Saturday, June 24, 2006

Czech Republic v Italy, BBC1

Ray Stubbs introduces what the BBC website has just revealed will be the first of 11 consecutive live games on the BBC. Aah, blessed relief from Budweiser and EDF Energy until Sunday night. We're assured than Messrs Shearer, Desailly and O'Neill are "right up to speed on all the different qualification permutations this afternoon". Martin points out to Marcel in that slow, deliberate way he always employs when talking to non-British pundits that the Ghanaian coach has kept Samuel Kuffour out of the starting line-up, going against Desailly's previously stated wish to see Kuffour returned to the team after his mistake against Italy. "Martin, Marcel phoned him up and sorted it out!" is Ray's rather weak segue into the split, as BBCi viewers disappear off to watch the Ghana-USA game and the rest of us are left in the hands of Mark Bright and John Motson.

Motson welcomes us by explaining that an announcement is forthcoming back in Italy about the corruption scandal currently rocking Serie A, and explains that this could lead to four clubs being relegated (he doesn't actually mention Juventus, Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio by name, but this is the new and non-technical BBC, after all). In true understating Motson fashion, he states non-categorically that "I don't recall a World Cup match starting in that kind of atmosphere before!" Motson recalls attending the Italy v Czechoslovakia game at Italy 1990 where both teams made it through the group, and wonders if that's to be an omen for today. Mark Bright has always liked it when the last group game can lead to "somebody falling out..." (the image of Pavel Nedved and his Juventus teammates in the Italian team having a childish squabble and refusing to talk to each other springs to mind).
"There's going to be a contrast in the welcomes here, because Mark and I have been in the city today and we think there's more enthusiasm from the Czech Republic fans than there is from the Italians!" A fine theory John, but since the two teams arrive on the pitch side-by-side, it's rather difficult to ascertain any difference on television in the welcomes afforded by the two sets of fans. Mark Bright offers the opinion that Italians "don't travel" - unlike the Swedes, Swiss and Mexicans - and that the Czech fans probably outnumber the Italians in the stadium today. "Mind you, there'll be a few people in the Italian restaurants across Europe [chuckle] who'll be following this very closely, so we'd better be strictly neutral here!" Is Motson on some kind of crusade to slip some kind of food reference into every commentary these days? I anticipate the first pasta, pizza or spaghetti pun with dread.
"Just can't get used to Totti with his hair so short! [chuckle]" is John's first comment immediately following the anthems. "It's the fashion now, John, it's the fashion!" explains Bright, sounding for all the world like your Grandma explaining the state of young people nowadays to her elderly neighbour after you turn up on her doorstep with a mohican and your nose pierced. We then see the Czech bench, causing Motson to identify the coach: "Karel Bruckner, 66 years old - the Methuselah of football coaches in the World Cup. Not quite fair on him, Methuselah was several hundred years old if you know your Bible!"

Discussion turns to the Czech team's fitness as the game gets underway, and Bright questions how long the returning Baros can last. Having commented on how Plasil has moved to Nedved's left, Bright points out that Poborsky is playing on the right wing as usual. "He never moves, does he?" observes Motson. "Well he moves [chuckle], but not his starting position! Doing well to keep moving, Poborsky - he's 34!" Baros has the game's first chance, but his "rustiness" causes his first touch to let the ball run away. Meanwhile, Totti puts the ball out of play for an unidentified player to receive treatment. Bright eventually spots that Poborsky is the man receiving treatment on the near side of the pitch, and explains "the reason we couldn't see that is because there's 10 cameras in front of us so we can't see the near touchline." "Yeah, a bit like Cannavaro, we get our excuses in early, Brighty!"
Nedved has a shot from 25 yards which Buffon comfortably gets down to save. "Equal to the save, Buffon. Wasn't a real test for him..." "They must test each other every day in training at Juventus, I would think!" Minutes later Nedved has another go from similar range, but this time Buffon can only palm the ball away towards the oncoming Jankulovski only for the Italian keeper to scramble to his feet and block the second shot as well. Motson's view on the above? "Nedved...and he'll have to be quick, Buffon here - ooh-hoo!"
Nesta is struggling and Materazzi is waiting on the sidelines to replace him. However, Nesta takes so long to slowly meander across from the far side of the pitch that the referee decides to play on without allowing the substitution, much to Bright's delight. "The referee went over and asked him, but he was just borrowing time to get the sub warmed up!"
"Of course, the other intriguing thing about this group is that whoever finishes second, chances are you'll play Brazil in the next round!" "[chuckle]" "That's Mark Bright chuckling, not me!"
"There's big news coming from the other game," teases John before commentating on the action here for several more seconds. "The news coming in is that Ghana have scored against the United States to go 1-0 up there, and if Ghana win they qualify at the expense of one of these, so the drama has already started in this group! It's changed things a little bit because if Ghana were to win they're through!"

