PASADENA, Calif. -- It has been a great run. Large crowds. A few upsets. Some new stars arrived, some old ones faded. TV ratings were higher than expected, and so was the scoring. Millions of dollars were added to this nation's economy, and the U.S. national team may have had its own coming-out party.
And now the climax.
It's Brazil vs. Italy today at the Rose Bowl, with gorgeous &L; mountainsserving as a backdrop to the international flavor of Europe mixing it up with South America.
The world's biggest sporting event will feature some of the game's biggest names. Romario. Bebeto. Roberto Baggio. Dino Baggio. Rai.
The winner takes an unprecedented fourth World Cup title.
"This is the way it should be, two old schools of soccer playing for thenew standard of excellence," said Brazil coach Carlos Alberto Parreira.
Brazil's Pele, soccer's all-time great, said, "This is the best of all possible finals."
It's Brazil, a tantalizing offensive team that has dominated its six tournament games, against a resilient Italian team that is worn because of injuries and disqualifications.
There are a number of stories running through this game, from the two beleaguered coaches whose traditions put them in must-win situations today, to the Romario-Roberto Baggio showdown that likely will give the winner the label as the world's greatest player.
It all starts with tradition. Brazil won titles in 1958, '62 and '70. Italy won in 1934, '38 and '82.
"Brazil needs to win more than Italy does because it will make our country better," Bebeto said. "We need to give Brazil a big present. To lose would cause madness at home."
Roberto Baggio: "Italy is supposed to be the haven for this game. There is no tomorrow if we lose."
Baggio vs. Romario will be the biggest game inside the game -- if Baggio plays. Baggio has a strained hamstring and is questionable. He worked out yesterday for the first time in three days. His coach, Arrigo Sacchi, has inserted Baggio into the starting lineup, but there is a 50-50 chance he'll play. The decision will be made at game time.
If he does play, what a matchup!
Both have five goals in the tournament. Romario has been the most consistent. He has underestimated power in his small frame, which allows him to dribble around or through defenders before unleashing a powerful shot.
Baggio is not as quick, but has similar dribbling skills. What sets him apart from most strikers is his ability to shoot accurately from different angles.
"This will be a duel between Romario and Baggio for the goal-scoring title," said Romario, only minutes after his header beat Sweden, 1-0, in Wednesday's semifinal.
"Without doubt we've been the two players scoring decisive goals for our two teams," he said. "Whoever emerges as the champion will also emerge with the best player or the best goal-scorer."
Said Baggio: "The hamstring does not hurt when I walk, but I can feel it when I flex the muscle. I'm confident, I hope, I can play. There is a personal challenge."
Brazil's offense has been overwhelming in the tournament (11 goals and constant pressure in six games), though the Brazilians have failed to score in the first half in the past four games.
But this is not a great Brazilian team. It hasn't found a creative midfielder yet, and the defense and goaltending are suspect.
But if a team decides to go forward against Brazil for an entire game, that's when the Brazilians are at their improvising, short-passing best. They don't play samba ball like the old days, but nobody can match their ball-handling skills.
"A lot of teams tend to stay on the defensive end against us," said Parreira, who has two of the game's best strikers in Romario and Bebeto. "Only Holland chose to play our style, and you saw an exciting 3-2 game. If teams play soccer like it is meant to be played, we have the best technicians and we'll probably win."
Italy's Sacchi has used a different lineup for all six games. Defender Franco Baresi is out with a knee injury, and key defenders Maruo Tassotti and Alessandro Costacurta are out because of suspensions.
Sacchi has used a zone defense, midfielder pressure and a quick offense this year, but no one is sure what style he will use against Brazil.
But Sacchi will use Italy's tradition as a motivating tool.
"Losing Baggio would be a big blow for us," Sacchi said. "There is no doubt we are struggling with a number of problems, including Brazil's strength.
"But I'm very confident because my players have evidenced a great determination and winning spirit. I will use our tradition, and it will help lead us. Character has been our No. 1 component all season."
Italy has pulled some near miracles. Dino Baggio got a short-handed goal in a first-round match against Norway.
Roberto Baggio scored a short-handed goal in the 89th minute to help hold off Nigeria, and Roberto Baggio delivered again in the 88th minute to beat Spain.
Can Italy do it one more time?
"It could go either way," Sacchi said. "We know each other's team. There are no secrets."
Brazil vs. Italy
Time: 3:35 p.m.
Site: Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Calif.
TV: Chs. 13, 7
Semifinals: Italy beat Bulgaria, 2-1; Brazil beat Sweden, 1-0.
Outlook: Both countries are seeking an unprecedented fourth World Cup championship. Brazil won the last of its three titles in 1970. Italy won its third in 1982 and is seeking to become the first European team to win a World Cup held in the Western Hemisphere. Italy must play defensively, but can't go into a defensive shell as Sweden did in the semifinals. Italy's midfield, led by Dino Baggio, Nicola Berti and Demetrio Albertini, can play with anyone. It can offset some of Brazil's short passing schemes and turn the flow the other way. A final decision on whether striker Roberto Baggio will play won't be made until just before the game. The plan for Brazil is simple -- they will attack. Romario's searing runs down the middle and Bebeto's forays from the wing wear down defenses. Midfielder Zinho and defenders Jorginho and Mazinho create open space for the forwards with their ball control and quick moves.