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14th Jun 2018

Why Germany 2006 was the best World Cup ever

In the end the lasting images of a World Cup are the only things that matter

Kyle Picknell

World Cups are wine cellars and you’ll find me down in the basement dusting off the ’06 vintage, bringing Pirlo and Cannavaro back up to the dinner party

The lasting images of any World Cup are the only things that matter. We hate to admit it but in the end, after all the heartbreak and furore, the month-long agony and ecstasy, nothing much is remembered, and all is forgotten as quickly as it had come around.

The stadiums, the anthems, the shirts and the mascots. History cares not for frivolity. Squint your eyes and scratch your head and it is almost as though none of it ever mattered in the first place.

It did for a while though, we know it did, we felt it. But then it was over and what remains, all that is left is the faint residue of something you know was grand and timeless, even if you were unsure exactly what it was, the burnt ashes of the citadel.

The 2006 World Cup had these moments, and players becoming whatever it was they were meant to be, more than any other. It disappointed for long stretches. Any World Cup should. It just means that when the moments came they were significant. Sometimes all it takes is a few words in between quiet sips a few years later – “Joe Cole, Sweden” – the eyes roll back into the heads and it is all there with you as though grainy projections on the pub wallpaper.

It was a tournament defined by the divine redemption of the Italians – unceremoniously dumped out in 2002 amidst a refereeing scandal (Graham Poll would go further in 2006 by awarding three yellow cards to Josip Simunic during a game) and shockingly absent from this year’s trounament – and everything Italian football stood for.

Namely celebrating every single goal in the exact same way: sprinting around, in no particular direction, flicking your wrists, shouting your own name and generally looking confused about or simply outright denying the whole magnificent situation you find yourself in.

“No, no, no, no,” Luca Toni would say, shaking his head and wheeling away back to Florence whilst trying to shoo a wasp out of his ear.

2006 isn’t the romanticist’s World Cup of choice, they usually venture back further into the mists of time, but it should be. Maybe now enough time has passed for it to turn sepia in our memories, the names and the goals weightier now thanks to the heavy soak of nostalgia.

It started, as any football tournament should, with Philip Lahm scuttling in from left back to crash one past Costa Rica only five minutes in. The underdogs responded though, twice, thanks to the inimitable Paulo Wanchope and Per Mertesacker’s primal urge to play a high line despite constantly losing footraces with just about anything: the lunchtime queue at Tesco express, coastal erosion, other not-particularly-fast human beings.

There were six goals in the opener of the tournament thanks to a brace from the six yard box’s greatest natural predator and golden boot winner Miroslav Klose, and Torsten Frings deciding the 87th minute was as good a time as any to ask for a layoff from a freekick closer to the border with Austria than the Costa Rican goal so he could traction engine one into what is now, officially, the area described exclusively as ‘top bins’.

As the tournament rumbled on the goals kept coming, Ecuador’s Carlos Tenorio and Augustin Delgado in particular were deightful, a two-man tandem through which Los Amarillos tore through Poland and then the hapless Costa Ricans. Robben and Van Persie were less footballers than they were fluorescent orange blurs, Tim Cahill managed to squeeze a couple of corner flag sparring sessions in between extremely Tim Cahill goals and Alexander Frei, a Swiss tap-in merchant who looked like a Swiss banker, spent his every waking moment offside in search of even more tap-ins and better interest rates.

Elsewhere, the mouthwatering Czech Republic side of the early 2000s continued to flatter to deceive despite a statement of intent against the USA after Game of Thrones extra Jan Koller thumped in a trademark header without needing to jump and Tomas Rosicky proceeded to waltz through whatever was left of Oguchi Onyewu and Eddie Pope for an exquisite brace, Wolfgang Amadeus blaring on his invisible Walkman.

It was Ghana who emerged through the same group along with eventual champions Italy (we’ll get to them later), an intoxicating Premier League Years motley crue – Essien, Muntari, Gyan, Paintsil, Mensah – held together by the formidable Stephen Appiah. The were unfortunate in meeting Brazil in the first round of the knockout stage, who were packing a video game attack I still dream about at night: Kaka, Ronaldinho, Adriano, Ronaldo, cold sweats, fever dreams, Robinho off the bench.

Ronaldo finger-wagging his way to all-time World Cup top scorer – until Miroslav ‘Stabs Home’ Klose returned in South Africa four years later – with a step-over around the Ghanaian keeper was perfect.

