Words: Max Freeman-Mills
Images: Offside Sports Photography
Love them or hate them, the Italian squad at the 2006 World Cup campaign had some diverse qualities. Real Kelly’s Heroes stuff.
Buffon in sticks grizzled as hell, a veteran even though he was somehow only 28. The ageless grace of Fabio Cannavaro, still the last defender to win the Ballon d’Or, and one of the most tremendous head-shaven decision-makers of this or any epoch, a philosopher of the field. A midfield so balanced it defied friction: Pirlo and Gattuso twirling in a death grip with each other. And up front, devastating Luca Toni blasting his way through defences, with wily Del Piero waiting in the eaves. Lovely, lovely, gritty team. Total bastards, too; every one of ‘em.
The Italian run to the final had some moments of unbelievable class, it’s true. Pirlo’s opening goal against Ghana (check out the reverse angle—ohhhh boy) set the pace, and he went on to have a tremendous tournament. They’d score a few more absolute beauties, none more so than Fabio Grosso’s curler to go ahead against the Germans in the semis.
Grosso is, in fact, the key man when it comes to wondering if Italy could have come unstuck in Germany. That goal in the semi wasn’t his only influential moment going forward, though. Another tied game, a few rounds earlier, gave the Azzurri palpitations. In need of inspiration, but finding none, they were edging further and further into added time at the end of the 90 against Australia, the Socceroos, Guus Hiddink’s overachievers.
In added time, then, Grosso made his way into the area. Nearby, Lucas Neill fell into an optimistic challenge but didn't impede the man or the ball. Grosso, sensing a chance, the pull of gravity clearly too strong for him, found Neill and fell over him [this account has been simplified for sanity and clarity]. The ref bought it, and your man Francesco Totti, future legend of the game, stepped up for a golden goal-esque penalty chance. He slammed it top bins, and Italy were through.
Except, here’s the thing. What if he missed? What if, as so many players—even Italian number 10s, talented; even wondrous players have before him—he folded under the pressure? Aiming for that top corner, what if he places it just a little too high? The ball flies away, Totti’s sad eyes watching it disappear into orbit or the crowd, and Australia are still in it.
Bobby Baggio will tell you that missing a big pen can do things to a player. Totti’s shaken up, gutted, distracted. The Aussies, meanwhile, are sensing an opportunity. The biggest tournament campaign in their history could get bigger. Two halves of extra time loom, but neither team can break the other down. The big chance has come and gone, and penalties are inevitable.
The script’s written—the Aussies never thought they’d get this far, adrenaline’s carrying them through, slamming home bangs that Gigi just can’t get near. It’s 5–4 to the Antipodeans, and Totti steps up, haltingly, to take his second spot kick of the day. Commentators around the world indulge in every cliché they know and are vindicated as he absolutely Shevchenko’s it—neither one nor the other, it’s too easy for big Mark Schwarzer to gather. The shellshock spreads. Italy are out.
Australia’s greatest tournament keeps on rolling
Anyway, the ramifications within the tournament are immediate. This is a huge elimination, reuniting for one outcome in the final. But Australia, brave and stalwart though they’ve been, are shattered, living the most thrilling dream possible. The Ukraine team that Italy brushed aside 3–0 in the quarters is no minor matter for the Socceroos. But with Harry Kewell and Timmy Cahill on song, they edge it, a Bresciano goal seeing them through. Impossibly, this bunch of footy boys are in the World Cup semis.
It ends there, obviously—Germany teach them a lesson, sending them packing. But, my word, what a ride they’ve taken. The inspiration of 2006 was pretty solid even in our mundane timeline, but in this otherworldly, utopic happyland it’s on another level. The influence of Messrs Kewell and Viduka doesn’t tail off—Cahill isn’t the only really good Aussie footballer for the next decade. Fast forward, and Mile Jedinak, Aaron Mooy, and a potential-realising Mass Luongo are soon leading a nation that has embraced footballer long-term, not just for Christmas.
But, just as Italy found, the team waiting for Germany in the final are a scary bunch. France have come through a tough set of games, and at their heart is the retiring Zidane, imperious and unruffled, spraying top-quality passes around the shop, gliding about.
With no absurdly evil Marco Materazzi to needle him all game, one of the most famous explosions in football history simply blips out of existence. No head butt. No memes about said head butt. No disgrace or quasi-exile. No PR rehabilitation.
i) But, more to the point, no 10 v 11. No imbalance, no disproportionate fatigue for one side, no disappearance of leadership or composure. The Germans can try, but Zidane is dragging his team onwards, and who should seal it but him? In a moment that will echo his early career with stunning symmetry, Florent Malouda (yeah, him) whips in a corner and Zidane, older, wiser, more closely shaven now, pops in a header just like he did all those years ago, in another final and another life. If you can’t imagine it, it looks like this:
ii) Or, does it matter? Zizou might be able to maintain the restraint that none of us would have summoned when faced with Marco’s inarguably dastardly comments, but he can’t quite stem the German tide. Die Mannschaft do it, way ahead of their 2014 schedule.
The victory comes in the middle of a footballing revolution in Germany, the reboot of their domestic and youth structures reaping earlier rewards than anyone thought likely. In fact, a little like La Masia being nipped in the bud, there’s nothing to shake your confidence in a newfangled youth system than a major tournament win or loss. The Germans have done it, so maybe the old ways aren’t so archaic after all? They rip up the blueprints and double down on tradition (not in the literal, Bayern-players-at-Oktoberfest sense, just in attitude). A certain Jogi Löw finds himself twiddling thumbs, lost in the cracks of an alternate reality where there’s no step up from the assistant’s position for him...
