By Alexander Wolff
Issue date: July 25, 1994
The XV World Cup had much to recommend it: full stadiums, courteous crowds, several unforgettable games and a reversal in the trends toward fewer goals and rougher play that had blighted recent editions of soccer's great event. In fact the 1994 Cup turned out so well that few people wanted to see it end, and Sunday's final looked as if it never would, not after 90 scoreless minutes of regulation time or an extra 30 of goal-free overtime.
That's when this World Cup, which had busied itself with MAKING SOCCER HISTORY (as the slogan writ large at every venue phrased it), made soccer history in a way it could have done without. Brazil and Italy settled what was supposed to have been an epochal meeting with penalty kicks. Never before had a World Cup final been decided in such capricious fashion. Never again should it be.
Oh, the most deserving country won; Brazil was the team the other 23 nations chased for a month, and none could beat. And, to be fair, a penalty-kick shoot-out can provide stark moments of drama. But Pele himself once pronounced what should be the penalty kick's epitaph: “It is a cowardly way to score.” Imagine listening to Lincoln and Douglas debate for two hours and then having them step down from their podiums to decide a winner on belches.
It was all the more a shame because, at long last, the Rose Bowl hosted a sports event that actually meant something. The final was a summit meeting of two nations, one each from soccer's two great continents, who had outsized traditions of and passions for the game. Each finalist had won three Cups before Sunday; one would seize an unprecedented fourth.
For a number of months both nations behaved as if this World Cup business were actually very simple: Whichever country's press and fans more thoroughly humiliated, castigated, second-guessed and otherwise dissed their national coach would win. From afar, Arrigo Sacchi of Italy and his Brazilian counterpart, Carlos Alberto Parreira, must have regarded each other with some admiration and lots of sympathy. Despite skimpy playing credentials, each ascended to the position of national coach by working hard and paying dues. Both have a worldliness that allows them to see beyond soccer, and to escape from it: Sacchi reads literary fiction and takes solitary bike rides; Parreira paints seascapes.
Most important, each had introduced to his respective soccer culture the shock of the new. Sacchi had cast aside the style prevailing in Italy for years, one that emphasized defense and the quick counterattack. In its place he installed an all-field, attacking game requiring extraordinary conditioning and discipline. “We are an egotistical people,” he liked to say, justifying his search for 22 selfless troopers -- a search that led to his trying out 73 different candidates for the national team. Last spring an Italian sports magazine ran photos of them all, with mug shots of the Pope, Sylvester Stallone as Rambo and Robin Williams as Popeye mixed in, under the headline: ARRIGO, HAVE YOU FORGOTTEN ANYONE?
For his part, Parreira stood charged with suppressing the ginga, the flair for which Brazilian soccer is known and loved around the world. Many citizens -- from Pele to President Itamar Franco to Parreira's mother -- had an ideal lineup kicking around his or her head and no compunctions about sharing it with the world. “Maybe Brazil should be allowed to play with six teams,” Parreira said before the Cup. “We might please half the people. One team should be attacking. One should play defensive, another creative, one could be a fantasy team . . . but to please everybody with just one, it can't be done. If I listened to all these suggestions, I'd go mad.”
Through Parreira's three years in charge of Brazil's team, he never wavered in his belief that the freewheeling style of Pele's day didn't stand a chance against modern man-to-man defenses. “Parreira is the first coach to put his own stamp on the team,” says Francisco Marcos, the team's liaison and translator during the World Cup. “Some Brazilian players are happy for that. And some are resentful, because it has detracted from their ability to show their flair.”
And so, despite having been pilloried in their respective countries for making their teams look too much like each other's, here they nonetheless were, Sacchi and Parreira, Italy and Brazil, in the final. And one of these dilettante apostates was going to be acclaimed a visionary Renaissance man. One of them was going to guide a team to a world championship.
The Brazilians sometimes play as if the goal is a frame, and they're trying to create the prettiest possible canvas to mount inside it. In their semifinal against Sweden on July 13, the Magnificent Mononyms got off 26 shots, nine of them good chances, but couldn't quite sign their name to anything. Not until 10 minutes remained did they score the game's lone goal, and then they did so in the least likely way imaginable -- when the 5 ft. 6 in. Romario leaped at a cross from Jorginho and, as Sweden's taller defenders looked on helplessly, one-hopped the ball past goalkeeper Thomas Ravelli with a nod of the head. This was rather like a fast-breaking outfit winning an NBA playoff game with a dunk in traffic from its point guard. But it bore out a Brazilian proverb that assistant coach Mario Zagalo likes to cite: Dripping water on a hard rock eventually leaves a hole.
For its part, Italy won its place in the final with a large dose of luck. Twice in the tournament, the Azzurri survived the ejection of a player to win while a man down. Only minutes from virtual elimination in the first round, the Italians came back to beat Norway and stay alive. In the second round they beat Nigeria with seconds to spare. They won their quarterfinal by getting a game winner from their star, Roberto Baggio, just moments after Spain's Julio Salinas missed on a breakaway. Even Italy's semifinal date with Bulgaria owed itself to buona fortuna, for the Italians figured to meet defending champion Germany -- until it was upset by Bulgaria. Only in its 2-1 defeat of Bulgaria did Italy score an outright, luck-free win, as Baggio struck twice in a five- minute stretch during which the Azzurri played as well as any team in the Cup.
