ROME, JUNE 21 -- It was, without dispute, one of the most improbable nights in the history of the World Cup soccer finals.
It was like watching two Super Bowls or two World Series games simultaneously.
It was like this everywhere tonight in Italy where there were two television sets in one place.
In one game played on Sicily, the Netherlands battled Ireland, trying to avoid becoming perhaps the greatest team ever to be knocked out in the first round of the finals. On Sardinia, the English made a desperation stand against Egypt, hoping themselves to avoid being sent home early.
All four teams had played 0-0 and 1-1 ties amongst themselves, leaving their Group F deadlocked coming into tonight's final first-round games. Two more ties would have meant a lottery draw among all four, a position to be avoided by such traditional soccer powers as the Netherlands, one of the best teams in the tournament, and England, a fading power clinging to glory that once was its game.
But Ireland, in its first Cup finals ever, and Egypt, in its first Cup finals since 1934, simply would not go quietly into the night. People watching two TV screens at once looked like fans at courtside following a tennis ball.
Who dared miss an instant of either game?
The Netherlands appeared victorious when its magical midfielder, Ruud Gullit, asserted himself for the first time in these games. In the 11th minute, Gullit -- dreadlocks flowing -- broke free and scored. It appeared beyond doubt the Netherlands had certain victory, for Gullit was playing all over the field -- midfield, defense, a man possessed.
But Ireland broke through on a horrendous Dutch lapse. In the 71st minute, Irish goalkeeper Paddy Bonner boomed the ball almost the length of the field. It was miskicked backward by Dutch defender Berry Van Aerle, then fumbled by goalkeeper Hans Van Breukelen.
As Dublin and all of Ireland must have rocked, Niall Quinn materialized in front of the loose ball and banged it in. Grasping a stranger in the Rome press center, an Irishman cried: "Have you ever been to Ireland?"
Meanwhile, England's creative midfielder, Paul Gascoigne, lofted a free kick from 30 yards out on the left. The ball arched perfectly toward Egypt's goal. Gascoigne put the ball precisely onto the forehead of the soaring Mark Wright, who turned his head with the ball on it as if he were looking for traffic before crossing a street.
The ball ricocheted like a Minnesota Fats bank shot into the net. It was an unstoppable pass and shot. England was up, 1-0, and quickly building a fortress to stop Egyptian assaults.
Knowing England was leading, the Dutch and the Irish, who were closer to the finish of their game because of less injury time, each began playing for the tie. They knew if the scores of both games held up, England, the Netherlands and Ireland all would advance.
The loser of a lottery involving the Dutch and Irish for second place in Group F still would be among four third-place wild-card teams to make the second round -- the select 16 of the original 24 teams.
Unlike in the United States, where a leading team might try to stall, here two teams -- the Netherlands and Ireland -- let one another kill the clock.
The suspense shifted totally to England-Egypt. Could Egypt score, which not only would tie its game but once more completely lock up the entire group?
Egypt almost did. A ball went high and free in front of the English net. As if he were taking one great leap for England, 40-year-old Peter Shilton lifted into the Sardinian night, banging into an Egyptian pileup and falling momentarily injured. But he had saved the game. England had beaten Egypt, 1-0, while the Netherlands and Ireland settled for 1-1.
That left England the group winner. But the Netherlands and Ireland, while assured of advancing, had tied for the second and third places. Here at the Rome press center, officials of FIFA, soccer's international organizing body, stood by to orchestrate a drawing to determine the pairings -- which were crucial for a host of teams.
The drawing turned out to affect seriously the entire course of the 1990 World Cup. The result set up a second titanic match Sunday. While Brazil, one of the Cup favorites, will be taking on defending Cup champion Argentina in Turin, as a result of the lottery the Netherlands, the reigning European champion, will have to play Cup co-favorite West Germany nearby in Milan.
It promises to be one of the most memorable days in Cup history, topping tonight in that the four teams playing Sunday all are capable of winning the Cup. Unlike tonight when the games were played simultaneously, Brazil-Argentina will start four hours earlier than Netherlands-West Germany.
The effect of four of the best five teams meeting so early in single-elimination play is to give still more of an advantage to the fifth power, Italy, which gets to play all its games in Rome anyway.
The scene in the crowded drawing room tonight was something out of a half-farce, half-serious David Niven movie. Josef Sepp Blatter, FIFA secretary general, read from the rule book and placed two huge bowls on a table in front of him. Blatter stood hardly taller than the bowls. He confected a "double" draw.
He placed a piece of paper with "Netherlands" written on it, put it into a yellow ball, closed the ball and put it into one of the bowls. Then he took a second piece of paper with "Ireland" written on it, placed it in a second yellow ball and put it into the bowl.
Then he took paper with "No. 2" (meaning second place) written on it, put it in a red ball and placed it in the second bowl. He put "No. 3" into a second red ball and added that to the bowl. With two balls in two bowls, he turned to look for some neutral party to make the draws.
Several Italia '90 hostesses in blue suits were standing by. Blatter selected Monique Furica, an Italian woman. There were gasps. It was like the selection of Miss America. The course of World Cup events was in the hand of the startled Furica.
She reached into the bowl with the yellow balls and took the one that said "Netherlands." Then she turned to the bowl with the red balls. Soccer afficionados knew that if she drew "No. 3," it would set up Super Super Sunday.
She drew it.
So, the Brazil-Argentina championship of South America will be held at 5 p.m. (11 a.m. EDT) in the northern city of Turin while at 9 p.m. (3 p.m. EDT) a most remarkable meeting will occur in Milan -- West Germany-Netherlands.
What makes this matchup so mind-boggling is that three Dutch stars, including Gullit and Marco Van Basten, play for the club team AC Milan, and three German stars, including Lothar Matthaeus, play for rival Inter Milan.
Italy can sit back and hope that its most feared potential opponent, West Germany, is beaten.
The English not only live to play again, but get a marvelous break -- they can rest until next Tuesday, the last day of the second round, when they will play Belgium in Bologna, the city that now must contend with the English hooligans hitting the mainland from Sardinia in droves.
The Irish celebration tonight must be one of the all-time parties. The Irish flags waved and Irish fans embraced one another after Quinn scored because they could have been among the eight fatalities: the U.S., the United Arab Emirates, Sweden, Egypt, the Soviet Union, South Korea and Austria.
Bobby Robson, a relieved English coach, said he was eternally thankful to be bound for Bologna, a lovely city, and praised the Egyptians for their gallant effort. "My sympathies," Robson said, "are with them."