Romario-Baggio showcase is way Cup final should be


TORRANCE, Calif. -- Among the many appealing aspects of the World Cup, here are several of the most prominent:

* 1. Games take two hours to play. No rain delays, no TV timeouts, nothing to stop the clock. You're in, you're out, you haven't had to take out a mortgage on your seat.

* 2. Superstars deliver. You sit down to watch Ken Griffey Jr., he's liable to go 0-for-4. As often as not, his teammates win the game. In soccer, the best players carry their teams most of the time. If you sit down to see Romario or Roberto Baggio, you're probably going to see a goal.

* 3. The coaches are civilized. Brazil's Carlos Alberto Parreira said after one game that his team "played with great application." Imagine Mike Ditka spitting that out. Italy's Arrigo Sacchi said yesterday that "when you coach you make errors, therefore criticism is natural." Please, someone fax that to Johnny Oates.

* 4. (All together now. . .) "Goooooooooooooooal!"

It is the second reason we're talking about today, the reason that brings us to The Big Question hovering over the Cup as Italy and Brazil prepare for tomorrow's final in the Rose Bowl: Whither the most famous hamstring in the world right now, the one Baggio pulled in the second half of Italy's semifinal victory three days ago?

Sacchi said yesterday that there was no change in the situation, that Baggio was not going to practice or exercise or do anything more than watch HBO yesterday, that perhaps there will be news when Baggio tests the hammy this morning. (Sacchialso said that it wasn't surprising that Baggio had pulled the muscle because the hamstring "is in the first group of muscles that resents a high level of fatigue." Exactly.)

If the news, when it comes, is bad; if Baggio can't play or is even limited -- if Baggio isn't Baggio, basically -- you can start ringing up the "gooooooooooaaaaaaaals" for Brazil. Italy is in trouble.

For those who doubt it, please refer to Reason No. 2 on the above list. As much as soccer zealots rattle on about tactics and cohesion and heart as the essence of the game, let's face it, someone has to put the ball in the stinking net every once in awhile or we'd never get to go home. And Baggio is just about the only Italian doing any scoring.

He has scored five of Italy's eight goals in the Cup. In other words, his 21 teammates have combined for three goals in 480 minutes of soccer.

In the World Cup, every team is essentially the Chicago Bulls with Michael Jordan. You go as far as your Jordan takes you. Romario is Brazil's Jordan. He has scored five of Brazil's 11 goals, including the game-winner in the semifinals. Baggio is Italy's Jordan. And Italy's Scottie Pippen, too.

As important as Romario has been on his club, Baggio's impact has been greater. True, he was a bust in the first round, in which he failed to score. But since then, he has been the whole team.

Italy was about to lose to Nigeria in the second round when Baggio tied the score with a goal in the 88th minute, then won the game in overtime when his brilliant pass led to a foul in the penalty box, resulting in a penalty kick that he converted. In the quarterfinals, Italy and Spain were about to go to overtime when Baggio scored in the 88th minute. In the semifinals, Baggio punched out Bulgaria by himself with two goals.

"I said before we began that it was going to be Romario's Cup," Romario said, "but Baggio has had something to say about that."

Romario and Baggio. Baggio and Romario.

It would be a classic confrontation, hamstring willing.

If not . . .

"We will obviously lose something without him," Sacchi said, "but we do have other players." (In other words, "if his hamstring doesn't stop resenting fatigue in the next 36 hours, I just might cry.")

Of course, it is difficult to determine the true seriousness of any injury in a sport in which it is not uncommon to see a player writhe on the ground in teeth-clenched agony for five minutes, then leap up and sprint downfield with the freshness of a baby doe. This whole thing could be a smoke screen, or very serious, or somewhere in between. It's hard to tell.

In any case, here's hoping the hammy is healed and Baggio is at full strength tomorrow. Who wouldn't want to see these two settle the issue of which player is the best in the world? They're a study in contrasts, to say the least.

Romario is dark, short, broad, thick-legged. Baggio is pale, thin, wispy.

Romario has short hair. Baggio has a braided pony-tail.

Romario is arrogant, outrageous, petulant. Baggio is so shy and humble that he has yet to appear on an interview podium after a game.

Romario is a specialist, strictly a goal scorer. He doesn't play defense and rarely sets up teammates. Baggio is a complete player, a clever play-maker and a solid defender as well as a dangerous scorer.

"Baggio can dribble between all 11 players and score," Italian midfielder Antonio Conte said yesterday.

And Romario?

"He can win the game by himself," midfielder Nicola Berti said.

Baggio and Romario.

Romario and Baggio.

1% Here's hoping for a healed hammy.

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