Sunday, June 22, 2008

No Country for Old Men

For a few years, it was Petr Cech. Cech, he's a Czech goalkeeper and soccer fans enjoyed debating who was the best in the world, Cech or Italy's Gianluigi Buffon. Cech suffered a horrible skull fracture in 2006 and, though he's still outstanding, hasn't really ever been the same since. So lately, it's been Spain's (and Real Madrid's) Iker Casillas who's filled the spot on the debate. Buffon remains the fixture as the one being debated.

Though he's well aware of his stature in the pantheon of European sports and because of this cache is more often than not saddled with the spokesman job for the teams he leads, Gigi still remains humble and classy. He's been through the wringer professionally and fully vetted by the media and officials due to the match-fixing scandal a few years back. (Buffon was completely cleared.) But he stayed loyal to his busted-down Juventus team and his happy-go-lucky demeanor never wavered. Before the Azzurri began their quarterfinal match against Spain today, Buffon walked across the field and with a smile, a wink and a hug, he told his younger counterpart Casillas, "You're the best, not me." The two had a nice laugh about it. I don't know, I don't get a lot of European humor. But it was nice.

Then, for ninety minutes, the Azzurri finally came back to life and showed why they're the reigning World Cup champs. Spain is chock full of young guns. Fast and furious with technical prowess, the Spaniards had absolutely overpowered and outshot all their opponents, with David Villa, David Silva, and Fernando Torres working together in a seemingly unstoppable symphony of scoring on the pitch. But what Italy does, when they're tuned, is play best when absorbing attacking pressure to shut down and frustrate their opponents. Instead of constantly working up the field and trying to score, the Azzurri are happy to defend and take their few shots, knowing that if they can convert just once, they can probably lock down the win.

And today, that's how the Azzurri played. You could see the utter frustration rising among the Spanish team as they just couldn't orchestrate a break away or when a key tackle would be made, or, worse, when they'd finally get a shot and Buffon would save. Again, ever the gentleman and statesman for sportsmanship, it was a common sight to see the big man consoling or quieting one of the young Spanish players when they'd get worked up or pissed off about the smothering defense that they just weren't accustomed to.

Seriously. Who else would do that? Pick up the other team and dust them off and pep them up. That's just Gig, man. He's a little insane, but truly cool.

However, with both Pirlo and Gattuso yellow-carded out, Italy had a little trouble conducting their own offensive attacks. When the Italians would take possession and drive upfield with a serve to Luca Toni, he still wasn't able to convert. Before the match, all his teammates were behind him 100% and saying his time was due and he'd just been suffering from a run of bad luck. But even his strange new 'stache couldn't get his mojo back in order and he just never got the right touch on the ball to sink one.

The scoreless match continued, and even a late game substitution to bring in Del Piero didn't result in any dramatic heroics. So after ninety minutes, it was a 0-0 draw. Another half hour and a few desperate attempts from both sides later, and still no score.

Casillas, he'd notched six saves for the day. Buffon, he had nine. (Spain had 27 shots on goal as opposed to Italy's characteristically weak 10.) Now the game would be decided by penalty kicks. Though it's a crappy way to end such a match, the Azzurri aren't exactly strangers to this situation, having won the World Cup against France this way. And they aren't exactly opposed to it, either, having Buffon as their man on goal. Spain, on the other hand, had some bad juju when it came to June 22 penalty shoot outs, having lost a whopping three of them on exactly that date in pervious World Cup and Euro quarterfinals.

In case you're not familiar, the way it works is that each team gets five alternating shots. Generally speaking, one save from your goalkeeper, and you're gonna be golden, because penalty kicks are a bitch for a keeper to save. So, the tournament's top scorer, Spain's David Villa, shot first and beat Buffon. Fabio Grosso returned the favor. Spain's next kick was good. But then Casillas made a great save against Italy's De Rossi which gave Spain the crucial lead. Both teams scored again, and then, with teeth-grinding pressure on and Spain holding the advantage, Gigi did what he does and made a startling save against Spain's David Guiza to pull the Azzurri even.

But then Italy's Di Natale took a surprisingly weak shot; it was a slow roller to the corner. Casillas guessed right and had his second save.

And that was all it took, as Spain's Fabregas finished off Buffon, and all the Azzurri, with a rifle shot to the opposite corner as Gigi was caught going the other way.

Spain's talented young conquistadors advance and will take on Russia again, whom they utterly destroyed 4-1 in the group rounds. The Azzurri, they go home. Coach Donadoni may get the closest thing to a crucifixion in the press. And I'm cringing a little for Toni and Di Natale, too. Personally, I'm happy for Spain and think they have a tremendous team. But, of course, I'm also terribly sad. Sad for the loss, obviously, but also because of the advancing age of this current roster. Del Piero is certainly in his waning years for the national squad. Toni isn't a spring chicken, and Materazzi will be going quietly soon, too. (Not to mention that I never got around to posting about Mauro Cameranesi. And, with this now over and Entourage not returning until September, my summer is pretty much shot as far as "guy" entertainment on only the second official day of the season.) On the upside, Antonio Cassano played beautifully and kept his cool, as did fast-rising star Alberto Aquilani, who got a little experience with Pirlo and Gattuso booked out today.

Gigi? He'll be back. He says he wants to play on the national team until he's forty. (Gigi really is a little crazy.) Generally such a cheerful guy, I hate to see him leave the field looking like this.

As for that ongoing debate about the world's best goalkeeper? Maybe Gigi's seemingly gracious words to Casillas ended up being downright fateful for today. But, only for today.

He's already secured his place as a superstar of Italian sport and is rapidly hurtling toward legend. For a few more years, the debate will go on, possibly with someone else eventually filling Casillas's spot. Someday, though, it's inevitable that Gigi's name will be erased from the contemporary debate. But for now, even on a sad day for Azzurri fans, it's really easy, and a bit consoling, and actually quite delightful, to be able to say to Gigi in all honesty, and with a couple of different nuances, "You're the best."

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