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David Hirshey is writing regularly throughout the World Cup.

Does life get any better than this? Germany weeping and wailing, the country's manhood in freefall and Michael Ballack exposed for the empty sausage casing he is. Wait, it gets even better. Italy, a team described by my favorite newsweekly Der Spiegel as a bunch of "greasy lazy parasites," a team mired in scandal and derided for its negative style and cynical play, took that big chip on its shoulder and ground the Germans into dust yesterday in their own living room.

It took 119 furious minutes before the Mannschaft succumbed to two bolts out of the Blue that sent millions of buxom Italian women diving and flopping through the fountains of Rome. Perhaps more important, the twin daggers from Grosso and Del Piero spared us the eye-misting sight of Lehmann and Kahn hugging it out again just before the Germans won on penalty kicks. Frankly, I couldn't take another ending where Germany overcame a more stylish and technically superior opponent (Argentina, per favor) because they were able to perform in the shootout as if they had no central nervous system.

Oh sure, the Germans, under Klinsmann, had much to admire — a balls-out attacking mentality, a work ethic second to none and Klose, who can play for Arsenal anytime — but just between us frauleins, does anyone other than Angela Merkel think they deserve to have gone further? And, for all his alleged leadership qualities and playmaking abilities that caused Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich to open up a geyser of cash (35 million) for his services, I would still reserve a place for Ballack — actually next to Lampard in midfield — on the All-Multimillionaires Who-Did-Fuck-All-In-The-World Cup team. Am I being too harsh? Only if you didn't see the German captain getting undressed yesterday at the beginning of overtime when Gilardino turned him inside out before sending his shot off the post. Ballack was also involved in the most acrobatic move of the first half when he and Totti engaged in a Cirque de Soleil routine where the latter somersaulted onto the former's shoulders (where, of course, room is at a premium, since Ballack was carrying the entire German team) hoping to cushion his fall on a yellow card for his opponent.


Yes, the Italians sometimes overdid it — they are still the masters of simulated agony — but nothing that registered on my Figo-o-meter. Can we finally say it? Has the statute of limitations on Italy-bashing run out? This is a team of great craft and pugnacity, and, with the exception of the streetfight against the US and 20 minutes of the Australia game when they should have been wearing a mask and snorkel, the Azzurri have played some of the most compelling soccer in the World Cup. Their game may not be as dazzling as the mythic Brazilians (not to be confused with the 2006 Brazilians) or as lyrical as the French, but the amount of skill and concentration required to defend as brilliantly as the Azzurri do cannot be underestimated. In Cannavarro and Buffon, they have the best defender and goalkeeper in the Cup, and, in Totti, they have a head case still capable of conjuring genius, as evidenced by his audacious backheel in the box in OT.

So now the Italians are one game away from lifting the trophy, and I know at least one American who is pulling for them. I mean, if Italy wins the World Cup, what does that make the U.S., which gave them all they could handle in a 1-1 draw? Bruce Arena can take that consoling thought with him on his way out the door.