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Prediction: Italy to win Cup
This could be the World Cup where Giovanni Trapattoni meets Admiral Yi Shun-Sin-hopefully not in person since the venerable admiral died in 1598.
Be that as it may, Italy's coach still might find it useful to refer to the deeds performed by the admiral more than four centuries ago. Yi, as naval historians know and you should too, was the inventor of the "turtle ships."
These ingenious devices were nothing more than wooden ships armored by encasing them in a sort of shell-hence the name. Yi used them to such good effect that he defeated a superior force of Japanese vessels and became a Korean maritime hero in the process.
What, you might understandably be asking, does this have to do with the World Cup? Well, nothing and everything. What we are doing here is making a case for Italy, which very well might not need any help at all. If it does, though, here it is, free of charge.
Defense has long been Italy's forte. The country didn't win the World Cup three times simply by singing arias at opponents; it had to shut them up too. The names of Italy's defensive heroes ring down through the ages: Franco Baresi being the most recent and Paolo Maldini the most current. Then there is Trapattoni himself.
Known affectionately as "Trap"-a name Yi would have enjoyed-Trapattoni is Italy's most successful club coach of all time. A quick glance at his resume shows seven Italian league titles, one German league title, two Italian Cups, the European Champions Cup, three UEFA Cups, one European Super Cup and one Toyota/Intercontinental Cup. But, sadly, no World Cup.
Not until now.
Italy's team bristles with offensive weapons, just like Yi's famous turtle ships. There are, for instance, no fewer than six top-class forwards on the Italian roster: Francesco Totti, Alessandro Del Piero, Marco Delvecchio, Filippo Inzaghi, Vincenzo Montella and, perhaps best of all, Christian Vieri.
Trap doesn't need to tell his forwards anything. What he needs to do is build a shell around them. A defensive perimeter so tight that nothing can penetrate, and even if it does, there will still be Gianluigi Buffon or Francesco Toldo in goal to handle the odd shot or two. It's a can't-miss plan, an armor-plated way to the silverware.
Here, then, is the route map to Italy's fourth World Cup:
Mon dieu! Is there nothing that can stop the French? Not here, there isn't. Coach Roger Lemerre's world champions win the group with ease. Denmark wilts in the heat and humidity and Uruguay, deservedly or not, grabs second. Senegal is left thinking how nice it was to take part.
Spain, still pawing at the dust like an angry bull over its last miserable World Cup effort, gores everyone in sight, leaving second place to the rest. Paraguay's Jose Luis Chilavert finds he is not invincible after all. South Africa trips up and tiny Slovenia finds itself through to the last 16.
World Cups are not arranged for Brazil to go out in the first round. Never have been, never will be. Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and company run circles around the rest and go through. Turkey is stuffed by Brazil but has enough to finish ahead of Costa Rica and China, who have the stuffing knock out of them.
The Portuguese navigated their way to Far East centuries ago, so navigating a way through these shallow waters is no challenge at all. Can you say Luis Figo, Rui Costa and Pauleta? Second place? Well, it won't really matter who gets it, so why not say the United States ahead of South Korea and Poland?
Don't be fooled by Germany's tragic tale of injuries and lowered expectations. Coach Rudi Voeller still has plenty left in reserve and is wily enough to prefer finishing second behind Cameroon and thus avoiding Italy in the quarterfinals. Ireland and Saudi Arabia are just along to provide color.
The so-called "group of death" is over-rated. The Swedes are ordinary as usual and the Nigerians are disorganized as usual. The much touted Argentina-England rematch in Sapporo turns out to be a dud. The South Americans boast about winning the group and the English whine about being the runner-up. Nothing new there.
Italy has been given virtually free passage to the quarterfinals, thanks to the draw. Nothing here will give Christian Vieri and company any trouble, and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon will be lucky if he even sees the ball. Croatia's doddering elders hold on for second, while Mexico and Ecuador head for the airport.
