For the hosts, the 2006 World Cup wasn’t just an occasion that granted them access to the exclusive group of nations to have held the tournament twice. Having seen an ageing side crash out in the quarter-finals of ’98, and an underwhelming squad somehow make their way to the final in ’02, the lead up to the 2006 competition was fraught with tension for Germany. Those two World Cups had been interspersed with a couple of humbling European Championships, with the 1996 winners crashing out in the group stage on both occasions. Now they had former talisman Jurgen Klinsmann in the dugout, and a new generation of players yet to prove their mettle on the biggest stage. The competitive football free gap between the Euros and the World Cup had seen the hosts play 22 friendlies and partake in the Confederations Cup, and neither provided a great deal of optimism for the real deal. A 3-2 defeat to Brazil in the Confed semi-final was compounded by a string of unfavourable friendly results – defeats in Slovakia and Turkey, and a 4-1 pasting at the hands of Italy the worst of it, though it took a sprited comeback to deny Japan a win in Leverkusen. Still, the draw for the group stage was relatively kind to the hosts, and Costa Rica, Poland and Ecuador were unlikely to stand in the way of German progression.
Twelve years after playing their first fixture as an independent nation, the Czech Republic finally made it to a World Cup, and they were among eight debutants in Germany. There were four new faces from the CAF region, as regular qualifiers Cameroon and Nigeria missed out and Ghana, Angola, Ivory Coast and Togo all arrived for their maiden appearance. Ukraine and Serbia and Montenegro emerged from the shadows of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia respectively to compete for the first time, and Trinidad and Tobago beat Bahrain in the Intercontinental Playoff to make their World Cup bow. Australia, making their last appearance in the OFC section before transferring to Asia, returned to the fold for the first time since 1974, while Turkey and Greece were among the notable absentees, given their recent successes at major tournaments.
In a switch from tradition the hosts, rather than the holders, kicked the competition off, and Germany provided a glimpse of the attacking talent in their armoury with a four-goal salvo against Costa Rica, including two thunderous strikes from Philip Lahm and Torsten Frings. Unfortunately some uncharacteristic defensive frailty was also on show, and Paulo Wanchope’s double ensured the hosts weren’t allowed to get too comfortable on their big opening night. In the end, Germany progressed from the group with ease, winning three from three and keeping two clean sheets against Poland and Ecuador. The Ecuadorians emerged as a surprise package, seeing off Poland and Costa Rica with little trouble to finish second. In Group B, England were at their frustratingly inert best, finishing top ahead of Sweden despite never looking particularly convincing. A nervy 82 minutes against Trinidad and Tobago was punctured by Peter Crouch’s goal, though the beanpole striker had to resort to dirty tactics by yanking down on his marker’s deadlocks in order to gain leverage for his header. A 2-2 draw against the Swedes was at least entertaining, with Joe Cole’s rocket of a volley the one real highlight of England’s tournament. Group C offered something approaching a Group Of Death, as Argentina and the Netherlands were pitted together with newbies Ivory Coast and Serbia and Montenegro, though by the time the two old hands faced each other in the final game both had qualified for the knockouts. Argentina finished top on goal difference thanks in no small part to a 6-0 demolition job on the Serbs, including a twenty five pass move that led to Esteban Cambiasso’s goal and had football hipsters the world over creaming in their ironic briefs.
Angola’s brief appearance at the tournament would at least offer a sliver of subtext as they were drawn in Group D with former colonial masters Portugal. A narrow defeat for the Antelopes was followed by a pair of draws that, while not enough to see them progress, still passed as a valiant effort for their first Finals appearance. Portugal finished top with three wins from three, while Mexico followed in second. Italy did what Italy do best in Group E, that is secure a safe passage with minimal fuss and, more importantly, minimal concessions, with Cristian Zaccardo’s own goal the only black mark as they cruised into the second round. Ghana, with the exciting Asamoah Gyan, continued their maiden voyage by beating the Czechs to second place. Brazil, boasting a forward line of Ronaldo, Adriano, Robinho, Ronaldinho and Kaka, were never likely to slip up in their group, and three straight wins saw them sail through. That left second place up for grabs, and it came down to a final group game shootout between Croatia and Australia. The Socceroos needed just a point from the game to make the knockouts for the first time, and they would eventually get it thanks to Harry Kewell’s equaliser in a pulsating 2-2 draw. The ill-tempered game, which had already seen Dario Simic and Brett Emerton sent-off, will forever be remembered for Graham Poll’s hilarious error when, having already booked Josip Simunic, he showed the Croatian defender a second yellow and allowed him to stay on the field, before showing a third minutes later and sending him off. Poll was swiftly sent back to Blighty. Groups G and H were dominated by the European teams, with Switzerland and France, and Spain and Ukraine winning through to round two.
The second round lurched from the sublime to the ridiculous, as Maxi Rodriguez’s extra-time winner against Mexico, which immediately shot to the top of Goal of the Tournament contenders, and Ronaldo’s record-breaking goal against Ghana were offset by Italy’s dubious late penalty against Australia and Switzerland and Ukraine treating the world to the Worst Game Ever. Germany, for their part, routinely sidestepped Sweden, while France and Spain served up a humdinger in Hanover, decided by the wizardry of Zizou. England, after another turgid display against Ecuador, awaited the winners of Portugal v Netherlands.
