tend to make everyone, even the pathologically ambitious, make do; but in the rarefied atmosphere of the big international tournament these Aristotelian notions of tragedy and comedy seem to make sense.
General opinion has it that that final in Pasadena stands unrivalled for tedium and frustration in World Cup history. Maybe so, maybe so. I found this amusing New York Times piece, dated just before the final, that deconstructs the magic of that Italy and that Brazil in its profiling of the heroes of either side.
I'm also pleased to see this great Rob Bagchi blog in the Guardian about the art and history of Italian defending. It is framed by his reminiscences of the brothers Baresi, and their likeness to - that's right, folks! - a comic.
[Thanks to the wonderful Neko for the picture.]