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Hirshey: Forza Italia!

Forget the match-fixing scandal and apparent suicide attempt of former beloved defender Gianluca Pessotto that were going to be such huge distractions that Italy would retreat into its mournful defensive shell and not come out until they had to board the plane to go home. As anyone who has glimpsed those glossy Chippendales-esque ads of Zambrutta, Gattusso and company surely attest, the Azzuri haven't been this oiled up and ready to party since '82, when they de-pantsed the Germans in the final in Madrid. Did I mention I was there, sitting with my Dad in the mean heart of the Deutschland end, waving an Italian flag, shouting Forza Italia, and hoping the Germans had a sense of humor?

That I am alive today is a testament to the Gemutlichkeit that I feel toward my German brothers, whom I kid, but really want to see lose, too. And I'm betting that every sentient human being this side of the Rhine feels the same way as Italy goes into tomorrow's semifinal with the confidence of a team that has NEVER lost to Germany in the World Cup. But really, what do I know? I was convinced that Argentina had the Germans' number, too, only to end up with bratwurst on my face when they choked in the penalty shootout. Not that I'm bitter ... but didn't Pekerman live up to his name when he forgot that he had the best young player on the planet, Lionel Mesi, sitting on his bench, and instead put in some defensive-minded lummox for Crespo?


Oh, I'm full of questions today about the surreal weekend of World Cup action that we just witnessed. Here, in no particular order, are a few more:

• Has anyone else noticed that Michelle Lissel of Fox Soccer has gone glam on us, trading in her librarian look for a more pixie-ish bent featuring new hip specs and a sexy bob? Let's hope the boys at Maxim are paying attention.

• Why is it that when England gets knocked out of a World Cup, two things invariably happen? First, they are never beaten fair and square by an opponent's foot. In 1986, there was the fabled Hand of God, and now we have the Testicles of Carvalho. It may not be as mellifluous-sounding as Maradona's brazen piece of chicanery, but judging from the Portuguese defender's face after Rooney stomped his lunchbox, it's a lot more painful. On the other hand, when's the last time that you got kicked in the swingers and didn't have to spend the rest of the day in a fetal position with a bag of ice between your legs? The fact that Carvalho, after much moaning and writhing around, was able to continue playing only minutes later suggests either he has balls of steel ... or is Portugal's answer to Al Pacino.

Second, their marquee player always dissolves in tears. Does anyone remember the sorry sight of Gazza blubbering after he was yellow-carded during England's semi-final loss to Germany in '90? On Saturday, it was David Beckham's turn to do his best impression of Johnny Sack after he was carted away, sobbing and wailing, from his daughter's wedding. When Becks limped off in the 60th minute, the camera caught him all red-eyed before panning to Posh in the stands. It was difficult to glimpse her tears because she was wearing one of the 60 pairs of over-sized sunglasses she had brought to Germany for her three-week stay.


• When, just before the penalty shootout in Germany-Argentina, Kahn came over and put an arm around Lehman's shoulder, did you, like me, hold your breath to see whether Kahn would then use his other arm to smash Lehman's nose up into his brain and render him unconscious so he would get a chance to step in for his bitter rival in goal?. Instead, we got a touchy-feely moment for the ages with the two men clasping hands in a "Deutschland Uber Alles" shake that made my heart soar.

• And speaking of soaring, for a guy who made diving into performance art as a player, doesn't Juergen Klinsmann have some mad ups? When Lehman stoned Maxi Rodriquez' s penalty, Klinsman vaulted at least three feet off the ground and kicked his legs up like Jordan did after hitting The Jumper over Byron Russell. I think it's safe to say that Peter Crouch, all 6-foot-8 of him, has never sniffed the air at that altitude.


• Not that I'm complaining, mes amis footballeurs, but was anyone else as startled as me (and I'm just guessing Carlos Parreira) that no Brazilian defender was within a swath of Copacabana beach of Henry on Zidane's free kick? I mean, Henry was so open he must have felt like Jean-Marie Le Pen at an End to Racism rally.

Perhaps the Brazilians had heard that the last time Zidane passed to Henry was back when the Americans liberated Paris and figured he would never cede the glory to the Arsenal striker, with whom he has always had a cool relationship. But Les Bleus, after almost imploding in the early rounds, have re-discovered the fraternite that drove them to victory in '98, and it's all one big love-in now with Zizou at the heart of it. Against Brazil, it was almost as if he were taunting Ronaldinho, saying "I am the Great Zidane, three-time World Football Player of the Year and until I leave the stage you will always be in my shadow."


• And finally, what upsets you more about Brazil's stunning exit from the tournament? The thought of not getting to revel anymore in their celebrated Jogo Bonito (wait, did we EVER get see it other than in commercials?), or not getting to ogle all those gratuitous shots of Brazilian fans on Deadspin?

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