The Sunday Times of London says it simply: If Americans aren't transformed into soccer fans by this World Cup, it's their own damn fault. "Let them languish in heathen worship of fat men playing rounders, freaks of nature mucking about at glorified netball or the tedious travesty of rugby league that is American football," the paper wrote recently. "We are witnessing a prolonged epiphany of the one true sport."
Having nothing to compare a World Cup to, why shouldn't we take the Sunday Times at its word? Last weekend, as the draw got whittled down to semifinalists Brazil, Italy, Bulgaria and Sweden, the Cup seemed jolly good indeed, decanting for us four lasting images: a perfect game-winning kick by a Branco in Dallas that had nothing to do with field goals, the Cowboys, Denver or, yes, the tedious travesty of rugby league that is American football; a half-drowned rabbit brought back to life; a team that caused nearly as much trouble for gamblers as it did for defending-champion Germany; and a keeper of a 'keeper. Turns out there is a way to get to a Final Four without going through Knoxville and Dayton and Boise.
With Leonardo, Brazil's star defender, suspended for the rest of the World Cup for elbowing a crack in the skull of U.S. midfielder Tab Ramos, coach Carlos Alberto Parreira needed to find another Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle to fill out his lineup. For the quarterfinal against the Netherlands he' settled on Branco, a 30-year-old defender recently recovered from a back injury, whom many fans considered unworthy even of nomination to the national team.
Several games' worth of action was crammed into 30 minutes of the second half of the Brazil-Netherlands match, which Parreira would call "the best of the Cup and certainly the most dramatic." With Brazil leading 2-0, its goalie, Cláudio Taffarel, was going on 175 minutes without fielding a shot. But just when it looked as if he could continue his on-the-beach-at-Rio impersonation indefinitely, the Netherlands suddenly scored twice in 12 minutes. This set up Branco's moment, what he would call "my put-up-or-shut-up goal."
In his book Twenty-Two Foreigners in Funny Shorts, Pete Davies wrote, "A good Brazil-style free kick, the ball creasing through space, is a living demonstration of the theory of relativity. Don't blink, or you'll miss it." The Dutch blinked. The shot Branco let rip in the 81st minute, a seeing-eye liner from 30 yards out, found the one hole in the Netherlands' wall. It split the narrowest space between two players, a Dutchman and a Brazilian. Then it entered the goal at the only possible aperture, in the few inches between the right post and Dutch goalie Ed de Goey.
"We have shown the soccer art today," said striker Romario after the 3-2 victory, "the soccer art Brazil has always played." Indeed, there's a folk art practiced in Brazil called capoeira. Part dancers and part athletes, capoeiristas originally attached knives to their feet and then launched into a light-footed slashing of each other, trying to wound and dazzle at the same time. This choreographed martial art is still practiced, albeit without the knives, in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, the blighted neighborhoods from which most of the great Brazilian soccer players have come. And, some would say, capoeira is practiced whenever the Magnificent Mononyms take the field.
Italian coach Arrigo Sacchi did the unthinkable in the first half of Italy's first-round game with Norway. He replaced forward Roberto Baggio, who is the world's best soccer player. As he was summoned from the field, Baggio clearly enunciated the Italian words for "Has he gone mad?!"
Sacchi hadn't entirely. Italy's goalkeeper, Gianluca Pagliuca, had just been ejected from the game for intentionally using his hands outside the penalty area. The Azzurri were now forced to play 10 players against 11. And with Baggio already suffering from a sore Achilles tendon, Sacchi's move made sense, particularly since Baggio hadn't scored for the national team in more than 800 minutes of play. Indeed, the fans—in Italy they're called tifosi, which literally means typhoid carriers—would agree with Sacchi, even though 84% of them had said in a recent poll that the coach should be replaced. Most astoundingly, the Italian press, which has scarcely needed an excuse to lambaste Sacchi for everything from his previous profession as a shoe salesman to his singsong Parman accent, stood by him too. Nonetheless, some members of the press did their best to stoke the controversy, which caused forward Giuseppe Signori to upbraid them. "Just because Baggio was taken out, no need to start Baggio-gate," he said, without explaining why, with all the scandals in Italy, he couldn't come up with some suffix besides the American "gate."
Fiat magnate Gianni Agnelli, the owner of Juventus of Turin, Baggio's club team, said his 5'7" asset had looked "like a wet rabbit"—that's Italian for "wimpy"—during the Cup's first round. But as Italy trailed Nigeria 1-0 in a second-round game, Baggio put his foot bravely forward. He conjured up the tying goal as the game entered its 89th minute. Then, in overtime, he added the game-winner on a penalty kick.
Last Saturday, during the 88th minute of a tied quarterfinal game against Spain, Baggio found himself running onto a looping pass from Signori. Only Andoni Zubizarreta, the Spanish goalie, was left to beat. Baggio did so and, true to his Buddhist beliefs, meditatively took his time before flicking the ball into the net. He then fell on his back, completed a reverse somersault and blew kisses to the crowd. Six Spaniards lay sprawled on the field, trying to come to terms with the notion that they were going to lose, 2-1, and the Azzurri were heading to the semis.