ROME, JUNE 28 -- The World Cup finals have taken an unexpected -- but not unpleasant -- turn.
A week ago, soccer fans anxiously anticipated two matches worthy of the July 8 championship game: Argentina-Brazil and West Germany-the Netherlands. Moving on to this weekend's four quarterfinal games, World Cup followers -- at least impartial ones -- find the atmosphere more relaxed, the upcoming games more curiosity pieces than life-and-death struggles.
It's no less fun. Rather, it's an exciting time as the host cities fill up with partisans who have been following their teams through Italy while others fly in from their homelands to catch up with their favorites as the Cup field has narrowed to eight teams.
While form is expected to hold in all four games, just the thought of an upset is enough to keep most of the world tuned in through television and soccer enthusiasts here clutching precious tickets or scrambling desperately to get them.
On Saturday night here, Italy will be one of the heaviest favorites in all the Cup games so far when it plays Ireland. Italy hasn't given up a goal in the finals. The Irish can barely score. They advanced out of the first round with three ties and needed to win a shootout to beat Romania after a scoreless draw.
Earlier Saturday in Florence, Diego Maradona-led Argentina is expected to knock out Yugoslavia. It may not be easy. The 5-foot-5, 150-pound Maradona is playing with assorted bruises and twists from both knees down. But he still managed to leave Brazil at his feet.
On Sunday night in Naples, the magical team of the touranment, Cameroon, tries once more to do what everyone says is impossible. This time, it looks even worse for the Cameroonians. They find themselves with four starters disqualified for the match because of fouls in earlier games. That alone is enough to make them underdogs against the English, who happen to be improving with a hot midfield; Paul Gascoigne, known as "Gazza," and the reliable Gary Lineker.
Earlier in Milan, West Germany is expected to advance at the expense of Czechoslovakia. Like Argentina-Yugoslavia, it promises to be a rugged game. But West Germany has so much scoring power that an opponent can't concentrate exclusively on the team's star, Lothar Matthaeus, well known in Milan as the backbone of the club team Inter Milan.
But who really knows what will happen? As Luca di Montezemolo, head of the Italia '90 organizing committee, said: "Daily surprises and incredible eliminations have made this touranment a gripping event." Who would disagree, with Brazil and the Netherlands out, and Cameroon and Ireland still in?
There's still enough suspense to have brought thousands of Irish to Rome, many without tickets. Hundreds of Irish fans were waiting today outside Olympic Stadium. Working feverishly to accommodate as many Irish fans as possible, the tournament's organizers believe they will be able to free up about 8,600 tickets for sale in addition to the 2,500 already bought by supporters of the team.
The rowdies among the English fans remain Italy's main concern. The floating armies of Italian police, which began duty on Sardinia, have shifted south from Bologna to Naples. So far, the police have done spectacularly well in preventing outbreaks of violence. Hundreds of English fans were sent home following disturbances on the seacoast near Bologna, site of England's victory Tuesday night over Belgium.
To deter the notorious hooligans, some 5,000 heavily armed security forces will be on duty in the Naples area. Italians are hoping that many of the rambunctious fans, who have been on the road for some time and may be running short of cash, will head for home rather than make the trek from Bologna to Naples.
Additions to the civilized majority of English are expected in Naples, with planes from England carrying a wealthier contingent eager to see its ever-improving team. The British press is reporting that the squad has found its "rhythm."
As for the Italian team, its abundance of talent has never been clearer. Gianluca Vialle, a creative midfielder and scorer, has the flu, Carlo Ancelotti has a pulled thigh muscle and Nicola Berti is ineligible to play because of two yellow cards. Yet every day, Italy's coach, Azeglio Vicini, holds a news conference, and every day he can't seem to work up a genuinely worried expression. His team is 22 deep.
In Argentina, celebrating after what was considered an upset victory over Brazil Sunday has quieted. (The Argentine newspaper "Nuevo Sur" called the win the "miracle in Turin"). If Maradona can carry his team past Yugoslavia, one of the most appealing nights of this World Cup probably would follow: An Italy-Argentina semifinal Tuesday in Naples, where Maradona plays his club soccer and where he is regarded with such reverence one would think he walks each morning on the Bay of Naples.
In Belgrade, the paper "Borba" has hailed Dragan Stojkovic as the "matador" who "put the Spanish bull on its knees" Tuesday. And more, Stojkovic "will also bare his fangs for Maradona." That's what the Brazilians said, in slightly different terminology.
At this stage, it's hard to find anyone who doesn't believe West Germany is bound for Rome and the title game. Considering Czechoslovakia Sunday, the West German coach, Franz Beckenbauer, simply said: "If we lose now, we have only ourselves to blame. This is the best German squad of all time."