For weeks La Gazzetta had pilloried Sacchi for introducing a system of four defenders, three midfielders and three forwards, which in its considered opinion didn't make nearly as much sense as a more defensive-minded 4-4-2. On Saturday, Sacchi appeased the press and most of his players by opening in a 4-4-2. But after Italy failed to score in the first half he went back to the 4-3-3 alignment he had used over the past few months.
"It's clear this should make us reflect a little," said a shaken Sacchi after the loss. In fact, the Azzurri reflect too much, always seeming to go for beauty and precision. The Irish just go. In the end the game came down to soccer as art versus soccer as craft. The Italians play as if they invented the sport; the Irish make no such claim—but jaysus, the Lads have good craic with it, wha'?
With Mexico and Norway the Italians and Irish had been thrown together in Group E of the World Cup draw, the so-called Group of Death or girone della morte, for its top-to-bottom quality. How Italians deal with the prospect of death is the subject of a joke Europeans like to tell about the three shortest books ever written: German Humor, English Cuisine—and Italian War Heroes. If the Irish face an uncertain fate more intrepidly than the Italians, the reason may quite well be Charlton, a plainspoken Protestant from the coal country of northeastern England who likes nothing more than spending an afternoon fishing. Before a game in Belfast not long ago, some Northern Ireland fans began abusing the man who was known as the Giraffe when he anchored the midfield for England's 1966 World Cup champions. Shouting through a restraining fence, they called him an English traitor and a long-necked bastard. Charlton simply ambled over and bummed a cigarette.
Of the 22 players on Charlton's team, only seven were born in Ireland. The rest have sufficient Irish ancestry to qualify for the national team. Thus the apocryphal tale about a recent addition to the Irish team who's standing at attention before a game as the national anthems are being played. "This one lasts awhile," he says, turning to a teammate beside him.
"Shut up," comes the reply. "It's ours."
Houghton tried out for the Scottish national team as a teenager, but the Scots didn't want him. So if he's a mercenary, he's one nobody but the Irish cared to grant a chance. While Houghton provided the required offense, Paul McGrath led a defense that throttled Italian superstar Roberto Baggio. McGrath, 35, the son of an Irish mother and a Nigerian father, was left with social workers at Dun Laoghaire when he was only a few weeks old. He has survived eight knee operations and chronic alcohol problems, and the toughness of his life shows up in the way he patrols the last few yards before the Irish goal. A cheer of "Ooh, aah, Paul McGrath" goes up from the stands whenever he does the slightest thing to merit the chant, which on Saturday was often. Such is McGrath's standing among the Irish that, when Nelson Mandela visited Dublin four years ago, the throngs lining O'Connell Street to greet the South African leader broke into a chant of "Ooh, aah, Paul McGrath's da'."
Fifteen minutes from Giants Stadium, the city of Hoboken, N.J., is best known for giving birth to an Italian-American icon, Frank Sinatra, and the American pastime, baseball, into which soccer has tried in vain to make inroads. But in its single square mile Hoboken also accommodates a multitude of Irish bars, where on Saturday many of Ireland's ticketless supporters holed up. "Italian fans are more serious about their football," said a Dubliner named Robert, who was imbibing in a place called Moran's as he watched the game. "If we lose, we lose. After Italy beat us in 1990, 10,000 fans waited for Jack [Charlton] after the game to cheer him. About a half million people in a country of four million turned out when they got home. If we win today, it'll be the biggest achievement in our sports history. If we win, this place will go mad."
As Houghton's goal stood stoutly up, giving Ireland its first victory ever over Italy in international competition, Italians everywhere would only be mad. With three minutes to play, across the Hudson in a restaurant called I Tre Merli in Manhattan's trendy SoHo district, a commentator on Italian TV could be heard intoning the word difficultissimo. Then a patron named Bernardo uttered a disgusted "Pfffff." Pressed, Bernardo elaborated: "He started with a 4-4-2 when they've been playing the last few months in a 4-3-3." There's no way poor Sacchi can win. Unless, of course, Italy does.
Soon, in the bowels of Giants Stadium, Charlton was sucking on a cigar and saying, "People keep writing us off, and we keep beating people." A soaked but beaming Albert Reynolds, Ireland's prime minister, divulged plans to name Charlton minister for fisheries in the next cabinet. And one of the Azzurri griped that Houghton's goal was "ugly."
Leave it to a scoreless Italian team to complain that the goal that made it a loser wasn't pretty enough.