ROME, JUNE 17 -- It's too soon to say that a new order is sweeping the World Cup like Eastern European reform. So far the color of the month-long Cup finals is an unexpected green, which could be a signal that a different continent is moving forward in the sport. Maybe the African emergence will be complete by 1994 when the Cup finals will be hosted by the United States, a Third World country when it comes to soccer.
The "Big Green" of the 1990 Cup has been Cameroon. No one, except the country's president, predicted that "the lions of Africa" would roar.
Egypt, also emerging unexpectedly, tied the Netherlands, 1-1, to become the other surprise African team -- the self-styled "Brazilians of Africa."
Though not here, Algeria and Nigeria also have strong national teams. The 1990 World Cup likely will end up in the hands of one of the traditional powers. But it may well be remembered as the time soccer's balance of power began to shift.
Traditionally the color of hope, green has been the color of spirit in the '90 Cup. Cameroon has been joined by Ireland, which has contributed to the power shift by stunning England with a 1-1 tie. Cameroon, Ireland and Egypt all play with nothing-to-lose abandon.
Ireland never made the World Cup finals before, Egypt not since 1934, Cameroon only in 1982. They all have spirit.
In contrast, the English team is sullen and the Dutch spiritless. The English showed a bit more life than the Dutch in their scoreless tie Saturday. But both teams seemed weighted by expectations.
One of the few relaxed and happy players was England midfielder Paul Gascoigne, an extrovert who pushed the ball up field to set up several potential scoring chances. Bobby Robson, the English coach who's given at least his sweat and tears, called Gascoigne "the best player on pitch." The much-acclaimed Marco Van Basten, of the Netherlands, also was on the pitch, but he didn't show much spirit.
Cameroon has. Who imagined Cameroon would be first to advance to the second round? After shocking Argentina and Maradona, Cameroon surprised Romania. The soccer world has turned so far on its axis that Cameroon now must guard against overconfidence Monday against the Soviet Union.
The "Indomitable Lions" wear lions over their hearts, and their hearts on their sleeves. The French-speaking team has a skilled and enthusiastic forward in Francois Omam Biyik, whose goal beat Argentina. European, South American and British coaches have made frequent missions to African and Middle Eastern countries in recent years. They've found talent and taught teamwork.
Cameroon offers speed and toughness; Ireland toughness and tenacity; Egypt organization and defense. What they have in common is a zest in their play.
Ireland draws its feistiness from Jack Charlton, an English legend in his playing days. Rejected as English national coach in favor of Robson, Charlton went to Ireland. There he's known as Jackie O'Charlton.
Tall and ruddy, Charlton is a man of many hats. In colder weather he prefers tweedy driving caps. As Ireland worked out before tying England, he had on a bright white floppy hat. He wore big sunglasses and smoked a cigar. As if he knew something, he flashed a devilish grin.
The Irish green may not have made the overall impact of Cameroon, but they certainly made the English more miserable than ever. It was the Irish who began England's struggle to avoid the humiliation of being sent home after the first round -- something, given Italy's weariness with English hooligans and the expense involved in security, Italians offer novinas for.
Italians applauded Charlton's team for its upset tie with England. Meanwhile English writers wrung their hands over their personal computers. Appearing in the Daily Mail before the English-Dutch game, Ian Wooldridge (humility aside, he carries beneath his immense byline the Clarion Call, "Sports Writer of the Year") declared the homeland to be "90 minutes away from sliding off the face of a world map we drew."
Like American coaches, Charlton doesn't give away much in pregame conversation. He's chided for speaking lots but saying little -- "Jack Speak."
Sometimes he feigns not to know the names of opposing players. On the eve of Ireland's game today with Egypt, Charlton said, "the little lad in the center midfield and the lad who plays up front, Hassan is it?"
The name is Hossam Hassan. But Charlton forgot? That's akin to Baltimore Orioles Manager Frank Robinson saying before a series with the Minnesota Twins, "The stubby guy in center field, Puckett is it?"
At least it's reassuring to find a coach acting civil and delightfully coy on the eve of what to him can't be a bigger encounter.
A tough coach with a tough-playing team, Charlton has a touch that enables him to cut Liam Brady -- possibly the best Irish player ever but deemed too old to contribute -- and still have Brady praise him.
"Jack may seem a bit batty at times," Brady told the Sunday Telegraph, "but he is well organized tactically. I think Jack Charlton is a better manager than Bobby Robson."
Painful as it is to England, which once was soccer, the time has come to put on the green. For a while anyway, Cameroon especially and Ireland -- and Egypt -- have the soccer world at their feet.
If only they didn't have to play each other so soon. But today it happened in Palermo. Egypt and Ireland came together for the biggest match in the history of both countries.
England could have used a little bit of what both had to offer. Egypt had learned much, to England's regret, from a former Wales coach named Mike Smith. The Irish, to England's deeper regret, had "Smiling Jack."
Only the strictest Irish and Egyptian partisans found it easy to root today. In America it's sometimes said, too bad one team had to lose. That's America. Egypt and Ireland tied, 0-0, a moral victory for each. That's soccer.