Leading Italy to anything short of a World Cup victory is like mounting the stage at La Scala with a case of laryngitis. "The problem is, we have 50 million advisers," said former forward Gianni Rivera, who, with his teammates, was met at the airport by 600 outraged fans hurling overripe tomatoes following a loss to North Korea in the 1966 World Cup.
The current coach, Arrigo Sacchi, knows how Rivera felt, because right now all 50 million advisers are in angry agreement about his stewardship of the national team. Over the two years leading up to this World Cup, Sacchi has tried out 71 players in untold numbers of formations and never started the same lineup twice. "I prefer to change things around," Sacchi says with a shrug. "That way I can be sure of having the players who are playing their best and are best suited to our opponent." But what started as a low murmur last fall, when Italy needed a goal with 12 minutes to go against Portugal in its final qualifier to earn a spot in the draw, has turned into a howl—especially after the Italian nationals lost an exhibition game in April to a fourth-division club team.
To win two World Cups during the 1930s, the Italians used one defensive scheme, the mètodo (method). Afterward they developed the catenaccio (bolt), which helped increase the use of the sweeper, a development that has contributed to the doom of entertaining, goal-scoring soccer. But Sacchi, a former shoe salesman who never played the game professionally, has introduced a more offensive mind-set. In forward Roberto Baggio (SI, May 16) he has the best player in the world, a Buddhist with a ponytail who scored six goals during 10 qualifying games. And Sacchi also has an insoluble defense, anchored by Franco Baresi, who has been described as being "on first-name terms with the ball." However, in a country where Silvio Berlusconi, the owner of AC Milan, was recently elected prime minister, running atop the ticket of a party that took its name from a soccer cry, Forza Italia (Let's Go, Italy), expectations are cruelly high. Any result that falls short of them will bring on tomato season.
"Contagious crap," is how Egypt's coach characterized the long-ball tactics of Irish counterpart, Jack Charlton, during the 1990 World Cup. Since 1986 Ireland has lost only 10 of 76 games, but it has done so with a style of play that, except back home, is universally unloved. Love 'em or hate 'em, Jack's Lads beat Bolivia, Holland and Germany, three formidable teams, in their last three Cup tune-ups. Of Charlton, it has been said he has created a laboring team for a laboring people. But it's also an immigrant team for an immigrant people, and there's no more appropriate stage for such a troupe to perform on than America. "Everybody is playing away from home," says Charlton. "But it will be more home to Ireland than many others."
Also at home—or close to it—will be Mexico, of which 19th-century president Porfirio Díaz once said, "Poor Mexico, so far from God, and so close to the United States." After the team's glittering 9-2-1 run during qualifying, many Mexicans have been recalculating their distance from the Almighty and rejoicing at their proximity to the U.S., where they will easily be accorded second-most-favored-nation status.
The draw pits the smaller Mexicans against three rough-and-tumble European teams. Still, the size difference might play to the Tricolores' strength, because their ground-bound attack is built on fancy footwork and constant pressure. Jorge Campos, the dimpled and diminutive goalkeeper, reflects the team's daredevil attitude with his fluorescent wardrobe and restless feet. As defender Ramon Ramirez, considered by many observers to be the team's best all-around player, puts it, "We like to take risks."
One can expect a sense of irony from a Marxist-Leninist who says he has earned more money from poker than soccer. So it's not surprising that Norway's coach, Egil Olsen, known as el Drillo for his incessant dribbling as a player, has constructed an English-style, air-based attack that renders the drillo nil-o. With 6'5" target man Jostein (the Lighthouse) Flo heading long balls onto his forwards' feet, the Norwegians suddenly look formidable for their first Cup apperance in 56 years.
The English influence is pervasive on the team: Flo, keeper Erik Thorstvedt and seven other Norwegians suit up in Britain's Premier League. While many consider the overly direct, punt-and-grunt approach there tedious, if not passe, Olsen doesn't. He used it to beat and tie England during qualifying.