Among this lot it would be almost a blessing if Coach Philippe Troussier's Japan won it all, but it doesn't have the goods to do better than finish second. That means the dull men from Belgium will likely prevail, leaving the Russians and Tunisians free to do some shopping before shipping out.
Cameroon-Slovenia: Patrick Mboma gallops through the mud-the rainy season has arrived by now-and slays the Slovenians, whose own star, Zlatko Zahovic, is totally eclipsed.
Italy-United States: Perhaps that warm-up game in Sicily wasn't such a bright idea after all. The Italians know the Americans' many weaknesses and exploit them to the fullest. Ciao, Clint Mathis.
Spain-Germany: It's about that time again, the moment when Raul disappears and the Spanish fold like a tent in a windstorm. The Germans chose this route intentionally, and Bayer Leverkusen's Michael Ballack finally gets some revenge on the Real Madrid gang.
Portugal-Croatia: Those red and white checkered flags that saluted Davor Suker and company all the way to the semifinals in 1998 finally are lowered as the Croatians bow before a rampant Portuguese team superbly marshaled by Costa & Co. (cq)
France-England: A David Beckham goal off a free kick throws an early scare into the French, but they turn up the heat when Djibril Cisse replaces Thierry Henry and win by two clear goals, one thanks to an English goalkeeping blunder.
Brazil-Japan: Having achieved their ambition by reaching the second round, the Japanese stand around and watch in awe as the Brazilians show what they really can do if they ignore the instructions of dour Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari. Ronaldo gets a hat trick.
Argentina-Uruguay: Ugly, ugly, ugly. The referees who have had it relatively easy up until now, have their hands full in this River Plate (cq) classic. The Uruguayans kick everyone in sight, the Argentines do the same but manage a couple of Hernan Crespo goals as well to go through.
Belgium-Turkey: With the Japanese knocked out of the tournament the day before an no one much interested in seeing Nico Van Kerkhoven tackle Abdullah Ercan, FIFA is reduced to giving away tickets for this yawner in Miyagi. Oh, yes, Belgium wins.
Cameroon-Italy: Every tournament produces at least one classic game and this is it. The Africans' power, unpredictability and enthusiasm has them attacking for 90 minutes. The Italians use the counter while working out of their defensive shell-see Admiral Yi above-and prevail, 3-2.
Germany-Portugal: Coach Antonio Oliveira changes Portugal's tactics and uses two forwards instead of one. The move bewilders the predictable Germans, but it still takes a brilliant goal by Nuno Gomes to beat the tournament's top goalkeeper, Oliver Kahn, as the Portuguese advance.
France-Brazil: The much anticipated rematch of the 1998 final turns out to be less thrilling than it should be. The French, minus injured Zinedine Zidane, have run out of steam and the Brazilians, saving themselves for the semifinals, are content with a 1-0 win.
Argentina-Belgium: Knowing that Brazil awaits, Coach Marcelo Bielsa's squad turns it up a notch to play some mind games with the Brazilians. Juan Sebastian Veron is in top form and Gabriel Batistuta notches a pair of goals in an easy win.
Italy-Portugal: Curiously, the Portuguese revert to a single striker, Pauleta, and the Italians have no problems containing him. Luis Figo causes them some problems, scoring a superb goal from distance, but Italy prevails on two Vieri goals.
Brazil-Argentina: Scolari plays it scared, using his peculiar five-man defense and insisting that the forwards get back to help out. Denied their freedom to improvise, the Brazilians sulk, especially Rivaldo, and go down by the game's only goal.
Italy-Argentina: It's raining heavily in Yokohama. Trapattoni throws up the shutters, bolts on the armor plate and closes up shop. It's scoreless at the half. It's scoreless after 90 minutes. It's scoreless after extra time. It goes to penalty kicks and Buffon finally earns his keep with three extraordinary saves The turtle ships have won. Did you have any doubt?