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 World Cup ' 98

 Italy beat Austria 2-1 to advance to the second round.
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Italy's Got the Blues

By William Gildea
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, June 24, 1998; Page C4

SAINT-DENIS — If you felt a breath of air Wednesday morning, it might have been the transatlantic tail end of the collective sigh taken by the entire nation of Italy. Italy's World Cup team, which has duplicated most of its predecessors by rarely doing anything simply, beat Austria Tuesday afternoon before 80,000 in the Stade de France to finish first in its group and advance to the round of 16. It figured to happen that way, but in the past few days the Italian television network RAI 1 has been beaming images of Italians praying, wringing their hands and conjecturing about their Blues, their beloved Azzurri. No one in Italy wanted them to come home yet.

Italy began the 1994 World Cup by losing to Ireland, but finished as the tournament's runner-up thanks to the game-in, game-out heroics of the ponytailed, 5-foot-7½ Roberto Baggio. This year, Italy started off with a tie against Chile. Not even a 3-0 victory over Cameroon could get the country relaxed. But Italian partisans were overly fretful. The Azzurri have an abundance of talent, especially up front. There's Baggio. There's Alessandro Del Piero, the "new Baggio." There's Christian Vieri, whose sale last year by Juventus cost Atletico Madrid $20 million. These three are every bit as famous in Italy as the three tenors.

The problem Cesare Maldini has faced as coach is how to play all three, because he doesn't believe he can take from his midfield and defense. Two at a time get to play. Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi came out for Del Piero and Baggio. But Del Piero and Baggio are two of a kind, more or less; they both come from the same part of northeastern Italy, and both are rather short. Maldini prefers a physical mix in his two attackers, and Vieri is big and rugged with a solid jaw.

Juventus moved Vieri because it liked the amount of money, and it moved Baggio because it had Del Piero. Baggio went to Bologna and fell into a funk so extended that it appeared he wouldn't make the '98 World Cup team even though he almost delivered the '94 Cup. Baggio got a late call after finishing strong in his most recent season and after Del Piero suffered a thigh injury. Baggio, quiet for a soccer superstar, showed up and, at age 31, promptly pulled off a couple of remarkable plays to salvage the 2-2 tie with Chile.

He assisted Vieri on his goal by taking a long, upfield pass, spotting the open Vieri while the ball was in the air, then redirecting in a flash to Vieri in front of the goal. Baggio manufactured the second goal himself out of thin air. In a moment of inspired desperation with time running out, he intentionally kicked the ball onto the hand of a defender and was awarded a penalty kick. Playing injured, he missed his penalty kick in the '94 championship game, which enabled Brazil to clinch the Cup. He didn't miss this one against Chile.

Vieri-Baggio got the call again, against Cameroon, and Vieri emerged as one of the tournament's top scorers with two goals in Italy's victory. By now, the prime minister was keeping silent but fans in general still were calling for Del Piero, who made his Cup debut as Baggio's replacement in the last 25 minutes against Cameroon. Maldini gave him the start against Austria, teamed with Vieri. Baggio opened the game on the bench. Vieri continued his scoring spree, making his fourth goal in the 49th minute. And after Del Piero repeatedly had been pounded to the grass by the Austrians, and with the crowd chanting "Baggio, Baggio," on came Baggio in the 72nd minute. Shortly, he scored his second goal in three games, ensuring Italy's victory in the 89th minute. Austria made the final 2-1 by scoring in injury time, in the 92nd minute.

What's it all mean? By an unlikely combination of events involving the Chile-Cameroon game that took place at the same time in Nantes (and ended in a tie), Italy could have dropped to third in Group B and been on the next plane to Rome. By a similarly unlikely combination of events, the Azzurri could have ended up second in their group, meaning they would have to play the Group A winner — Brazil! — when the round of 16 begins Saturday. This is why Italians construed that their team was playing two opponents Tuesday — the one on the field and the one awaiting them Saturday, which they hoped wouldn't be Brazil. Now Italy will get the Group A runner-up and avoid Brazil and a round of 16 rematch of the '94 title game — and the World Cup has been spared losing a glamour team so early.

This is good because Italy is a team worth enjoying a little longer. Vieri, having become the top goal scorer in Spain, has proven Maldini right with his four goals in three starts. Vieri, whose father is Italian and whose mother is French, grew up in Australia. His father (whose name is not Alessandro, Gianluca, Paolo or Giuseppe, but Bob) played and coached there for Marconi, a team in Sydney. Tuesday, about a dozen Australians, calling themselves Italian-Australians, painted their faces in Italy's colors and came to root for Vieri. "We're more Italian than Italians," said Pasquale Lomma, an Australian from Fremantle.

They had followed Vieri's career. Vieri came home to Italy to play for Prato, and his soccer ascent began. Prato also produced Paolo Rossi, whose goals carried Italy to the 1982 World Cup, its last. When Vieri debuted with the Italian national team in March 1997 against Moldova, he by chance scored the 1,000th goal in the team's history. The fates seemed with him. They still do. He will celebrate his 25th birthday July 12, the day of the championship game of this 16th World Cup.

Del Piero, 23, may have exploded as one of the top players in the world with Juventus, and he may have taken Baggio's No. 10 on the Azzurri. And he may yet make the prime minister and Juventus fans proud of what he does in France '98. But Tuesday, he absorbed bruises and gave way to Baggio, who is still Baggio, only without the ponytail. Baggio is a Buddhist, whose family still prays for his reconversion to Catholicism. Baggio has an immense following in China, in addition to Italy and elsewhere. "There is not a chance that I could have a difference with Alessandro Del Piero," Baggio said the other day. "I am here to serve my team. I am one with all my teammates. All of them have signed my cap."

The Italian-Australians who love Vieri also love Baggio. When they left the stadium Tuesday, Pasquale Lomma and his friends were singing, to the tune of "Walking In A Winter Wonderland": "There's only one Roby Baggio, there's only one Roby Baggio, walking along, singing a song, walking in a Baggio wonderland."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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