Monday, July 10, 2006

Gamesmanship 101

I know a lot of you aren't interested in the whiny, divy, Communist sport of non-American football, but I do feel obliged to say a few words about Italy's World Cup championship and what we can learn from it as college football fans. Now, I'm an Italy fan, as I speak the language and spent six months living in the Eternal City, but I think that anyone, like them or hate them, will acknowledge that the Azzurri have mastered the timeless art of gamesmanship.

Critics of Italy will complain that they are divers, cheap-shot artists, and dirty cheaters, and, by and large, they are pretty much correct. Another way of putting this, however, is that they are masters of the meta-game, the tireless battle of intimidation and mind games to wear down on your opponent's psyche during a long, grueling physical contest.

Another team that appreciates Head Games.
While most of the headlines you'll read about the World Cup final will revolve around France's Zinedine Zidane losing his mind and head-butting an Italian player in the chest, a further TiVo-ing of the incident in super-slow motion reveals an intriguing incident a few seconds before the head-butting. You can see in this picture that the soon-to-be victim has his arms wrapped around Zidane and is in the middle of giving him what soccer afficionados will immediately recognize as a Purple Nurple. Don't believe me? Watch the replay again. Materazzi wraps up Zidane and, just as an Italian teammate passes in front of the sideline camera, he tweaks and runs.

A craftily executed purple nurple. He sells it very well.

This comes on the heels of another hilarious incident in the semifinal match between Italy and Germany, where the cameras caught an Italian player jawing with a German behind the action of the play. The Italian put his arm around his competitor's shoulder in an apparent act of sportsmanship, but shortly thereafter the German dropped to the ground clutching his ear. The commentators remarked that perhaps the Italian had pulled his ear, but a careful re-watching of the incident revealed there was no pulling motion, just a strange twisting of the wrist. Now, anyone who has survived the third grade playground would instantly recognize this as a classic Wet Willy maneuver (for the uninitiated, it's when you lick your finger and twist it in somebody's ear canal, a cruel and shockingly efficient gross-out tactic).

This would be an automatic yellow card... if anyone saw it.
That's right, wet willies and purple nurples, and that's just what was caught on camera. It's anybody's guess how many noogies, wedgies, goosings, taint clamps, Indian burns, howdy-doodies, and koncho jabs were executed behind the scenes during Italy's historic title run. The fact of the matter is, Italy is willing to do anything and everything, no matter how gross or immature, to send a message and control the mental aspect of the game. It might not pay off immediately, but somewhere down the line you might rifle a shot high over the crossbar because somewhere in the back of your mind is the unshakable paranoia that you might, at any moment, for no reason and with no warning, lose a clump of leg hair into the fist of a smirking Italian midfielder.

So take a lesson from the dirty cheap-shot artists: play every game like it's the most important thing in the world. And, hey, football helmets have ear holes in them. A discreet Wet Willy at the bottom of the dogpile can turn into an enormous momentum-changing play down the line.