A nun from Naples noticed athletic young men in green and white sweat suits waiting to greet Pope John Paul II at his general audience at the Vatican on Wednesday.
“Ours?” she asked with the paternalism of Italy’s 57 million soccer coaches.
“Theirs,” a friend replied. “Irish.”
“Wha . . . " the nun began, but her indignation died aborning. “It doesn’t matter,” she said, smiling. “They’ll still lose.”
Good coaching by former English star, Jack Charlton, now an honorary Irishman, has carried the Irish farther than they had any right to expect in Italia ’90. The luck of the Irish has meant advancing to the quarterfinals without winning a game, except for a penalty shootout against Romania after two overtimes had failed to break a scoreless tie.
Tonight, it will take more than luck and a papal blessing to get Ireland past Italy in the Olympic Stadium here that is Europe’s raucous 20th-Century answer to the Colosseum. The winner plays Argentina or Yugoslavia in the semifinals.
The Italians have won all four of their Cup matches, and have done it without yielding a goal.
Along the way, they have found a national hero of their own: chunky, dynamic Salvatore Schillaci, called “Toto,” who scores goals with intensity and pounces on opponents’ mistakes. A banner in the streets of the Palermo suburb where he was reared reads: “Dio perdona, Schillaci no.” God forgives, Schillaci doesn’t.
A Sicilian who labored long and anonymously in the vineyards of provincial Italian soccer, Schillaci is now public property. Everything, from the mewling of his newborn daughter to the bagginess of his pants, is scrutinized and weighed for significance. In a country historically split between a rich, educated north and a poor, unlettered south, the aw-shucks Sicilian has united Italy in a way politics never could.
Schillaci, 26, will team with his Juventus teammate Roberto Baggio, the world’s highest-paid soccer player, at the spearhead of Italy’s attack tonight. Versatile Roberto Donadoni returns to the midfield to replace twice yellow-carded Nicola Berti in the only change in the Italian lineup.
Franco Baresi, a sweeper who has been ranked as the best in the world for the last three years, anchors the Italian defense in front of goalkeeper Walter Zenga, who has not allowed a goal in his last 802 minutes.
Ireland, the oldest team in the tournament with an average age of 29, seemingly is overmatched. Most of its players are from the English first division, having discovered their Irish roots under Charlton’s genealogical guidance.
Patrick Bonner, who sank Romania by turning away a sudden-death penalty kick, is stubborn in the net. Tony Cascarino, whom Charlton calls the “Ice Cream Man” because of his Italian roots, will be most closely watched on attack. But the Irish, with only two goals in regulation time, are among the weakest scoring teams in the tournament.
They also play some of the least attractive soccer, emerging from a defensive shell into an always-in-the-air, kick-and-run-down-the-sidelines game that Italian commentators describe as “arid” and “Garabaldian” because of its guerrilla flavor.
“It’s the only game we know how to play,” Charlton said at a news conference. “Ours is an old, out-of-date game.”
He blamed the lack of finesse on England’s having been banned from club competition in Europe after hooligan violence in Belgium in 1985 had claimed the lives of 39 fans, most of them Italian.
“Being banished has been a terrible blow for our young players,” he said. “Our progress is stopped because we can’t play against other types of soccer. Ours is not splendid isolation. It’s just isolation.”
Italian Coach Azeglio Vicini has warned his players against overconfidence for a game that will draw about 10,000 Irish fans, among them Prime Minister Charles Haughey, to the giant stadium.
Italy’s soccer public, from cabinet ministers to the Communist opponents to partisan nuns and the officially neutral Pope, demands nothing less than a victory tonight. Having come so far with so relatively little, the Irish can go home with their heads high, win or lose.
“One of the advantages Ireland has is that it will go into the game free of worries, knowing that they have nothing to lose and everything to gain,” noted Aldo Serena, a reserve striker who scored Italy’s last goal against Uruguay in the second-round qualifier Monday night.