Top of the world
In one, maybe more compelling version of reality, though, France have done it, with an ageing squad and a manager they frequently ignore. Not unlike the Italy who won it, really. France might not be the most likeable team in history, even by their own standards, but World Cup glory doesn’t come easy, and Zidane is justifiably rewarded with a Ballon d’Or in the year he retires (sorry Fabio).
More to the point, the French Football Federation sense an opportunity. Raymond Domenech, an unliked manager who has nonetheless literally just won the World Cup, is given a stark choice. Resign now, in high esteem but with no future at national level. Or accept Zizou as your new assistant while he finished his badges, before handing the reins over when he’s done. He, quite astutely, takes the latter option. Zizou’s ascendancy is all mapped out.
Zizou takes charge
In our dull old reality, Zidane got his top coaching badges in 2015, while at Real Madrid’s B team, Castilla (you know, the club that has a whole host of Ødegaard-like players who could be absolutely fantastic or total dross and you’ll never know the difference). He’d gone years away from the game, quietly waiting for the fuss to die down. In this fun, supercharged alternate reality, he dives right in during the noughties, learning the ropes in the national setup.
This is still a gradual process, though, and when the 2010 World Cup rolls around, he's still the second-in-command. Domenech, partly due to the lustre that Zizou lends him, is still just about in charge, but the mutiny that debilitated the French camp in our reality doesn’t materialise here. With Zidane orchestrating from just behind the manager, France navigate out of their group despite malcontents and odd selections. Meeting a really quite decent Argentina side in the round of 16 shows them up, though, and they bow out with dignity, only lightly scarred, rather than lying there, pissed and in tatters.
With Domenech’s time up, Zidane is primed and with all the necessary paperwork. It’s late 2010 and Zizou’s in charge now, mon ami. That galloping, thunderous echo you hear is the sound of split realities hoving into view.
Zizou is the man for France, and the tournament nous he showed in the Champions League for Real Madrid is instead demonstrated in the international sphere. The 2014 World Cup is their stage; young talents like a surging Paul Pogba step into the limelight. Griezmann, Pogba, and Varane are the spine of a newly dominant team, and a return to football’s summit is within touch.
A blockbusting runs takes France to the final, squeaking past a creaking German team in the semis, rather than slipping to defeat. Then, in the final against Argentina, realities diverge once more.
i) France’s run is unstoppable, even with an inspired Messi pulling strings for Argentina. Higuaín can’t put the chances away, much like Germany found, and Alien Boy can only do so much. France win the tournament, a team that mixes young and old exhilaratingly, the embodiment of carefully orchestrated and gradual evolution.
Russia beckons in 2018, the chance to secure a footballing dynasty. Zizou might not be a Champions League treble-winner, but he’s got a few of the only thing that’s better, and he might just be able to retain that, too.
ii) Higuaín has a good day and puts away a clear one-on-one early doors. It’s smooth from there for the Albiceleste, Messi finally realising his destiny, shutting up the CR7 Magista trolls for good. This is a man born to play and to win this tournament. His teammates might not be at his level, but no player in history ever has been, so nothing changes there.
This is it, though, the culmination of it all, and the ultimate hush now to debates about his place in the pantheon of greats. He’s dragged a team to the greatest win, Diego-style, and secured his status forever. It’s pretty much nirvana for his fans, and, frankly, neutrals too. Because he’s Messi. Divinity is here. Maybe even the Pope would agree.
Real Madrid’s darkest timeline
Away from this “international football” malarkey, there’s the small matter of a trio of Champions League wins evaporating into fucking nothing. Zidane isn’t at Real because he’s busy steering an international juggernaut. The managerial merry-go-round continues. The reckoning is surprisingly straightforward.
We’ll allow them the 2014 win over Atleti. As much as it was jammy, that extra time domination was powerful and complete, and Sergio Ramos is king shithouse when backs are against the wall. The win stands, unbowed, against the buffeting of changing histories.
In 2016, though, Atletico’s dreams come true—the ultimate revenge. A rudderless Real, with an Ancelotti-shaped leadership void, come up against their local rivals again, but this time can’t overcome them. Antoine doesn’t miss, and Atleti edge it. Simeone might just combust from the sheer cojones of what he’s orchestrated, his nutsack inflated to doctor-bothering levels, two glowing white-and-red orbs bursting from his trousers, like in the video to ‘Danger! High Voltage!’ by Electric Six, but that doesn’t diminish the achievement. If anything, it heightens it.
2017 rolls around, and Real’s jammy ability to get ridiculous draws and play well only when absolutely necessary gets them to the final again, somehow. This time it’s dreamtime for Juventus. Buffon gets the last trophy, the crowning glory of a career well-spent, and doesn’t have to debase himself in Paris for one more shot at it. Real are more than a little scarred by losing two finals in a row, and their confidence is at an all-time low.
Then, in 2018, they complete the inverse of their hat-trick. With the fading majesty of Ronaldo and Bale cowed by repeated failures at football’s top table, they don’t even make the final, dropping out in the Quarters. Liverpool win it. The Egyptian King goes on to run the game, and Liverpool’s own eureka moment comes in due course. Is this element of the timeline tainted by my own love of Liverpool? That’s hard to say. That’s very hard to say.
The possibilities are slightly scary on this one and get pretty far from the Socceroos pretty bloody quickly. But, for a large selection of Aussies, Totti’s hurtful final blow felt from the beginning like a Sliding Doors moment, and you can’t help but wonder what might have been...
Did you like that? You should probably subscribe to our quarterly magazine, then. You won't regret it.