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Italians right at home, if not on top of game WORLD CUP 1994


MARTINSVILLE, N.J. -- The Italians made Pingry School, an exclusive prep academy in the rolling countryside west of New York City, their World Cup headquarters when they arrived in the United States five weeks ago.

Italy planned to win its group, which would allow it to play the quarterfinals and semifinals at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., with partisans from New York's massive Italian population in attendance.

The scenario hit a bit of a snag when the Italians blundered away their opener against Ireland, finished third in Group E -- known as the Group of Death -- and had to sneak into the second stage.

They wound up having to journey to Boston, also home to thousands of Italians, and hold off a determined Spanish team in the quarterfinals. But while the Italians' trip to the United States has been bumpy, as the tournament rolls into its final week they find themselves exactly where they expected to be -- at their secluded prep-school base and in the semifinals for the third time in four World Cups.

This afternoon at Giants Stadium, Italy meets upstart Bulgaria, which stunned the soccer world with a 2-1 victory over Germany Sunday in a quarterfinal match.

The upset robbed the World Cup of a semifinal between European titans, but it was seen as a timely piece of bona fortuna by the Italians. Their feelings were summed up in a jubilant headline in La Gazetta dello Sport: "Addio Germania!"

"We are a team of great character," goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca said after Italy defeated Spain, "but we are also a team with luck."

Italy has suffered poor play, a flagging attack and pointed criticism of coach Arrigo Sacchi's tactics by the Italian press. But on Monday it could afford to boast a bit. After all, the Italians have avoided the fatal missteps that sent Argentina, Germany and Colombia home from the tournament earlier than expected.

"We have players that can make the difference, like Roberto Baggio," said Giorgio Chinaglia, the legendary Italian star who now provides commentary for RMC-TV. "They can create. That's what sets them apart."

But, he was asked, don't the Germans have the same kind of players, world-class professionals such as Lothar Matthaeus, Juergen Klinsmann and Thomas Haessler?

Chinaglia wagged a finger. "At the end, they're not great players," he said. "Now, they're on the plane home thinking, 'What did we do wrong?' It's too late now."

The prevailing opinion is that the Germans may have overlooked Bulgaria. "If there might be one slight error, it was a psychological error," Sacchi said after the Italians worked out for an hour behind closed gates. "I think they were just thinking ahead without knowing or realizing that there was still Bulgaria to play."

The Bulgarians have been on a roll, but they are hardly a world power. Until they defeated Greece two weeks ago in Chicago, they had not won a World Cup match.

Bulgaria ruined Italy's opener in Mexico in '86, scoring a goal in the closing minutes for a 1-1 tie. Italy, the defending champion, eventually was eliminated in the second round.

These Italians will consider themselves disappointments if they don't make the final.

"We are still not satisfied," Sacchi said. "We want more. We are capable of more."

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