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Well, that's better. The U.S. soccer team, which had resembled a flock of sheep being led to the World Cup slaughterhouse, reared up and said "Baa!" to its critics last Thursday with a scrappy 1-0 loss to the Italians in Rome's Olympic Stadium. Yes, the U.S. did lose its second game in the three-match first round and almost any chance of advancing in the 24-team tournament. And yes, a 1-0 score in soccer can be as lopsided as a 20-0 score in American football. But this was, oh, about a touchdown to zip, and if you don't think Italy's top-seeded Azzurri were happy to get off the sod with a W, then you probably think that that nutty tower in Pisa doesn't lean.
After getting routed 5-1 (let's call it 55-3) by a supposedly mediocre Czechoslovakian side in their opening game on June 10, the Americans were on everybody's short list of alltime worst qualifiers for the World Cup finals. "If we lived in another country, we would ask for political asylum," said U.S. midfielder Tab Ramos, "but since we're American, we'll stay in New York, and nobody will recognize us."
The U.S. players were so bad, the critics said, that they should rethink their future sporting plans, even as recreational athletes. Coach Bob Gansler was so bad he couldn't teach anybody how to inflate a soccer ball, let alone defend against one bouncing toward the American goal. The U.S. players were dwarfs, according to a story in La Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy's premier sports daily: "Nice guys perhaps and maybe even destined for a great future, but for now, dwarfs." And the writer wasn't talking about the players' heights.
Journalists dug up the scores of the worst World Cup slaughters in history- Hungary 9-0 over South Korea in 1954, Yugoslavia 9-0 over Zaire in '74, Hungary 10-1 over El Salvador in '82—and prepared to inscribe the U.S.- Italy result alongside them. Before the game there was speculation that the Italians might lie down with the lambs and win by no more than, say, 3-0, out of compassione. After all, Italians don't hate Americans the way the citizens of some other nations do. Indeed, it's hard to find an Italian who doesn't have a relative somewhere in the States or who isn't thinking about heading there himself, at least for a look-see. "Mamma mia, give me 100 lire," said Italian goalie Walter Zenga before facing the U.S., quoting a popular Italian song from the '20s. "I want to go to America!"
Instead, Zenga almost went to Mars when U.S. striker Bruce Murray blasted a free kick in the 24th minute of the second half that bounced off the startled goalie's outstretched hands. The ball rebounded to the other U.S. striker, Peter Vermes, whose follow-up shot hit Zenga and nearly trickled past him into the net as he was falling backward. Italian defender Riccardo Ferri cleared the ball, and the U.S. didn't make any serious scoring threats after that. But the dwarfs had made a statement. Another inch one way or the other, and the mighty Azzurri would have been looking at a 1-1 tie with Sneezy, Dopey and Doc.
Italy got its only goal early in the game, when Giuseppe Giannini waltzed through a pack of defenders and fired the ball past U.S. goalkeeper Tony Meola. At that point, it appeared that the rout was on. However, the Americans, having switched to a defensive posture after trying to play aggressive offense in the fiasco against Czechoslovakia, frustrated the slick-footed Italians by slowing the pace. The 73,423 home fans were considerably more than frustrated when Italy's Gianluca Vialli missed a penalty shot in the 33rd minute. The flag-waving crowd filled the air with whistles, and Vialli knew exactly what the locustlike chorus meant. "All of Italy wanted me to go to hell," he said after the game.
The fans' displeasure with their team took some of the pressure off the U.S. "I noticed that when we started stringing passes together or forcing the Italians to kick back to their goalie, the crowd started whistling at them," said U.S. captain Mike Windischmann. "The Italian fans are very demanding. I know how it is. I'm from New York."
Hey, fellas, put a lid on the New York material. Windischmann grew up in Queens, after having been born in West Germany. He would like people to know that despite what they may think, the U.S. team is not made up of foreigners. You would never know that from looking at the roster. With names like Eichmann, Stollmeyer, Trittschuh, Windischmann, Balboa, Caligiuri, Covone, Meola, Ramos and Vanole, the American team sounds like a Euro-Latin joint business venture. In fact, every member of the World Cup squad was raised in the U.S. "The kids back home need to know that we're real Americans," says Windischmann. "They need to know that soccer is a beautiful game."
It can certainly be a thing of beauty when a side comes back, as the U.S. did, from embarrassment to respectability. After the game, defender Jimmy Banks, who had replaced John Stollmeyer in the starting lineup, said, "All in all, I feel a little bit victorious."
Standing near Banks as he spoke was U.S. midfielder Eric Wynalda, who had been red-carded in the game against Czechoslovakia for shoving an opponent and thus was automatically suspended from the Italy game. As the first U.S. player ever to be tossed from a World Cup finals game, the 21-year-old Wynalda had attained historic notoriety and wasn't happy about it. "To sit and watch the team play," he said shaking his head. "I tear my heart out and throw it on the floor."