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Post Shameful end to the World Cup (and a career)

Monday July 10, 2006

Imagine John Elway throwing a punch in his final Super Bowl. Imagine Roger Clemens’ swan song being a pitch at someone’s head in the World Series. Imagine Michael Jordan doing his best Ron Artest impersonation in the NBA Finals. Imagine sprinter Michael Johnson using those golden shoes to trip the guy next to him during the 1996 Olympics 200 meter finals.

ZidaneIf you can imagine all of that, you might understand how Zinedine Zidane decided to exit international soccer: with a vicious head to the chest of Marco Materazzi during the World Cup final in the last game Zidane will ever play for his nation. Provoked or not, part of being the star is being the statesman. This isn’t Zidane’s first explosive outburst in high-profile games. In most any other context he’d have the stigma of a hothead or a sideshow like Dennis Rodman. Instead he’s celebrated, gushed over by the rudimentary ABC broadcasters, and even awarded the Golden Ball award as the tournament’s most outstanding player. Yes, I realize that the media vote on the award before the final, but FIFA needs to step in and strip the award. Zidane deserves a kick in his Golden Balls before he receives that honor. His career was going to be remembered for the 1998 title and the amazing resurgence during this year’s tournament. Had he remained in the game, he certainly would have participated in the penalty kicks and possibly even changed the outcome. Now he’s a punchline and will leave the world stage with as much scorn as admiration.

I’ve played, coached, and refereed soccer. I’ve watched and followed the game for most of my life. The World Cup is supposed to be the world’s greatest sporting event, but nothing has done more to turn me off to the game than the past month. This is the “highest level” of the sport? The great stories like Ghana and the other underdogs or the German youth movement or Zidane’s tournament prior to the final have been overshadowed by dives, questionable refereeing, and prima donna sportsmanship. ABC and ESPN covered the tournament with the grace of Weird Al’s UHF station.

Look at it this way: while Italy celebrates a well-deserved championship, the nation awaits the consequences of a game-fixing scandal which could affect the careers of several participants in the World Cup championship game. Is this really what international soccer is all about?

OK…last soccer post for four years. American sports isn’t without its needless drama. We have owners screwing up NBA Finals, shoddy refs in the Super Bowl, and baseball looking the other way on steroids. Still, as much as I like and will always respect the World Cup as the planet’s biggest sporting stage, I saw nothing over the month that even came close to the Texas-USC Rose Bowl. Less than a month ’til practice starts.

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