When Italy and Brazil went at each other for a couple of hours on Sunday, the two teams were like prizefighters in a clinch. The only thing that could have pleased soccer aficionados is that they locked each other up with their respective skills, and not by incessant fouling, as Germany and Argentina had in the final four years ago. When the last of the 120 minutes ticked off, the teams exited the field for their five-minute break before the shoot-out to a chorus of boos and whistles. After the break, the two goalies, Brazil's Claudio Taffarel and Italy's Gianluca Pagliuca, walked together, arms over each other's shoulders, to the goal where each would step off his paces. “We told each other that the winner was going to be the team that was predestined to win,” Taffarel would say.
To begin the shoot-out, Sacchi called on Franco Baresi, a 34-year-old defender who had undergone arthroscopic knee surgery barely three weeks ago and who on Sunday had started in the backfield. Baresi soldiered bravely through the game, but he opened the shoot-out by lifting his kick high over the bar.
But Pagliuca got Baresi off the hook by snuffing out the first Brazilian penalty kick, by Marcio Santos. And after the next four shooters matched each other, Italy's Daniele Massaro stepped up to face Taffarel. “He hasn't been tested, and I hope he won't be,” Parreira had said of his goalkeeper a few days before the final. “But I'm confident that in the moment we need him, he'll say, 'Hello, I'm here.'”
Taffarel moved off his mark early, guessed right and with a half step greeted Massaro's kick in front of the goal line with a game-turning , “howdy.” When Dunga converted Brazil's fourth attempt, Italy had only a slim hope left: Surely Baggio would make his kick; perhaps Brazil's Bebeto would miss his.
When Baggio was first given his uniform for this Cup, he was handed number 17. But 17 was the number Roberto Donadoni wore when he failed to convert a critical penalty kick against Argentina in the semifinals of the 1990 World Cup. Though Baggio was hastily refitted with number 10, on Sunday that number couldn't save him. Baggio had been a questionable starter up until game time because of a sore right hamstring, and he would later describe a sharp pain that coursed through his leg as he struck the ball. The ball wound up where Baresi's had moments earlier -- far over the bar.
The abject failure of one man touched off such unfettered joy in 22 others that the scene begged the question again: Could this really be just? In a shoot-out the coach usually designates his two most stouthearted players to kick first and last -- leadoff and anchor, as it were -- and that's where Baresi and Baggio fell in Sacchi's lineup. They had been among Italy's two most heroic players on the afternoon, playing hurt but playing hard. It wasn't fair somehow for players who turned in such superb performances to have had their good work undone so precipitously.
“We have to accept the rules with great calmness and serenity,” Sacchi said afterward when asked his opinion of the shoot-out. Others need not be so obliged, so in all probability a Cup final will never again come down to a moment with all the grandeur of a training drill. Well before the 1998 World Cup in France, a task force appointed by FIFA, the governing body that stages the World Cup, is expected to review a number of tiebreaker proposals currently in the pipeline. Some are oafish, such as the idea of giving the victory to the team with the most corner kicks. Others are simply impractical for an event as huge as the World Cup, such as replaying the entire game several days later, as is done when England's FA Cup Final ends in a tie. Some people who like the shoot-out want the rule makers to put more life in it: Have the shooter approach the goalkeeper on the dribble, and let the keeper come out to challenge him. Then it might at least look like soccer.
But the most intriguing proposal involves taking the final match -- and the final match only -- into sudden death after 120 minutes. The two teams would simply keep playing until someone scored. The players would be hangdog tired, sure, but in a final there would be no need to save anything for another day. And isn't it silly for a soccer team to carry 22 men when the rules make it all but impossible to use more than 14 in one game? For every, say, 15 minutes of extra time, a team would be permitted another substitution. If the World Cup final really is a crucible for heroes, let the players show off their heroism. Let them take up a shield in a war of attrition.
FIFA officials are cool to most of these proposed reforms, especially the last one. “You can't drive a team indefinitely onwards,” says FIFA media assistant Andreas Herren. “This is the seventh match, in the fourth week. These guys are literally going to pass out on the field.” Adds Guido Tognoni, FIFA's press officer, “It's very hard for the referee in sudden death (to make the tough penalty calls). And a champion really has to be decided in a defined amount of time.”
Both Herren and Tognoni are Swiss, and the Swiss tend to be finicky about time. And perhaps they have a point. Perhaps open-ended, sudden-death overtime is physically unreasonable. Yet surely it's psychological torture to go through shoot-outs as they're set up now. And it's an aesthetic disaster to have the Cup riding on a few set pieces at complete odds with the grand, flowing pageant preceding them. On Sunday only the grace of circumstance allowed the right team to win, for the wrong reasons.
Parreira was 15 when Brazil won its first World Cup, in 1958. In a triumphant final in Stockholm, the Brazilians beat the host Swedes in such captivating fashion that the Swedish crowd cheered the visiting team feverishly as it took a victory lap. There was no live TV broadcast back to Brazil then. “I had to wait a month to see the goals in the movie theater,” Parreira recalls.
Alas, he will wait the rest of his life to see the goals from the great final against Italy, the game in which Brazil won its tetra. He'll wait that long because there weren't any.
Issue date: July 25, 1994