CAGLIARI, ITALY, JUNE 16 -- The English came marching up via Armando Diaz, 3,000 strong, a mass of humanity resembling the start of a marathon. They were on their way from the center of the Sardinian capital to the Stadio Sant'Elia and tonight's showdown match with the Netherlands that ended in a scoreless tie.

The meeting between the arch-rival teams had long been feared as the "trouble game" of the 1990 World Cup finals because of potential violence by rowdies from both countries. In fact, a joyless, frightening scene unfolded three hours before game time.

About a mile from the stadium, two Italian police trucks blocked the street and 100 to 200 officers moved in to disperse the huge English crowd. The English gave in reluctantly to the blockade and shouted and shoved at the Italian police. Police fired off a half-dozen rounds of tear gas as most of the English took off up a narrow road leading to the Basilica di Bonaria.

Tensions, which had been mounting for months, had finally boiled over before the match bringing together star-studded teams featuring Marco Van Basten, one of the world's greatest soccer players, who enjoys Sinatra-like celebrity in the Netherlands, and England's Gary Lineker, the overall leading scorer in the 1986 World Cup.

Italian police struck several taunting Englishmen with batons, and some fleeing English threw rocks back toward the police. The crowd surged up to the Piazza dei Centomila in front of the basilica, where a formally attired bride and groom, just married, posed for pictures.

Sensing the urgency, newlyweds Walter Rubino and Maria Antonietta found safety in the back seat of their chauffeur-driven car. As the English crowd kept coming, two older women who had attended the wedding stood terrified, one crying and the other visibly shaken.

Sardinians fled across the piazza and into the basilica, where yet another wedding was taking place. Davide Scano and Marina Toro were kneeling at the altar, unaware that many were taking refuge in the half-filled church.

Another portion of the dispersing crowd poured across an open space behind the basilica. A Japanese photographer was knocked down, his camera broken. "We are a quiet, peaceful people," said Alessandro Scano, a pharmaceutical lab technician, no relation to the bridegroom. "We are worried."

Scano said two Sardinians were among the 39 persons killed at Heysel Stadium in Brussels five years ago after English "fans" touched off a riot. "People here have never forgotten," Scano said.

In breaking up the crowd, Italian police wanted to avoid the violent potential of a fast-moving mob and prevent a pileup of fans at the stadium gate. With soccer crowds, disaster can strike in a flash. In April 1989 at Sheffield in England, 95 people were crushed to death by fans pushing forward into an already packed area.

This evening's crowd dispersal also served to protect hundreds of orange-clad Dutch fans, some of whom were relaxing on a grassy hill beneath the basilica, while others walked casually along a tree-lined street. As the Dutch on the hill saw the great numbers of English coming their way, they hurried ahead to the stadium.

Concern showed in the faces of about 20 Italian policemen, mostly young men. Armed but clearly trained to avoid use of their weapons, they found themselves between two crowds of several hundred English. The policemen stepped aside and let the unraveling hundreds behind them pass.

Police ushered several hundred quiet Dutch fans to the stadium gates. Along the streets and dotting the vast expanse surrounding the stadium were police carrying submachine guns. Numerous mounted police watched the crowds. Dogs and technical equipment were used in an effort to detect weapons that might be smuggled into the arena. Police helicopters circled above.

Because of the history of English fan violence, the team was purposely isolated here on Sardinia for all three of its first-round games. The Dutch team is based in Sicily. Italian authorities have focused most of their attention on the English.

Italy has stationed 3,200 security forces on the island to control troublemakers, with particular lookouts for 800-1,000 English hooligans whose names are known to English and Italian security people.

About 13,000 English have been here for at least a week, and 10,000 Dutch arrived from various locations in the previous 48 hours, bringing an edginess to this normally tranquil vacation hideaway.

The only quiet time tonight came when the two countries' anthems were played. English and Dutch fans sat separated in the stands as a result of a successful ticketing plan. Then began a game that simply has mesmerized two nations and much of the world because of an intense rivalry and numerous subplots.

Could 40-year-old Peter Shilton, playing tonight in a record 120th international match, stop Van Basten? Van Basten became the first player in 30 years to score a hat trick against England when he came up with three goals against Shilton in the European championships in 1988.

Countering the brilliant Van Basten was Coach Bobby Robson's problem. The English mentor, who somewhat resembles North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith, appeared almost reduced to tears after his team could manage only a 1-1 tie in its opener with Ireland. If England couldn't stop a bunch of Irish kids, how could it cope with Van Basten?

The English coach and players have been under fire back home. In the Daily Telegraph's way of putting it, the players had to "gather the shreds of their credibility."

Robson responded with one of the more radical switches of his eight years as national coach. He packed his defense. Normally, he uses four deep. Tonight, he went to five, three central defenders with two on the flanks. The middleman was sort of a sweeper, the position customarily played between the central backs and the keeper, and one Robson has never used.

But, in effect, his middleman tonight was just another central back brought in to stop Van Basten and his midfield partner, the irrepressible Ruud Gullit, who wears his hair in dreadlocks.

Unfortunately for Gullit, he played at only "90 percent of his capabilities," according to Dutch Coach Leo Beenhakker, even after a year of recovering from a badly damaged knee.

Gullit loves to attack, but is equally adept in setting up Van Basten. England's Lineker has called Gullit "a striker's dream to play with."

If the Dutch were America's team, they would be the real "Orange Crush."

England's extra man to mark Van Basten was the aptly named Mark Wright, with Robson gambling Wright could contribute after being idle two years with injuries. The English team seemed to be making a last stand, its honor at stake, by introducing a deep defender after having swept away his rust, and counting mostly on their ancient keeper and the well-respected although not flamboyant Lineker -- that's Gary Winston Lineker, born on Winston Churchill's birthday.

Late in the first half, the Dutch carried the play. But there were too many defenders to get past. Van Basten managed only a single shot the whole game. Shortly into the second half, the English took control.

Three times, Lineker just missed scoring. Each time, English fans among the crowd of 35,267 roared in anguish, Lineker shaking his head in frustration.

The English came closest when Dutch goalkeeper Hans van Breukelen stopped Lineker from close range. The ball bounded back to Lineker, who kicked it into the net -- but it had touched his left hand.

In the final seconds, the English were awarded an indirect free kick following an obstruction call. Stuart Pearce raised momentary false hopes by the English when he kicked the ball directly into the net. The play was immediately waved off.

Beenhakker said he was content with the tie, even after the Dutch were tied by Egypt, 1-1, in their opener, because "in the second half, England played more compact and that gave us problems."

Shilton said the English players were not distracted by their fans' restlessness because "we came here to play football. The people who cause trouble are not football fans."

English officials said today 23 English fans are in jail in Cagliari awaiting sentencing, four are serving sentences and four others have had their sentences suspended. At least two police officers and seven fans were injured, including one man with a broken leg, police and British sources said.

The British Embassy in Rome issued a statement saying the vast majority of English fans on Sardinia are law-abiding, but that "those who have broken the law are paying for it."

Both teams departed the stadium with a certain satisfaction. "The Dutch team is growing step by step," Beenhakker said, "and that is good for us."