Last week when Governor Jim Edgar opened the 49th FIFA Congress by greeting the curators of soccer's World Cup "on behalf of the 11½ people of the state of Illinois," he didn't mean to imply that among the state's millions the world's premier single-sport event has a local following numbering fewer than a dozen. But the omens didn't look all that good as the Cup got under way last Friday at Chicago's Soldier Field.
There was the mistress of ceremonies, Oprah (If Your Problem Is Making a Commitment to Soccer, America, Maybe We Can Talk This Thing Out) Winfrey, kicking off the whole affair—only to stumble and fall while leaving the podium. Barely a minute into the opener, between Germany and Bolivia, the ball found its way into the stands, which occasioned a delay while a fan learned that this wasn't Comiskey Park, and you couldn't keep it. And could that have been a state trooper in deep slumber during the Germans' 1-0 victory, drooling onto his embroidered sleeve patch? (Integrity. Service. Pride. Spittle.) "I think we weren't the only ones who suffered from the heat," said Jürgen Klinsmann of Germany, the defending champions' star striker, who scored the first goal of the Cup. "I think the spectators did too."
It took only 24 hours and a change in venue for this desultory beginning to metamorphose into something closer to the event's gargantua-and-goose-bumps billing. At Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., in heat and humidity as remorseless as Chicago's, the World Cup opened for real on Saturday when Ireland beat Italy 1-0. Thirty-nine million Americans claim Irish descent, 15 million cite Italian ancestry, and the greater New York area has the nation's highest concentration of these two types of hyphenated Americans. Here was a summit meeting of the two peoples who, more than any others, built the megalopolis straddling the Hudson, and later often governed it, and with their bars and restaurants still slake their thirst and fill their stomachs.
The game had been on New York's brain since the World Cup draw was announced in December. Mayor Rudy Giuliani, welcoming the emperor and em-press of Japan last week, suddenly found himself praising the warm friendship between the U.S. and the people of...Italy. Irish actor Stephen Rea, at work on a film in Hungary, had a clause in his contract requiring the producers to fly him to the States and back via Concorde for the game. At Elaine's, long regarded as the epicenter of Manhattan celebrity nightlife, the staff was resolutely pro-Irish—except for headwaiter Giacomo Lodi, whose nephew Luigi Apolloni is a defender for the Azzurri.
Tickets for the Showdown in the Swamp were going for as much as $900 apiece. Not the afterglow of the Rangers, not the anticipation of the Knicks, not the opening of the Gay Games, not even the O.J. Simpson saga could eclipse Italy versus Ireland. "I think the U.S. can absorb a scandal and the World Cup," said FIFA executive Guido Tognoni, who added, "better they produce the scandal outside the World Cup."
With only 12 minutes gone, this occasion that was supposed to honor the hyphen wound up enshrining an exclamation point: Ray Houghton, a Glasgow-born son of an Irishman, leftfooted a ball 25 yards and over the fingertips of Italian goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca. This was the first goal Ireland had scored against Italy in nine years and would lead to a recurring refrain of "You'll never beat the Irish!" over the next 78 minutes. That was perhaps the most astonishing thing about Saturday's game—as much as 80% of the crowd of nearly 75,000 cheered for the Gaels. Organizers had expected 15,000 to 20,000 Italian fans to cross the Atlantic and barely half that many Irish to make the pilgrimage to Exit 16W on the New Jersey Turnpike. But almost everything was green, while and orange. Some fans blew bagpipes and beat bodhrans. Others toted guidebooks that included lyrics, to be sung to the tune of He's Got the Whole World (in His Hands), that went, "You've got the best footballers in the world /But they look like Sophia Loren."
Hundreds of tricolors covered virtually every festoonable spot on the facades of the stadium's two upper decks. How could this be, when the Football Association of Ireland and Irish tour operators received only 7,200 tickets between them? The others must have been Irish-Americans; or people with Irish blood from points on the European continent, Canada and Australia; or obsessive Emerald Islers who merrily paid ransom to scalpers. As it happened, it was a good thing that many of the last group made the trip: A barkeeps' strike in Dublin shut down close to 500 pubs.
Good thing they came, too, for this was a bit of history. Manager Jack Charlton and the Lads had lost to Italy in the World Cup quarterfinals in Rome four years ago, when a Sicilian substitute named Toto Schillaci, a second-division pro barely as tall as a bottle of Campari, drove home the goal that eliminated Ireland 1-0. (It wasn't a completely wasted trip; the whole team took advantage of the occasion to visit the Vatican, where Charlton, dozing off briefly, awoke to see the pope's hand raised in benediction. Thinking the pontiff was waving to him, Charlton waved back.)
For his part Italy's coach, Arrigo Sacchi, had tried to scale back expectations by declaring that his goal was to finish among the top four in this year's tournament. No one back home was buying that. The last words the team received from Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who's also the owner of European champion AC Milan, were a twist on Vince Lombardi: "Winning isn't everything, but if you lose, I'll take away your passports and not let you come home."
From the $375,000 worth of Armani suits the team is wearing to official functions, to the Italian Soccer Federation's indignant response to a recent plea from the Vatican to end league matches on Sundays, to the relentless hazing of Sacchi by La Gazzetta dello Sport, the nation's largest daily, soccer in Italy is imbued with a grim seriousness that seemed to show up in the pinched quality of the team's play against Ireland. "The right to fear does not exist," clucked an editorial in La Gazzetta on the eve of the Cup. "Fear would be a passport to a painful shame."