Italy conquer world as Germany win friends
Football's most prized Trophy may be in Italian hands but Marcello Lippi's Azzurri were not the only ones celebrating after a FIFA World Cup where both the players and their German hosts gave football lovers so much to smile about.
From Germany's victory over Costa Rica in the Opening Match in Munich on 9 June to Italy's triumph over France in the Final in Berlin exactly one month later, events in Germany kept an estimated worldwide audience of more than 30 billion people captivated.
All looked on as a cast list incorporating 32 teams from Angola to the USA conspired to excite and enthral during a 64-match, 147-goal marathon attended by 3,359,439 people in the 12 stadiums and millions more in Fan Fests across Germany.
Review how all 32 teams fared
At the end of it all, Italy finished on top thanks to a real team effort. Twenty-one of Lippi's 23-man squad played and ten of them found the net at these finals. With a defence built around goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and captain Fabio Cannavaro, Italy defended as well as any side in FIFA World Cup history, conceding just two goals one an own goal, the other a penalty.
There much was else to admire, from the silk-and-steel midfield combination of Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso, to the swashbuckling raids of full-backs Gianluca Zambrotta and Fabio Grosso. It was the Grosso's goal that swung a superb semi-final against Germany the Italians' way and his penalty that sealed victory in the Final.
Farewell to Zidane
The presence of France in the Final had been predicted by few but Zinedine Zidane rolled back the years to help Les Bleus see off Spain and Brazil en route to the Berlin. His efforts earned him the adidas Golden Ball but although he found the net against Italy eight years after scoring twice in the 1998 Final there was no happy ending as his farewell appearance concluded with a red card. While Zidane is now part of France's past, Frank Ribery's performances in Germany hinted at a bright future.
Portugal can also feel pleased with themselves after reaching the last four for the first time since 1966. With Cristiano Ronaldo flying down the flanks and Ricardo Carvalho and Maniche maintaining a strong spine, their coach Luiz Felipe Scolari fell just short of reaching a second successive Final following his 2002 triumph with Brazil.
Another coach with cause for pride is Germany's Jurgen Klinsmann. His critics were left eating their words after his young side took third place on the back of an attractive brand of high-tempo, attacking football. Germany finished the tournament as top scorers with 14 goals five of them from adidas Golden Shoe winner Miroslav Klose and three from Lukas Podolski, the Gillette Best Young Player.
More than anything, Klinsmann's Nationalmannschaft captured the spirit of Germany 2006. The old stereotype of dour German efficiency was dismantled by Michael Ballack and Co on the pitch, revelling in the unaccustomed role of underdogs. Off the pitch, the German public took the motto 'A time to make friends' and made it into something truly meaningful.
Besides a passion for football underlined by the millions who gathered on Berlin's Fan Mile to watch Germany's matches, the host country also displayed unstinting generosity towards its many visitors. Thanking his countrymen in Berlin on 9 July Klinsmann delivered the epitaph "You're unbelievable" words that sum up the tournament's 15,000 volunteers, whose levels of organisation and enthusiasm have been remarkable.
As the festival ran on the streets of Germany, in the stadiums there was much to savour. Before losing to the hosts in the last eight, Argentina provided some sparkling football and scored the best 'team' goal of these finals in their 6-0 humbling of Serbia and Montenegro, where a 24-man passing move culminated in Esteban Cambiasso sweeping the ball home. And possibly the best individual goal too, in Maxi Rodriguez's stunning volley that beat a formidable Mexican team in the Round of 16.
Underdogs leave their mark
Other highlights came from less familiar names: tiny Trinidad and Tobago holding Sweden to a goalless draw on their finals debut; Ecuador beating Poland and Costa Rica to reach the second round for the first time; and the spirited Australians fighting back to beat Japan with three goals in the last ten minutes on their way to the last 16.
The youngsters of Spain and Switzerland (who went home without conceding a goal) showed much promise prior to second-round exits. There were notable disappointments too. Brazil's star forwards will feel they underachieved, despite reaching the last eight and Ronaldo breaking Gerd Muller's record for FIFA World Cup goals. England's fans brought more colour than their team. Portugal and the Netherlands saw too much of the colour red in an ill-tempered second-round match. Asia's teams failed to build on their breakthrough displays in 2002 as all went home early.
The knockout stages brought fewer goals ensuring the lowest goals average since 1990 and few real surprises, save possibly for Ukraine's progress to the quarter-finals on their debut appearance.
Arguably the brightest newcomers came from Africa. Côte d'Ivoire gave Argentina and the Netherlands real scares despite losing to both, Angola earned draws with Mexico and Iran, and an attack-minded Ghana team driven by Stephen Appiah and Michael Essien beat the Czech Republic and USA before going down to Brazil in the Round of 16.
They will be stronger for their experiences here as will the entire African challenge on home ground four years from now. Football's greatest show moves to South Africa in 2010: a new continent, but no doubt the same old magic.