West German soccer Coach Franz Beckenbauer was right: The World Cup began with the second round.
The games picked up in intensity and left millions of fans of this most human of games reflecting upon how destiny is, after all, imponderable.
The team that dominated a match did not always win it. These, many fans who consider soccer not just a game but a test of national resolve and ingenuity, were left, as so often in soccer, to face the unappealable consequences of what often seemed random chance.
The second round did not, however, bring a sudden conversion to offensive soccer from the defensive style of play that marred the first round. The scores tended to remain low, and the differences narrow.
But as most of the games in the second round progressed, they gathered force from surges of national pride and the fear of extinction.
Here, on a warm and sunny summer afternoon, in Verona's agreeably middle-sized but modern stadium--a nice complement to the little city's large Roman arena, still handsome after 1,900 years--Spain and Yugoslavia fought through a competent but scoreless first half. Had it been the first round, each would probably have settled for a scoreless tie and slowed the game to a crawl.
In the first-round game between the Netherlands and Ireland, with each team having one point under its belt, they coasted to a tie that guaranteed both of them a place in the second round. Watching them play, an observer noted that they acted as if they were contending not for the World Cup, but the Nobel Peace Prize.
But Spain and Yugoslavia were going not for peace, but for victory, and as the game progressed so did the intensity of play. Tied at the end of regulation, the game went to Yugoslavia with a goal in the 93rd minute on a wickedly powerful and cleverly placed penalty kick.
A similar urgency drove the games between West Germany and the Netherlands, and England and Belgium.
The stormy German-Dutch match, perhaps the best of the tournament through the second round, pitted the Germans' muscular efficiency against the great technical skill of the Dutch.
A strategic curiosity contributed to the West Germans' 2-1 victory. With each side down one player because of hotly disputed penalties, the 10-man teams opened gaps in the field and gave opportunities to the disciplined Germans.
If victory always went to the insistent and skillful aggressor, however, Belgium would have beaten England in Bologna. As it was, the Belgians had some bad luck--their ball hit the goal post twice, a feat hard to achieve if you tried--and the English played their traditionally stolid English game: strong defense with veteran goalkeeper Peter Shilton, solid conditioning, little passing and the long ball.
It was the long ball that brought Belgium down, 1-0. The score came at the 119th minute, or one minute before overtime would have ended and the game would have had to be decided by penalty kicks, as it was when Ireland beat Romania entirely by penalty kicks, 5-4.
Perhaps it was not bad luck alone that stalked Brazil and brought it to its painful 1-0 loss to Argentina in the dazzling high-tech stadium at Turin. Playing less defensively than it had in the first round, Brazil dominated the game but never brought it off. Brazil hit the goal post not twice but three times.
Argentina had one chance, opened by Diego Maradona, and took it to score.
Brazil, the team everyone loves to watch, has now missed the final since 1970. In the last three World Cups, Brazil was eliminated after thrilling but heartbreaking games.
Perhaps soccer has become too tough a game to be won by virtuosity alone. Perhaps the fact that only three of Brazil's World Cup players came from Brazilian clubs means that the distinctive panache has been engulfed by the European clubs' tactical game. Most of the Brazilian players are obliged for financial reasons to play abroad.
Perhaps the adulation of its fans, 20,000 of whom came to Italy, is alone not enough to keep Brazilian soccer going in the style the whole world had come to love. The general affection for Brazilian soccer may even have been an obstacle, for it may have raised impossible expectations.
On the surface, there was no reason for such long thoughts to haunt the Italians as the second round ended. Their team had won every game. It was the only team to have had no goal scored against it. And it has been playing at home.
Home is not merely Italy, this exuberantly soccer-mad nation. Home is Rome, where the green, white and red Italian colors hang from the balconies of the flats of the rich and poor alike, where work stops when soccer starts, and where, after an Italian victory, the streets of the center of the city are filled until well after midnight with cheerful people carrying Italian flags and singing in the soft Roman night under a new moon.
Home is in particular and most especially Olympic Stadium, rebuilt on the post-World War II Olympic Stadium, which was in turn erected upon the tawdry mock-Empire Stadium for Mussolini.
There is nothing the least imitative about the new one, except that in its style it reflects the assertively competent and functionally beautiful engineering of its ancient ancestors. To hear the roar of the crowd of 70,000 or more when the blue-shirted Azzurri come on the field, to see the sea of waving Italian flags, to experience the intensity of expectation and sheer noise as the Italian team builds toward a shot at the goal, is to feel in your ears, your teeth and your bones that in the late 20th Century, nationalism is not dead.
Yet it is, at least in Italy, the most palpably benign kind of nationalism, the joy of country without the anger of those English hooligans who discredit their country by working out their frustrations on foreign soil. The cheerfulness and goodness of most of the English fans inside the stadiums, however, added much to the atmosphere of the games.
Two other nations' fans have shown this quality: the Irish, who are well liked for their good humor, and the Brazilians.
Twice in a decade we have seen towns in mourning when the Brazilians had to leave the tournament prematurely. This year, it is Turin th for that mourns.
As the quarterfinals began, the Italian hosts of this World Cup were asking themselves the nagging question: Just how good are their Blues, the Azzurri? When, for instance, in a swamp of humidity and a drizzle of tiny gnats in Olympic Stadium, they beat the plucky Uruguayans, 2-0--or earlier, the weak Americans, 1-0--were they doing just enough to win, or did they have it in themselves to prevail all the way to the end?
The Italian fans ardently hoped for, and we think deserved, a positive response.