FOXBORO, Mass. -- Italy climbed out of the heart of darkness here yesterday with a dramatic 2-1 victory over Nigeria in the first overtime match of World Cup '94.
Once the sun and the moon of world-class soccer, the Italians were on the verge of a shocking loss to the emerging African power until Roberto Baggio turned the world upside down with the tying goal less than two minutes from the end of regulation time.
It was Baggio, the glittering star whose light had all but flickered out as the Italian team struggled through the first round, who scored the winner on a penalty shot to restore Italy to its place among the pre-eminent world powers. They were Baggio's first goals of the tournament, and they sent Italy into a quarterfinal matchup here Saturday against Spain.
"The World Cup begins now," said a relieved Baggio, "not just for me but for Italy."
Although Italy had outplayed Nigeria throughout, even after falling behind 1-0 and playing a man short for the final 14 minutes of regular time and the 30-minute overtime, time appeared to be running out on the Azzurri.
"Victory was two minutes too far away," lamented Nigerian coach Clemens Westerhof. "Only two minutes to go and then we have beat the old champions -- Italy."
But those two minutes might as well have been a lifetime. Even before scoring the goal they thought had sent them on to the quarterfinals, the Super Eagles had played a tentative game and they showed no inclination to open up the attack after gaining the man advantage.
The goal came on their only real opportunity in regulation time off a corner kick by Finidi George. The ball landed between two Italian defenders, struck Paolo Maldini on the knee and bounced in front of the goal, where Emmanuel Amunike knocked it home.
Instead of energizing the Nigerians it seemed to draw them deeper into a shell.
"You don't rejoice until the referee blows the final whistle," said George. "We were holding the ball playing tap, tap, tap. We lost our concentration."
And with it the game. On a desperate Italian counterattack, Baggio, lurking in the middle, took a pass from Roberto Mussi and blasted it past a diving Peter Rufai just inside the left post.
The crowd of 54,367 in Foxboro stadium, almost all of them, it seemed, supporters of Italy, erupted in ecstasy. Earlier they had turned surly and heaved objects toward the field after referee Arturo Brizio Carter ejected Gianfranco Zola in the 76th minute.
The demonstration might have influenced Brizio's decision to give only a yellow card when Maldini dragged down Nigeria's Rashidi Yekini from behind just moments later as the Nigerian was streaking toward the goal.
Nigeria was obviously dispirited after the tying goal, but in the fourth minute of overtime Yekini shook free and had goalie Luca Marchegiani almost helpless. But Marchegiani charged out of the goal and made a diving deflection.
In the 12th minute, Dino Baggio, who came on as a halftime replacement, sent a long pass to the left side to Roberto Baggio, who chipped it right in front of the net, where Nigeria's Augustine Eguavoen fouled Antonio Benarrivo to set up the penalty kick.
Baggio drove the ball into the upper-left-hand corner of the net. Trailing for the first time, the Nigerians came right down and nearly tied it. After taking the ball away from Luigi Apolloni, Nigeria's Michael Emenalo sent it in front of the goal, where, with Marchegiani on the ground and a Nigerian bearing down to nudge the ball across, Dino Baggio made a desperate kick save.
That essentially was the game. By then the players on both sides were on legs made of Silly Putty. "We were all very tired," conceded Roberto Baggio.
"It was a heroic performance," said Italian coach Arrigo Sacchi. "I guess our destiny is to suffer."