The Last Word: It's the winning not the taking part that counts

On Sunday night, an estimated one billion pair of eyes were set to be focused on one thing and one thing only.

jeremy last 88 (photo credit: )
jeremy last 88
(photo credit: )
On Sunday night, an estimated one billion pair of eyes were set to be focused on one thing and one thing only. The World Cup final between Italy and France captured the excitement and imagination of the entire world, and rightly so. The layers of subplots - Zidane's finale, Henry's chance to steal the show, the Italians' ability to be distracted by the match-fixing scandal - all lead to an un-missable match to determine the best national soccer team on the planet. What was less important, and some would say irrelevant, was the game the night before. Germany may have pulverized Portugal in Stuttgart, but who cares? What is the point of the third-place game? The fact is that the World Cup is a knockout tournament; arguably the most exciting and widely watched knockout competition in the world. The aim is very clear - to win the World Cup. Once a team is eliminated, it is out. Sent home. Period (as the Americans, who were of course eliminated in the first round, might say). There is no match to determine fourth, fifth, sixth or seventh place, so why bother holding a game for the depressed, upset losers of the semifinals? Few people will remember or care who came in third at a World Cup tournament - for your information, Turkey beat South Korea for third place four years ago and Croatia beat Holland in 1998. That took some research! It's hard enough to remember who lost the final. However, what these games do seem to provide is open, exciting football, performed by teams that are playing for pride. In 2002, for example, Hakan Sukur famously scored the fastest ever goal in a World Cup final after 10.8 seconds of the game against South Korea. Saturday night's match also confirmed the overall quality of the German side. There had been doubts about Juergen Klinsmann's team before the tournament began, rightly centering on the fact that they had played no competitive games in two years as the host automatically qualified. But over the month-long competition, it became clear that Germany was a team to be reckoned with, and will be for some years to come. This particular third place game was won by the right team. The two Polish-born strikers who had scored regularly throughout the World Cup again showed they can do it on the world stage. Miroslav Klose may have already made an impact four years ago, especially with his hat trick in the 8-0 drubbing of Saudi Arabia, but few had heard of Lukas Podolski, or expected him to do so well. This World Cup will have a made him a famous name and his move to Bayern Munich from FC Koln this summer will provide him the opportunity to make an impact on the Champions League. It was somewhat of a surprise that the Germans hadn't reached the final themselves. Once they clinically dispatched of much-fancied Argentina in the quarters, it seemed inevitable that they would power their way through to the final. It was only the Italians' somewhat superhuman efforts in the last minutes of extra time in the semifinal that broke German hearts. If the game had finished a minute earlier, there is little doubt Germany would have triumphed. The team in white appears to have the most focused penalty-takers in history and they hardly ever seem to miss. Unlike the English, who hardly ever seem to score. It is time to start asking questions about the temperament of English footballers. How seasoned internationals and powerful free-kick takers like Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard are unable to hit a penalty kick into the net with the same force and conviction is unfathomable. It all comes down to belief, and England fans will be hopeful that, although not be overly optimistic, the new manager, Steve Mclaren, will be able to instill some drive and belief into this beleaguered team in time for its clash with Israel in Ramat Gan on March 24.