The game was set up to be a demonstration of beautiful, free-flowing attacking football between two sides possessing some of the most creative and incisive players in Europe. Portugal’s frontline included the Master and Apprentice partnership of Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo, while the Netherlands could call upon Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder, two of the hottest properties in Dutch football. The tone of the game was set in the second minute, however, as serial shithouse Mark van Bommel dragging his studs along the heels of an opposition player and receiving an early booking. Five minutes later Khalid Boulahrouz’s high stamp on Cristiano Ronaldo’s thigh put the Dutch 2-0 up in the caution stakes, though had it been later in the game the Hamburg defender might have seen a straight red. Not to be deterred, Maniche and Costinha put in a couple of robust challenges of their own to level up the scores, sandwiching a rare slice of action on the ball, as Maniche scored the only goal of the game. With the match enjoying a rare spell without some serious foul play, Costinha then earned himself a laughable second yellow by deliberately handling the ball in midfield on the stroke of half-time, but an unusually busy first half for referee Valentin Ivanov was nothing compared to the overworking he’d receive in the second. Four minutes into the second half Petit, on as a sub at half time, hauled back van Bommel and earned a caution. Then all hell began to break loose.
In the 59th minute Giovanni Van Bronckhorst stuck out a leg and brought down Deco, which sparked a bout of handbags between Luis Figo and van Bommel – the two former Barcelona players both had their names taken. Three minutes later Boulahrouz received a harsh second yellow for an adjudged elbow on Figo, though in truth Portugal’s captain bought the decision from the referee. Both sides now down to ten men. Understandably the Dutch players weren’t happy with Figo’s antics, and a minor melee broke out in front of the technical area, with Big Phil Scolari attempting his peacemaker act. If Ivanov was knackered by now, the worst was yet to come. On 73 minutes Deco scythed down Johnny Heitinga and was booked, though the bad looking challenge sparked another coming together between the two sides, and as the referee went over to speak to Deco, Wesley Sneijder started throwing his weight around and picked up a yellow for his part in the clash, with Rafael van der Vaart following him into the referee’s notebook, presumably for egging his teammate on. Before play had continued Portugal’s keeper Ricardo had also had his name taken, and in the very next phase of play Nuno Valente went through the back of Robin van Persie. Two minutes later Deco, somehow, managed to outdo teammate Costinha and shoot straight to the top of the ‘Most Pointless Sending Off’ table, as he received a second yellow for holding onto the ball after the Dutch were awarded a free-kick, and after a spell of football van Bronckhorst joined his clubmate on the sidelines, receiving a second yellow after tangling with Tiago.
All in all sixteen yellows and three reds, and a place in World Cup folklore for the game dubbed The Battle of Nuremberg. Unlike the Battle of Santiago from 1962, however, this wasn’t a particularly violent or spiteful game. There was an edge to it, certainly, but many of the fouls were borne of needle or frustration, rather than any attempt to hurt the opposition. Portugal’s two reds were for idiocy, while one of the Netherlands’ shouldn’t have been given. Compare that with the flying kicks and swinging hooks of Chile v Italy, and the two don’t compare. Watching it back now, it has developed comedy value, with two sides who could have come and played beautiful football, but instead embarked on a race to the bottom.
Portugal’s quarter-final would produce another moment of controversy as Wayne Rooney was sent off for a stamp on Ricardo Carvalho’s carne guisada, and Ronaldo was widely condemned for his influence on the referee’s decision and the infamous wink that followed. It would, of course, be the Manchester United winger that struck the decisive blow, as Portugal prevailed on penalty kicks. They would meet France in the semi-finals after some sloppy marking from Roberto Carlos allowed Thierry Henry to score the only goal as the French overcame Brazil, while Germany’s tournament went above and beyond expectations as Jens Lehmann psyched out Argentina in a shootout. They would face the Italians, who easily dispatched Ukraine.
In one of the all-time World Cup classics Germany came within 90 seconds of a penalty shootout which surely would have seen them overcome Italy, but for a couple of delightful goals from Fabio Grosso and Alessandro Del Piero a minute apart that secured the Azzurri’s place in the final. Over in Munich, Zinedine Zidane, largely peripheral for much of the tournament, netted a first-half penalty to see off Portugual. He would now be gifted the opportunity to lift football’s greatest prize in his last ever match.
It was his penalty, a delightfully impudent chip in off the bar, in the seventh minute of the final that looked to set France on their way against a nervy looking Italy, but Marco Materrazzi’s header twelve minutes later levelled the scores, and that’s the way it stayed until full-time. Five minutes into the second half of extra-time, the most incredible moment in World Cup history played out as, after a brief conflab between the two goalscorers, Zidane launched a raging bull style headbutt into the chest of Materazzi and was sensationally expelled from the field as a result, the image of him walking past the World Cup trophy on his way towards the tunnel instantly becoming one of the iconic images of the tournament. Italy, with the wind in their sales, went on to secure the victory in a shootout, with their fourth triumph taking them clear into second in the all-time winners table. For France, it was the end of an era.