Italy win a corner even though the ball seems to come off Gilardino's shin. "Oh, Materazzi! It's a goal and he's got it! Only minutes after coming on! And the Czech Republic here are in deep difficulties! Not only are Ghana in front, the Czech Republic are behind!" Bright isn't impressed with the defending: "You always look for men on the posts and there is none today!" "Good point!""So not the table says Italy are top, Ghana are second, and the Czech Republic are still coming from behind in more ways than one!" (fnar) "Nothing against the Czech Republic here Mark, but if an African team did get through it would be a reward for some of the football the Africans have played."
"You can't get away from the fact we're getting a lot of goals from corners in this World Cup, Mark?" asks John, as an aside. Mark agrees, but is unimpressed with the lack of marking on Materazzi for the goal. John attempts to excuse the Czech defence: "When a substitution's made they have to re-educate the defenders who to mark on corners, eh? Presumably whoever would have picked up Nesta...but then, he didn't always go up..." Bright's having none of it: "Well, the way we've always done it is, it's on a whiteboard before you go out - your name with who your man is, who you mark. The first thing you do when you come back for the corner is look for your man and engage him straight away!" "That's if it's man to man, and not zonal? We're getting a bit technical, aren't we? [chuckle]"
"Look at that flick by Totti, this is Perrotta, and Totti again - you saw a flash of the real Totti there!" Another Italian corner, and "they're marking zonal," warns Mark. It comes to nothing. John's not complaining that the "freak heatwave" during the earlier games has now subsided.

First inadvertent reference by Motson to Czechoslovakia instead of Czech Republic: 1 minute into first half stoppage time

An as-yet-unnamed Czech player slides in and catches Totti's ankle. Motson predicts a yellow card, only for Bright to suggest it will be a second yellow and thus a red. "Oh it is, it's...it's number 19 - he's got to go, he's got to go." Furious stalling from Motson as he tries to remember who the number 19 is. "It's Polak! Red card, two yellows - what a desperate day for the Czech Republic! But there's better news for them from somewhere else because the United States have equalised against Ghana..." We end the half just in time to switch to Simon Brotherton commentate on the penalty that sees Ghana go 2-1 up. It's quite interesting to hear Brotherton bring us BBC1 viewers up to speed without specifically acknowledging our arrival in the traditional BBC Radio fashion ("and we welcome listeners to BBC World Service...").

Marcel is happy with the Ghana scoreline and gives a detailed analysis of that game so far even though we're supposed to be reviewing the other game first. "You can see which game you've been watching!" quips O'Neill. "He's got vision, you remember when he used to play, he's got vision, he's watching everything this afternoon!" excuses Stubbs. "You'd have a word with a player if he did that and got sent off, wouldn't you?" asks Ray to Martin about Polak. "Well, you wouldn't let him into the dressing room to be perfectly honest! I don't know whether to feel sorry for the Czechs or go out and give them the biggest shaking of their lives!" Sounds like O'Neill had the Czechs in the office sweepstake. We briefly review the Ghana penalty, which seems harsh in even Marcel's opinion. Martin says it best: "It's a poor decision. We might be cheering Ghana on, perhaps - because of you [looking at Desailly] - but deep down it's a terrible decision. We're talking about the referees, I don't really want to go into it but I think they should have a word with themselves, have a look at themselves." "You feel really disappointed with that penalty kick incident?" asks Marcel. "No I don't, because I like Ghana a lot..." explains O'Neill, "In the course of life it won't make a great deal of difference..." Marcel compares the poor decision to France's disallowed goal versus South Korea, Martin agrees and Ray sums up by pointing out that these things happen.

