NEMI, ITALY, JUNE 15 -- Here is where the American soccer players heard the last impassioned words from their coach, Bob Gansler, before playing Italy. Telling them what it took to be winners, Gansler addressed his men in the basement of a resort hotel on a narrow, hilly road a few miles past the postcard edifice of Castel Gandolfo, the Pope's holiday residence high above Lake Albano.

Gansler gave them no Gipper talk for Thursday night's game. Hungarian-born and pragmatic, he applied one last coating of realism on the hard criticisms and tactical rearrangements he'd made all week after the 5-1 disaster against Czechoslovakia in Florence. To instill some European fire, he had met individually with each player "eyeball to eyeball." Gansler has steely blue eyes that the players may have found cold to behold.

Playing in the World Cup finals against a powerful host team in its biggest city in a massive stadium called for a courage that one needs even when fully prepared.

"It's a reality -- Italy will control the ball against any team in this tournament," Gansler told the players. "If they play at their optimal and we play at our optimal, you've got to admit it. You've got to make it so they don't play at their optimal."

Up north in their Tirrenia camp, he'd given them a plan. They'd worked at it. And on Wednesday, they rode their white Italia '90 bus south, stopping for a look at the Olympic Stadium. Walking into the huge, empty arena, Desmond Armstrong, who was born in Washington, grew up in Columbia, Md., and lives in Hyattsville, followed the seats upward until he could hardly see the last row.

"I've seen it on television, but when you see it up close you realize how big it is -- grandiose," Armstrong said. "I can't imagine 80,000 people in here."

The Americans were primed like first-time astronauts. They'd done all the training, the simulations. But they hadn't experienced liftoff.

So Gansler told his players in a room in the hills outside Rome what they had to do. Be alert. Be tenacious.

Since they were going "into the lion's den at a time he is trying to indicate he is king of beasts," Gansler said to them, they could hardly look away. "You can't let your head go down when you make a bad play or the other team makes a good one. Once a mistake happens, you can't cure it."

Gansler learned early to face the unknown. Born in Hungary in 1941, he was taken soon after by his parents to West Germany, then to the U.S. in 1952, to Milwaukee. "I lived in three countries before I was 11," he said. "It wasn't a pleasant thing. I certainly wasn't the only one. That's the way post World War II was.

"But that's helped me to meet situations with a sense of optimism and reality at the same time. And that's what we preach."

So Armstrong walked into the Olympic Stadium the next night, after the team had been up and down the mountain, and "there they were, 80,000 people." He knew the reality. He brought optimism.

"I go out there on the field and I'm smiling because this is the best time of my life. I'm smiling at the little short guy."

That's Salvatore Schillaci, the Sicilian wonder who'd come into the Italy-Austria game last week as a substitute and almost immediately won it with a goal. Once more, Italy was inserting him into the lineup in the second half.

Armstrong, who had been marking the prolific-scoring Gianluca Vialli, was switched over to Schillaci. That's like guarding Michael Jordan after you're finished with Magic Johnson.

Shorter than John Doyle, one of three lineup newcomers, Armstrong could make turns quicker, so Schillaci was his. "Doyle and Armstrong," Gansler said, "played magnificently."

The Americans admired Italy's play while at the same time refusing to back down. "Schillaci saw me smiling," Armstrong said. "He looked pretty serious. I guess he had the opinion that he was going to come in and score again."

Tony Meola also sensed what Schillachi was thinking. The U.S. goalkeeper came across the goalmouth on one exchange as Schillachi got off a rocket. but Meola shot it out of the sky.

"He said something at me in Italian," said University of Virginia product Meola, an Italian-American but not able to translate that fast. "I don't think he was mad. I think he was saying something like, 'What the heck are you standing there for?' "

Meola marvelled over Schillaci. "The ball," he said, "was like Velcro on his foot."

It took another Italian master to score the game's only goal. Vialli left a ball on the ground perfectly positioned for Giuseppe Giannini. After Giannini hopped, with the ball on his foot, over Michael Windischmann and broke in on Meola, the U.S. goalie still believed he could make the save because Giannini was fighting to keep his balance.

"I thought he was going to take one more touch," Meola said. "But he wasn't going to take another touch. He didn't have a good ball to hit. But that's the caliber of player we're talking about."

After Vialli blew a penalty kick, hitting the post with a thwack that turned the crowd silent, the Americans grew even more determined to stick to their plan. "We had to play a packed-in situation and try to counter off of it," forward Peter Vermes said. "That's all we could do." Armstrong stood his ground and kept smiling.

"Here I was saying, 'Come and give me your best shot,' " Armstrong said. " 'Give me everything you've got.' And I was still standing."

John Stollmeyer of Annandale, Va., who got into the game late as a substitute, couldn't resist taking his eyes off the "lion" Gansler had warned about. Just a few times as he sat on the bench, Stollmeyer peeked at the spectacle.

"The crowd cheering and singing," Stollmeyer said, "The flags waving. It was everything we thought of in our wildest imagination."

"A great ambiance," Bruce Murray of Germantown, Md., said, "whether watching or playing."

Looking dreamy, Stollmeyer was still thinking about the night before -- Vermes called it "a perfect night."

Like the others, Vermes had drifted back to the room where Gansler had given his marching orders. "The weather was perfect. The crowd. The facilities. Everything was perfect."

Perfect in defeat?

"For an up-and-coming team," Vermes said, "you can call it a perfect night.

"Maybe," he went on, "a 1-1 tie wasn't what we deserved against a team like Italy."

Vermes might have made it 1-1. Murray banged a 27-yard free kick at Walter Zenga, one of the best goalkeepers in the world. Murray specializes in the deadball kick. This kick might have gone in. "There were so many men on the wall," Murray said, "I don't think he got a good read on it."

Diving right, Zenga grabbed the ball -- but, uncharacteristically, couldn't hold it. It rolled toward Vermes, who met it at the left side of the goal, with the 6-foot-2 Zenga on his feet again, blotting out the horizon.

Because the pair were faced up near the post, Vermes appeared to have all open net to his right. But Zenga had the angle.

"He would have just knocked it out of bounds," Vermes said. Vermes had no choice but to go over Zenga or shoot low. For the U.S., absent from the Cup finals since 1950, this was a moment 40 years in the making.

"If I had it to do over again, knowing what happened," Vermes said, "I would have shot it high."

But he had no way of knowing what would happen. Zenga tilted backward, looking for an instant before he fell like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Thinking Zenga was going to stay upright, Vermes figured he couldn't lift the ball over him. So he shot low. The ball squeezed between Zenga's leg, bound for the net. But it hit Zenga's backside and rolled directly across the front of the goalmouth. Riccardo Ferri kicked it away.

For the Americans, the good thing about that play is that no one seems to have had second thoughts -- especially not Vermes. Literally, he took his best shot.

The U.S. won the Italian fans' hearts. Americans in Rome loved their side too. The only place the Americans lost -- and few thought it mattered -- was on the scoreboard.

Italian players visited the Americans' locker room. "That just never happens," Meola said. "That never happens in a high school game." Zenga wanted to swap jerseys with Meola, and they did.

"When I get back home," Armstrong said, "I'll have to say, 'I did the job. I did the business.' "

That's how, as odd as it may seem, the Americans celebrated defeat.

As their bus pulled out for Tirrenia, where they were to prepare for Austria next Tuesday in Florence, they wouldn't look back on Vermes's shot or the final score; only on the experience, the Roman holiday of their lives.