TIRRENIA, ITALY, JUNE 6 -- Who said the Americans don't have a prayer in the World Cup?
The white Italia '90 bus climbed the twisting mountain road high above the Mediterranean, escorted by Italian police and trailed by a car full of heavily armed Italian plainclothesmen. Three Americans were going to pray.
John Stollmeyer, a midfielder from Annandale, Va.; Brian Bliss, a defender from Rochester, N.Y., and the U.S. goalkeeper coach, Joe Machnik of Branford, Conn., spread out in the almost empty bus headed to the nearby mountaintop village of Montenero, where they had been told there was a church worth a visit.
"What is it about this church that makes it special?" Machnik asked an Italian man after a gatekeeper with a great ring of keys had emerged from behind a pillar and pushed open the front door.
"It has a good reputation for credibility," the Italian said. "You know, for the granting of favors."
Oh, for a favor. The U.S., to say the least, is an underdog in the World Cup finals, which begin Friday in Milan with defending champion Argentina playing Cameroon. The Americans open Sunday against Czechoslovakia in Florence, then play the powerful Italian team June 14 in Rome and complete their first-round competition June 19 back in Florence against Austria.
For the second round, the 24 teams will be cut to sixteen. Making the second round would be a dream come true for the Americans -- perhaps a miracle.
Atop the mountain, Stollmeyer and Bliss posed for pictures with children who had scampered into the square. Then the players stepped into the sanctuary of the Madonna of Montenero. They marveled at the gold, the frescoes, the stained glass, the extraordinary main altar. But those wonders are commonplace in Italian churches. What, they wanted to know was unique about La Madonna di Montenero?
It is the painting above the altar of the Blessed Mother holding her Son, a man explained. The story is that she herself appeared to a shepherd in the nearby valley on May 15, 1345, and gave him the painting. He climbed the mountain with it, and there prayed. In 1616, a church was built on the spot.
Hearing this, Machnik walked up the aisle and knelt on the plank in the first pew.
Stollmeyer, 27, a three-time all-American at Indiana and a member of the 1988 U.S. Olympic team, had joked in the square: "Only the educated players came." And Bliss: "When you go home, you like to say you saw a beach or a church or something."
Inside, they listened intently to the story and, indeed, were impressed. The outgoing Stollmeyer has known tragedy. His uncle, Jeffrey Stollmeyer, once a world-class cricket player for the national team of Trinidad and Tobago, was murdered last year when robbers broke into his home in Trinidad. Stollmeyer prayed then, and after the 1-0 U.S. victory over Trinidad and Tobago in Port of Spain -- the game the Americans had to win last year to qualify for the Cup finals.
When Machnik returned to the rear of the church, he said with a smile: "We've got to find the shepherd."
Outside, there were no shepherds, but also no shortage of people from nearby houses who had gathered for a glimpse of America's World Cup players, their presence totally unexpected. Many looked out their windows, talking and pointing at the visitors.
If the trip to the mountain brings no miracle for the team, it at least served to relax a couple of the players between the customary two daily practices. Bliss said these final days before America's first World Cup appearance in 40 years have been filled with anxiety and a struggle to control it. The players are ready to play, he said, but must be patient.
When they heard they were coming to the seaside resort of Tirrenia to train, most imagined settling into a plush hotel. Instead, the Americans have gone into seclusion behind a fence and highly guarded Italian Olympic training center. The U.S. soccer hierarchy means business.
A victory, even a good showing, would be worth far more than enjoying Tirrenia's charms. Tuesday night, a taxi from Pisa brought a visitor speeding down a lonely country road. It might have been Iowa. Then the farmland turned into a huge Mediterranean forest, and in the forest was an amusement park, multi-colored lights shining in the darkness as if from a fairy tale.
A midnight walk through the almost deserted park to the other side revealed a silent town center with a "Welcome U.S." sign and, beyond, the sound of the sea. This morning, rainy though it was, produced a vision of sandy beaches backed by the woods that gave the breeze from the water a scent of pine and juniper. A spectacular resort.
The team's view is different. On Sunday, the players enjoyed a memorable time, driven by bus through the Alps on a glorious afternoon. They were coming here from Switzerland, where they had played a final exhibition. They had lived luxuriously, said Bliss, at a place set among mountain peaks, and were treated warmly wherever they walked.
But their ride here ended not at the balmy edge of the sea. Rather, their bus turned deep into the forest. "Whoa," said John Doyle, a defender, when he looked out the bus window at the compound with armed guards at the gate. A tall Californian with blonde hair that falls to his shoulders, Doyle had expected more Switzerland. What he got was a permanent Italian escort service. Once inside, no American player would leave without armed protection.
"We'd been in this big hotel," said Doyle, "and you think, World Cup, and then . . . then everybody realized why we're here. We're here to play soccer."
He might have added, soccer against some of the best teams in the world. "It's a training camp situation," said Bob Gansler, the U.S. coach. "From what I understand, the Italians are in a similar situation."
Gansler was still wet from the rainy morning workout. The players broke into two groups and did passing drills while Machnik worked with the three goalkeepers, the chief one being Tony Meola, former Virginia all-American.
Meola, who may have a future in European soccer, especially if he does well in this tournament, is a charming fellow who already has played to the Italian press. Asked to list his six favorite goalies, he named four Italians. For this, he received headlines the size normally reserved for summit conferences.
Meola could be an extremely hot prospect for an Italian club team. His father owns Vince's Barber Shop in East Rutherford, N.J., and he's bringing his wife, Maria, and daughter, Angela, to the games and his homeland. Vince Meola was born in Torella, near Naples. Italy is ready to embrace his son.
And so the Americans wait and hope. Even prayers have been said. "Last week was a busy week of training and playing games," said Bliss. "Now we have to wait and people become very anxious. You try to be patient. But fewer things to do make that more difficult. That's why I wanted to come out today to the church."
Miracles aside, Stollmeyer and Bliss seem confident. Machnik said if the Americans make the second round he'd come back to the mountain to pray.