I returned to the 64-billion-lire question: Will the country be ready by June 8, when Cameroon kicks off against defending champion Argentina in the opening match in Milan?
"The stadiums will be playable," Agnew said. But whether the fans will be able to reach them without a herculean struggle is in doubt. Many of the World Cup cities are in shambles, especially around the stadiums. Streets, bridges and tunnels are blocked, sidewalks have been turned into obstacle courses and Italy's infamous public transportation system has become even more undependable than usual. "What if there's a strike?" asked Agnew, pointing out that earlier this year a walkout by truck drivers had come close to paralyzing the nation. "But in the end," he said, "I think Italy will get away with it. No matter what else goes wrong, if the games come off on schedule, the country will get good press. You know Italians. They treat journalists very well."
What will save the 1990 World Cup, in Agnew's opinion, is the quality of the matches themselves. Because Italy is home to so many of the world's best players, few of the stars will have to worry about adjusting to a new environment, as happened in Mexico four years ago. More important, none of the teams will have to perform in half-empty stadiums. Il Mondiale should be the first sellout in World Cup history.
Those Italians who can't get tickets will be glued to their TV sets for most of the month. Indeed, to avoid mass absenteeism, Fiat offered to shut down its factories during the Azzurri's matches, but unions rejected the plan. There's no guarantee, however, that there won't be a repeat of the incident that occurred in Naples during a European Cup game between Italy and Sweden in 1987. Almost the entire staff of San Gennaro Hospital skipped out on patients and off to the stadium. Thirty-nine hospital workers were arrested and 200 others were indicted on criminal charges.
Predictions are a risky business in Italy. But historically, Italians have made a habit of clearing hurdles at the last minute, and as The Clock ticks down, maybe they can bring it off again. Perhaps the World Cup will run smoothly and millions of spectators will experience a "festival of culture and sport," as promised by the organizing committee. The right mix of sun, fine food and wine just might be enough to mellow out tifosi from every country. If so, those fans will be able to enjoy a sport as soul-stirring as opera and as beautiful as ballet, a spectacle that is never less than a microcosm of a fascinating, infuriating, lovely, funny and tragic country that, except when the Azzurri take the field, rarely regards itself as a nation.