"This referee is pedantic on some things but remarkably unconcerned about others!" points out John after some rather pointless fouls are awarded at the start of the second half. Baros is flagged offside though the replay suggests he might have been level. "Oh, d'you know what, I'd give that, let him play on!" suggests Mark. Motson suggests this is a prime opportunity for Totti to prove himself. "Martin O'Neill feels he underachieves an awful lot of the time..."
Motson's impressed by Italy's composure - "bear in mind that they lost Nesta quite early on, didn't they?" "Didn't disrupt them much," agrees Bright. "Well, not really, the sus-stis-tute scored the goal!" concludes John. "We've heard no more from the other match so we assume Ghana are still leading, so it doesn't get any better for the Czechs!"
Rosicky kicks Gatusso on the shin, causing the Italian to stay down as play continues momentarily. Motson is still wondering whether the Czechs should play the ball out a good couple of seconds after the referee has stopped play to check on the stricken Italian. "Is it Pirlo?" asks Bright, before a close-up of excessive stubble identifies it as Gatusso. "Collision of knees there, two players knock knees together. We were talking about this before, if a player goes down and it's not a head injury, should you kick the ball out? Oh, it's not - it's a kick on the shin..."
"Still 2-1 to Ghana I'm now informed, so that means that the Czech Republic are really...unless we see a turnaround the like of which we haven't seen in this World Cup, the Czechs are going out!" A turnaround like, say, Australia v Japan, John? 15 minutes left, and things seem desperate for the Czechs (John suggests they need to either score themselves or hope the US do - even though the latter would be useless without the former). Bright wonders if Bruckner will go for broke and throw Koller on. Motson is adamant (for the first time in about a decade) in predicting he won't appear, expecting Marek Heinz instead. "Just soundbites in the press conferences? Obviously you know otherwise!" suggests Mark of the pre-match speculation that Koller might be used if necessary. "Well, no I don't - it's just they do want to use a bit of kidology sometimes. I think if he was fit enough they'd have used him earlier, that's just the point I'm trying to make!"
Totti scuffs a shot a long way wide. "Go on, talk about Totti!" encourages Motson. "Well, I'm not a great fan! He looks overweight, he's lost that yard or two..." Brighty's definitely not impressed.
Motson's earlier prediction turns out to be correct as Heinz is ready to come on. "Last throw of the dice isn't it?" asks Bright. "Absolutely. Then again you never know." Ah, there's the indecisive Motson we know and tolerate.
"It's Totti again!" Cue a feeble attempted chip that floats gently into Cech's arms. "Tch, tch, tch, tch, tch," Bright tuts. "There's woes and all sorts of whistles from the Italian crowd round the back of the goal. That's woeful!"
"A player who expected to play no part in this match may have won it," observes John, as the Italians march up the pitch looking for a second. Pirlo waltzes through a series of desperate tackles from the knackered Czech defence before flicking the ball up to an unmarked Inzaghi 8 yards out. "Pirlo...still Pirlo... Inzaghi!" Nope, he's headed it wide with almost the entire goal unguarded as Cech was guarding the opposite post anticipating a Pirlo shot. "That Pirlo run reminded me of Ricky Villa in the FA Cup years ago!" notes Mark. "I think Toni will be back for the next game, don't you?" asks Motty.
"You could say, John, that Italy have played with 10 men!" smirks Mark as the ball once again passes by Totti, who's still being whistled by his own fans. "You could say that! It's a point that may well be taken up in the studio if I'm not mistaken!"
"I have to confess I was one of those who thought the Czech Republic could be one of the outsiders in this World Cup," admits John, "but I think when Koller went off it changed everything. Here's Totti, who hasn't changed very much!" The commentators' curse comes into immediate effect as Totti is involved in a quick breakaway as the ball is threaded through to Inzaghi with the entire Czech defence pushed up to the half way line, and it's 2-0. "He timed his run right, didn't he?" asks the uncertain Motson even though Inzaghi was a yard inside his own half when the ball was played.
A replay shows Lippi on the Italian bench as the goal is scored, only to be rudely interrupted by a bizarre celebration by Gatusso. "Look at that! Gatusso's grabbed the coach around the neck! He didn't like that much, did he Lippi?" "I'm sure that's playful?" suggests a clearly amused Bright. "That's got to be one of the enduring images of the World Cup!" "If that's what he does when he's playful, what does he do when he's angry?"
"They've carried Totti for a lot of this game," is Bright's concluding opinion of a conclusive Italian performance. "I was tempted to say for all of it!" remarks Motson. "This isn't about Totti-bashing," concedes Mark, "he's a decent player coming back from injury, but how long do you persist with him at this stage because his productivity's been nil!"

The final whistle blows and we again switch over for the closing minutes of the Ghana-USA match. It appears that Brotherton has no co-commentator, which seems odd considering the BBC's resources. That match also ends, and the Ghanaians have been pluckiest of all the plucky underdogs. We later see Marcel's reaction at the final whistle, a sigh of relief whilst holding one hand up in a victory salute and leaning so far back into his chair that all we can see is his chin. "We thought you were going to fall off the balcony!" laughs Ray. We rush through a brief analysis of the two games - even Martin stops himself mid-sentence with a quick glance to the floor manager - "I can see you're in a hurry!" It's been a bit of a manic afternoon all round, really.

What we've learned: the Czechs are one-trick ponies and will need to either adapt to playing without Koller or start cloning him; Italy can comfortably numb other sides into submission with their patient possession game; and Totti is going to challenge Ronaldo as the media's chosen "has-been" of the tournament.

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