Italy turns the bitter into sweet WORLD CUP 1994


EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- In an atmosphere so remarkably different from that night in Napoli four years ago, Italy created a brilliant scene yesterday at Giants Stadium.

First, the Italians wiped away the memory of that bitter semifinal loss to Argentina in 1990 before a crowd that alternately cheered and jeered them. It was a surreal setting that had as much to do with the regional animosities in Italian politics as with what was happening on the field. Failure to reach the 1990 final at home cannot be completely erased by reaching the championship game four years later, but the way Italy played yesterday at the Meadowlands will restore some of the pride.

Second, Italy repaid the huge Italian-American population of the East with a wonderful performance after their first two Giants Stadium appearances had been less than satisfactory. That debt was canceled by the first 45 minutes, which coach Arrigo Sacchi called "the best half in Italian World Cup history."

Third, the Azzurri more than demonstrated the depth of Italian soccer, from the gifted Roberto Baggio to the workmen who performed so heroically in the heat to protect what Baggio had built. There can be no question that Demetrio Albertini and Nicola Berti were midfield giants, that Roberto Mussi played the match of his life on one side of the defense while Antonio Benarrivo mirrored him on the other.

And what can be said of Alessandro Costacurta, who won't play in the final after receiving a second yellow card? Instead of letting his head drop, he lifted his game in the remaining 28 minutes, playing like this was his final. It was the type of game some critics said Sacchi's team was not capable of playing. They will have to revise their critiques now.

Beyond what happened on the field, this semifinal was memorable for the atmosphere in the stands. The roar that greeted Italy when the teams came onto the field was equal to anything we heard in Rome four years ago. The din that greeted the ultimate success was an outpouring of love Italian-Americans have for their mother country.

And the fact that Italy produced its finest game in at least four years should put an end to any suggestion that the players cannot respond to the pressure when they pull on that famous blue jersey.

Technically, much of the credit for the victory must go to Sacchi. If this truly was the best half of Italian World Cup soccer, then it owed much to the fact that the manager gambled on an attacking policy on a day when most thought he would emphasize safety first. It was exactly the master stroke that caught Bulgaria unprepared.

No matter what happens, he has made a success of a team that departed Italy with few believing it would take America by storm.

Roberto Baggio gave him the ultimate gift with his two goals, just as the team gave its passionate followers a memory for the ages.

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