Italy-Brazil: Great in Celtics-Lakers kind of way


PASADENA, Calif. -- To the Swedes: Nice tournament, guys, but good riddance. Next time, bring an offense.

To the Bulgarians: We're all happy for you, and nice job against Germany, but no one wanted to see you beat Italy yesterday. Bulgaria in the World Cup final? No offense intended, but that's like planning a gourmet meal and winding up eating a pizza.

No, if you're going to hold a World Cup in your country for once in your millennium, you don't want interlopers in your final. You don't want pretenders. You don't want a moustache on your Mona Lisa.

You want royalty. You want the Yankees and Dodgers. Lakers and Celtics. Ali and Frazier. You want the works.

You want Brazil and Italy.

You want teams that are the essence of soccer. Teams with matching traditions and superstars. Teams from countries where wins are celebrated in the streets. For days.

You don't want Bulgaria and Sweden.

Oh, Sunday's final in the Rose Bowl would have been decent if one of the two surprise semifinalists had won in yesterday's bi-coastal semifinal doubleheader. Brazil-Bulgaria? Italy-Sweden? We could have lived with those, I guess.

But Bulgaria-Sweden? I'd almost rather listen to Don Fehr and Dick Ravitch explain the facts of baseball life.

Fortunately, the right teams won. Fortunately, the Italians had Roberto Baggio and the Brazilians had Romario. Playing on opposite coasts, in different games, they conspired to save the World Cup final, to turn it into a game with the potential to be a classic.

First, Baggio basically knocked out the Bulgarians by himself with two early goals in Italy's 2-1 win at Giants Stadium. Then, Romario broke a tense, scoreless tie with a goal in the 80th minute, giving Brazil a 1-0 win over Sweden at the Rose Bowl.

"Now we have a great final between great teams," Romario said.

Italy and Brazil. Each a three-time Cup winner. Each with a lineup including some of the best players in the world. Each with a goal-scoring superstar delivering the goods at the perfect time. Romario and Baggio each have scored five goals in the tournament now.

As big as Baggio's two were yesterday, Romario's was particularly important as far as saving the final. Bulgaria was a more attractive team than Sweden. The Swedes would have been a disaster as a finalist.

What in the world happened to them? They played reasonably aggressive soccer through the second round, ranking among the Cup leaders in scoring, but they turned conservative once the stakes rose. They were content to sit in their end of the field through much of their quarterfinal against Romania, and yesterday they were even worse. They barely even attempted to score. They packed their end of the field and concentrated all of their efforts on stopping Brazil. They were playing for penalty kicks.

"We controlled all aspects of the game," said Brazil coach Carlos Alberto Parreira. "The score does not reflect our total supremacy."

The disparity in the number of shots did. How does 26-3 sound?

Of course, the Swedes were not necessarily wrong for employing such a strategy, which was similar to the one the United States used against Brazil.

They could not match the Brazilians' talent. They could not afford to trade fast breaks. Their only hope was to hold down Brazil and try to get lucky. (They would have been in the same situation against Italy, incidentally.)

For the longest time, luck was on their side. Brazil blew a half-dozen scoring chances. In the 13th minute, Zinho was in alone on Swedish goalkeeper Thomas Ravelli, but shot wide. In the 25th minute, defender Tomas Brolin had to clear a ball off the line. In the 32nd minute, Romario lost control of the ball before taking an open shot from 10 yards out. In the 54th minute, Ravelli tipped a crushing 20-yard Zinho shot just over the bar.

The festive, pro-Brazil crowd grew steadily quieter and quieter. By the 75th minute, the samba drums still were beating, but no one was clapping or dancing. We're talking about some seriously nervous Brazilians.

But then, as he has done throughout the tournament, Romario suddenly struck. Jorginho fed a cross into the penalty box, and Romario, the shortest man on the field, leapt high into the air, beat his defender and headed the ball toward the near corner of the goal. The ball one-hopped into the net as Ravelli watched in disgust.

The Brazilians sighed and started to party. The World Cup final was set. Italy's deft, intricate passing game against the free-flowing, elegant Brazilians.

Style and substance against style and substance.

"On Sunday we will play as offensively as we did today," Parreira said. "It should be a fine game. Italy is rich in football tradition and has important players and talent. But so does Brazil."

That's the point. That's precisely the point.

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