Juninho Pernambucano and Kaka firing in howitzers and the timeless Ze Roberto and the perpetually underrated Gilberto Silva dominating as a two-man midfield in the age of the three were all less perfect, but equally vital.

Thierry Henry stealing at the far post to knock them out in the quarter finals was a hard pill to swallow for the neutral but this is the World Cup after all. Zidane, the player of the tournament, the player of any tournament, belonged in the final whether he was going to crush a 6’5″ man’s sternum with his gleaming bald skull or not.

Spain, boasting an attack where they could field either David Villa, Raul, Fernando Torres or all three, depending on how they were feeling, ran riot in the group stages, scoring one of the great World Cup team goals in the process. If you couldn’t handle him at his Zeppelin-haired, When the Levee Breaks best, you certainly didn’t deserve Carles Puyol at his ‘pirouetting through a Ukrainian midfield and laying off cushioned headers’ also best.

Torres, who was well on his way to becoming Nemanja Vidic’s Daddy at this point, did the rest in a way that brought only the words ‘dispatched’ and ‘aplomb’ to mind.

Two days later Argentina would top it in a demolition job against dark horses Serbia, who, it turns out, like pretty much every dark horse pick in history, weren’t actually all that alluring to begin with. Anyone who had ever seen human pepperami Nikola Zigic play in the flesh probably could have told you that even before the tournament had started.

Heinze, Sorin, Maxi Rodriguez, Mascherano, Cambiasso, Riquelme, Saviola, a myriad of passes, the feet of Hernan Crespo, one nonchalant backheel and suddenly Cambiasso again, screaming one into the net before screaming into the crowd, fists aloft, the history of football now that bit brighter.

Promising youngsters Carlos Tevez and Lionel Messi – you might have heard of them – came off the bench to drive the score up to an almost apologetic 6-0.

Things looked good for semi-finalists Portugal until, well, the semi-final, when the previously faultless Ricardo Carvalho did that thing he sometimes does, lunging in on a striker with both feet and then pretending he slipped. Maniche’s late driving runs into the box were important; actual Brazilian Deco playing like an actual Brazilian was perhaps moreso and Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo played like the mirror image of one another on either wing except now it was difficult to tell which one was the real thing and which one the projection of light.

Nothing needs to be said of England. Only the performance of a lifetime from the Jon Snow of defensive midfielders easing the inevitable crushing heartbreak. On that night in Gelsenkirchen he was the best player, comfortably, on either team and the only one in white seemingly unafraid of the occasion, the opposition, the bright lights and the stage.

The tanned walkers kept coming though and Hargeaves, eventually, was betrayed by the fear of the men beside him like daggers to the chest.

A tournament is always defined by its champions and Italy’s team was so rich in the sauce the vast majority of them don’t require second names.

Gigi, Andrea, Francesco, Gianluca, Pippo, Gennaro, Simone, Daniele, Mauro, Luca, Alberto… they roll off the over-eager tongue like hot garlic bread.

There were two Alessandros: the negroni sipping deck-chair defender Nesta, the best in the world throughout the decade who the tournament was cruelly robbed of before the round of 16 and there was the man born with a name to shout after a goal, Del Piero, who would top even the Spain and Argentina team moves that had come before when he ran the length of the field to blow Italy into the final with a chef’s kiss of a finish.

One Fabio had already put it within reach after Grosso pounced on a siderule Andrea Pirlo pass to trace the curvature of the earth and bend one past Oliver Kahn in that order.

Then there was the other, Cannavaro, who you might have noticed him above, towering over Per Mertesacker seemingly through power of will alone and then beating then 20-year-old supserstar Lukas Podolski to the loose ball only centimetres away from the Germany forward’s feet but half a continent away from his own.

He then left it to Francesco Totti, presumably because it was Francesco Totti.

Throughout the entire tournament it was like this, a too-short-to-be-a-centre-back centre back turning every single 50/50 into a 100/0 or at the very least, a formality. In the final he erupted once again, a tiny human Vesuvius washing away France, Berlin and just whatever was left of what he no doubt considered a personally insulting attempt at a wall.

Before the final moment of the tournament Pirlo clung to his captain, a Coliseum pillar in an Italy shirt, eyes red and barely able to watch.

Afterwards he runs. He shakes his wrists and darts this way and that to nowhere in particular, lost in the sepia haze of it all.

It’s not just the names, it’s everything they conjure up; memories of joy and of football.