ROME -- As bumper-to-bumper traffic comes to a halt a few blocks outside the massive Vatican walls, Italian boys make a distinctly American sales pitch. One will wash a driver's windshield, the other will sell him a red, white and blue soccer ball. Business is brisk. Cars are going nowhere fast and tourists by the thousands already are buying souvenirs for the World Cup Finals -- an entire month of soccer in Italy -- beginning Friday in Milan.
About 600,000 foreign soccer fans are invading Italy for the tournament. "Many, many cars," said Angelo, negotiating a little yellow Fiat taxi with surprising speed despite narrow streets, triple-parked cars, scores of mini-skirted women, motorbikers weaving fearlessly about and pedestrians veering in all directions. "Two million cars in Rome. Many traffic. Big way impossible. I go small way. How do you like my English?"
The "small way" is down slender side streets filled with boutiques and bars. Almost everywhere is a red, white and green Pinocchio with a soccer ball for a head and the name "Ciao," the symbol for the finals that arouses anger among many natives.
They equate it with preparations of recent months that have resulted in closed streets, widespread construction and general chaos, plus the more than $833 million the government has sunk into the tournament. Near the Vatican, a large "Ciao" has lost his head to an angry Roman or a souvenir hunter.
The Olympic Stadium here also has undergone renovations. Remodeled first for the 1960 Gamers, the site of the 14th World Cup title game July 8 sits near the foot of the filled Monte Mario above the Tiber. "Is the roof on yet?" a cynical native asked.
Indeed, the partial covering is in place, but not everyone is happy with the look of it, the roof of girders having come to be known as the "crown of thorns."
Pope John Paul II came out the other day to bless the stadium, and said he hopes the tournament, which will be held in 12 cities, will help improve relations among nations and not foment violence among rival fans. Italian authorities are concerned about soccer rowdies, but they say they are prepared.
As if recipients of the Italians' get-tough message, three English fans were arrested recently in Cagliari on Sardinia, the island to which the English team and its boisterous fans have been isolated for first-round games. The three were charged with destroying their hotel room.
Reports from London say English hooligan leaders, anticipating fights with the Dutch at their June 16 game in Cagliari, have held a war council of sorts in Tunisia, where the English played a warm-up the other day. And about 8,000 English fans reportedly are pouring onto Sardinia from planes and ships. Cruises to Sardinia have been heavily advertised in Britain for months.
Italians worry. Italians complain. An Italian man said his countrymen have grumbled first about the interruptions for road and other improvements, and now have no time to enjoy such enhancements as scrubbed and updated buildings before the onslaught of tourists. But he added that a World Cup victory by Italy, one of the favorites, would improve the country's mood. Sophia Loren was out Monday in the bright sunshine in the nearby town of Marino to cheer on the white-and-blue-uniformed nationals.
The players paused briefly for formalities -- but only briefly. Azeglio Vicini, the Italians' strict coach who has banned sex for his players during the tournament, directed them to turn their attention to running laps around the field. Vicini, 57, appears to be a no-nonsense man of the countryside. He said recently of his straightforwardness: "I don't smoke a pipe. I don't read Horace. What do you want from me?"
But what Italian boy wouldn't want to play for Vicini? Soccer is a passion here, and on a concrete playground on the leafy Via Pompeo Magno, youngsters play five-on-five with a scuffed ball. Their shouts die only with the start of evening mass next door in what is at once a neighborhood church of humble people and a dimly lit treasure of paintings, sculpture and marble side altars.
Those boys could be the next generation of impeccably suited businessmen much like the Italia '90 representatives who were welcomed Monday by the white-robed Pontiff, or easier-going men who talk of the tournament on street corners and in cafes. They can't wait to see the teams from Germany, from the Netherlands, from Argentina. They study Italian sports newspapers with enormous headlines: "Maradona Sta Male" and "Allarme Maradona."
The incomparable Diego Maradona, who almost alone carried Argentina to the 1986 Cup title, has an infected big toe on his right foot. "Ah," said an Italian man in English, "he may not play the opener Friday against Cameroon. He is taking -- how you say? -- injections." 'Always Something Wrong'
The Italians know Maradona well as the charismatic but sometimes sulky midfielder for Napoli in the Italian League. At 29, the 5-foot-5 wonder may be past his prime. The Italians are anxious, with mixed emotions, to see how he performs for his homeland. "Ah, there is always something wrong with Maradona," the man said, "but he always plays." Then he shrugged, as if who could say about the moody Maradona? "He is hurt. It depends."
Brazil, too, was the talk under one sidewalk cafe umbrella. Jack Charlton, Ireland's coach, likes Brazil and Italy. Charlton, Italians figure, knows something. Like their own Vicini, Charlton has declared a no-sex policy for his players. He also has banned alcohol, installed a strict diet and ordered lights out at 10 p.m.
The U.S. team comes into conversations with mention of Franz Beckenbauer. Known as "The Kaiser," Beckenbauer is stepping down as West German coach and would like nothing better than a World Cup and, it is said, a new job in the United States as coach of the American host team for the 1994 World Cup. Beckenbauer, who played two seasons with the New York Cosmos, sees a challenge and, not incidentally, personal riches in a possible return to America.
In this tournament, the U.S. team is a distinct underdog among the teams from 24 nations, but it is not considered nearly as unlikely a prospect for high achievement as the United Arab Emirates. In the Lap of Luxury
Carlos Alberto Pereira, the Emirates coach, fears all first-round opponents: West Germany, Yugoslavia and Colombia. "A 6-0 defeat by the Germans is possible," he said. But the United Arab Emirates players will go out in style: In the Italian city of Imola to the north, they are living in grand quarters with whirlpool baths and much marble.
But if the World Cup is a social event discussed over beer and wine at outdoor cafes, life goes on as usual. A yellow-suited businesswoman zooms past on a motorbike. Eight men -- five on one side of the street, three on the other -- see her at once and shout. One jumps onto his bike, starts it furiously and gives chase. At length he returns, looking sad and shaking his head.
People walk leisurely down a wide avenue, window shopping. Around a corner, small souvenir shops sell Italia '90 sweatshirts and plates with the Pope's picture. The narrow street suddenly opens onto a massive space, St. Peter's Square. It is so large that in the middle of it the bluster of the city no longer can be heard.
It is 7 p.m. The sounds are soft: Water rushing from two fountains, voices of small children running from their parents, the shuffling feet of a tour group led by a priest pointing upward. A young couple takes an evening stroll, joining others who stand in the vast shade and look at the slanting sun against the magnificent columns.
DATA: 52-game, month-long World Cup soccer tournament will begin Friday. Twenty-four teams will compete in six groups. The final is July 8.
U.S. TEAM: The United States will play Group A teams Czechoslovakia (Sunday in Florence), Italy (June 14 in Rome) and Austria (June 19 in Florence) in the first round.
TELEVISION: TNT and Univision (Spanish) cable.