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Force of Italy's Last Kick Has a Familiar Sting

By William Gildea
Washington Post Columnist
Saturday, July 4, 1998; Page C9

SAINT-DENIS, France — Italy mourns. For the third straight World Cup, Italy has gone out on penalty kicks. It happened in Naples, it happened in Pasadena, Calif., and Friday it happened in the suburbs of Paris. Roberto Baggio or Luigi Di Biagio, the names are almost the same and the result is identical — a missed penalty kick and elimination from the World Cup. The Italians boast a glorious World Cup history, but their problem is, it's history. They keep getting entangled in shootouts, and they've all been fatal.

In 1990, Argentina's Diego Maradona put away the penalty winner and the trains stopped running that night in Italy. In 1994, Baggio missed the kick at the Rose Bowl that gave Brazil the World Cup, then went home and received so much criticism it took him three years to regain his old form. Now Di Biagio hits the crossbar and puts France into the final four of its own World Cup by the slimmest of margins. But it's just as well that the French didn't fail Friday. They don't know how to suffer like the Italians.

"It seems like some kind of curse," said Italy's coach, Cesare Maldini.

Oh, mortal ache. Oh, higher woe. I guess this is why France's goalkeeper, Fabien Barthez, started laughing just before the penalty kicks. He must have known that the Italians have never lost a World Cup match in overtime — but once they get past overtime and start taking penalty shots, they have never won. So once the clock reached 120 minutes Friday, Barthez began to laugh and I have to believe Italy turned to tears.

Will they ever stop consoling one another on the air on Rai Uno after this one? Every single night on Italian television recently, a panel of journalists has gotten together before a studio audience and talked World Cup. The program comes in on Channel 12 in Paris, and for the past several nights the Italians' mood has been upbeat. After all, the Italians weren't playing Maradona Friday. They were not playing Brazil. They were playing France, which hadn't even qualified for the World Cup since 1986 and got in this time on a pass because it's the host country.

But at some point, you would have thought Italy might have chosen to stop living on the edge. Most recently, the Italians won a desultory, 1-0 match against Norway in the round of 16. Now they needed to attack, to live a little in the South American tradition; at least Chile went down to Brazil in the round of 16 with blazing feet. Chile challenged Brazil; Italy challenging France would hardly be as dangerous. "The penalty shootout is a kind of lottery," Maldini said. Yet he elected a path that led directly to it.

"It hardly seems fair to end the World Cup in this way, and to seem in some way personally responsible feels dreadful," Di Biagio managed to tell reporters after his miss left Italy the 4-3 loser in penalty kicks. As Italian misfortune would have it, Di Biagio, who plays for AS Roma, had been emerging as a long-needed midfield playmaker. Now he's left to experience what Baggio did before him. "Penalties are the worst way of all to lose," Baggio said Friday.

Penalty kicks were the only way this 0-0 game was going to end because the two coaches played it so conservatively they didn't even fire some of their biggest guns until regulation was almost three-quarters gone. That's when France's Aime Jacquet brought on Thierry Henry (granted he had a tender ankle) and David Trezeguet, to which the sedate (or sleeping) French crowd in the Stade de France responded with its biggest cheer of the day to that point. Maldini countered with Baggio-who came in for the so-called "new" Baggio, Alessandro Del Piero, as in zero.

Maldini played the old rope-a-dope in the first half, dropping back just about everyone into defensive positions, letting the French control the midfield and stopping them whenever they approached too far. But the Italians never found an opening to counterattack — the only way they were going to come forward in the first half. So while this game was dead even like Argentina-England on Tuesday, it was far more dead than even.

It was more of the same in the second half, Italy drawing its line in the grass and the French looking like spectacular ball-control artists until they came up to the line. Then, Henry and Trezeguet got into the game. Their effect was like a jolt of French coffee. A goal actually became a possibility. You'd think a coach would be pleased by the notion of scoring a goal and winning, but Jacquet said of his two substitutes: "They brought a breath of fresh air to the game but, of course, at the same time they disrupted our tactics a little bit."

From a coach's viewpoint, Baggio disrupted the Italians' tactics, too. Baggio can make your heart beat faster. The artist finally was given a brush. He almost scored. He almost assisted on a score. He fed Christian Vieri, who stalled at five goals for the tournament. He fed Di Biagio. Baggio darted close to the bald Barthez and powered what would have been a sensational game-winner, right-footed from the right side of the penalty area. But the ball carried just left of the left post. How does a coach play an entire round-of-16 game and 67 minutes of the quarterfinal without the guy who carried Italy into the 1994 championship game, and in this year's first round got Italy a tie against Chile and ensured a victory over Austria?

Time ran out on Roberto. Small consolation that he made his penalty kick Friday. He shot it nice and low, not over the bar as in Pasadena. He scored five goals in 1994, when Italy let him play, and two in France when he didn't get to play much. He'll always be remembered for the miss in Pasadena, as Di Bagio will be remembered for missing Friday. But Baggio has been a team player since this World Cup began, encouraging Del Piero and now Di Biagio.

Baggio and Di Biagio weren't the only Italians who failed to convert their penalty kicks over the past three World Cups; there were Donadoni and Serena in Italy, Baresi and Massaro in the United States and Albertini Friday. But they didn't take the last kick.

When Baggio missed his kick in '94 and Brazil won the Cup, Pele jumped up and applauded. Friday, when Di Biagio missed and France won, the greatest French player of all, Michel Platini, applauded. Baggio is right, what could be worse in the World Cup than missing the last penalty kick? The feeling is doubly bitter because, through the tears, you get to see the other team celebrating its backed-in victory. The games can be cruel.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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