Probably one dreary Monday when he was bored with conquering the world, Caesar gave the guys the morning off. "Go play some golf," Julie said, realizing only later that Arnold Palmer hadn't invented the game yet. This confused the legions, but who's going to render to Caesar any lip? So they shuffled off down the road.

"Mama mia, what's this?" said a soldier who had been kicking at stones.

A buddy picked up the object. "A Dane's skull."

"Can we play Caesar's 'golf' with it?"

"Only if we find a one-iron."

"So, let's kick the skull around."

Next thing you knew, the Italians were in the World Cup championship game. Historians of soccer give Caesar's troops credit for planting the seed that grew into the world's favorite game. There is debate as to whether the first ball was a Dane's skull or a goat's bladder, but you don't find many goat bladders on the way to the golf course.

In 1934 and 1938, the Italians won the World Cup--with an asterisk. The ever-lovely Benito Mussolini thought it would look good on his resume if his soccer team whipped up on the world. With a law giving Argentinians citizenship in Italy, he imported three star players (one of whom, when World War II began, tried to sneak out of the country rather than die for dear old Italy).

A generation later, happily for the Italians, they now can do it on their own. With today's 2-0 victory over Poland in a semifinal of this World Cup, Italy moves into Sunday's championship game against West Germany. And we can chisel a new name into the marble of Italian heroes alongside da Vinci and Gina Lollobrigida.

His name is Paolo Rossi.

"Ros-seee . . . Ros-seee," the Italian fans chanted for the little guy who scored three goals Tuesday to beat mighty Brazil and gain the semis.

"When Rossi beat Brazil, good story," said Giampiero Masieri, an Italian journalist. "The 1,200 Brazil tourists flew from Rio to Lisbon. From there they came to Barcelona in a ship, the Frederico C. The crew was 150 Italians down below in the ship.

"Coming to Barcelona, the Brazils did the samba all day and all night. After Rossi, the ship sailed back to Lisbon. No dance up top. The crew below, they do the tango all day and all night."

Such a hero, Rossi. A winery in Italy announced it would produce 1,000 magnums of a champagne called "Rossi." A shoe factory in Turin said Rossi would be given shoes the rest of his life. The newspaper Corriere dela Sport said in a headline, "Paolo Will Defy the Iron Curtain."

That he did today in more ways than one. Not only did Rossi cause the defeat of a country under Soviet domination, he scored both goals against a defense that has been mostly iron. The Poles made it to the semifinal by earning scoreless ties three times in five games, including one with the Soviet Union.

As wonderfully exhilarating as the Italy-Brazil game was, with both teams on the attack each of the 90 minutes, today's game was a bore. Poland had won its place in the World Cup semis by eliminating the guys who used tanks in bigger games. All along, the Poles said they had no ambition above third place. They never pressed an offensive situation today and never managed a true threat to score. If Brazil-Italy was worth a 4,000-mile trip, Italy-Poland wasn't worth leaving the room--except for Paolo Rossi.

Rossi makes things happen the way Giorgio Chinaglia does for the Cosmos in that soccer never-never land across the pond. Chinaglia can't dribble around a tree, and passes so rarely that men have grown old waiting to see such a phenomenon. But he scores. He hangs around the goal. Puts it in the net.

So does Rossi, who twice today produced beautiful goals by hanging around the goal mouth until someone struck a pass in his direction.

Twenty-two minutes into the game, Italy's Giancarlo Antognoni drove a free kick from the right side past the Polish defenders. As two Italians did a crossing maneuver outside the near goalpost, Rossi waited in the center. The ball, hooking slightly, moved away from Polish goalkeeper Jozef Mlynarczyk.

And faster than you cay say Jozef Mlynarczyk, Rossi's left foot flicked out ever so slightly at the falling ball and turned it into a 1-0 lead.

"After the first goal," said the Italian coach, Enzo Bearzot, when asked how soon he thought victory was his, "I began to feel it was feasible. After the second goal, it was even clearer."

At 72 minutes, Rossi made it 2-0. Bruno Conti dribbled at full speed down the left side, with another man in the middle and Rossi lurking--where else?--near the right goalpost. Conti chipped a perfect centering pass, hooking it away from Mlynarczyk again. This time Rossi went toward the ball for a falling header, turning it into the net.

Even as Rossi lay face down on the turf from the effort, his teammates piled on his back in celebration. Of the 70,000 people in the 102,000-seat Nou Camp Stadium, probably 68,000 applauded. (It's hard to ask your way out of Poland these days, even to see the World Cup.) The green and white flags of Italy fluttered at every latitude and longitude.

Caesar's heirs clearly like the game his troops invented.

Someone established that by asking journalist Giampiero Masieri how important football is in Italy.

"First, love," he said with a wink.

"Second, football."

Then, beginning to laugh, he said, "Photofinish, maybe."