COMMENTARY : Irish Made Italians Play Better

HARTFORD COURANT

Twenty thousand people cannot outshout 55,000.

The Republic of Ireland probably couldn't sell five of its players for the $13 million it required Juventus to sign Italy's Roberto Baggio.

Visiting teams don't win often in soccer, especially not in the white-hot atmosphere of a World Cup.

And, most telling of all, Salvatore Schillaci apparently doesn't have an Irish grandmother. Or, if he does, Jack Charlton didn't find out about it in time to get the Sicilian superstar in a green-and-white uniform.

Schillaci's goal unlocked the Irish defense in the 38th minute of the first half Saturday night and sent Italy on its way to a semifinal match against Argentina in a quarterfinal victory that owed all of its charm and excitement to the Irish team nobody gave much thought to when this competition began.

In a tournament dominated (one should say stifled, burdened, overloaded) with "tactics," most of which translate into squeezing the life out of the game, the Republic of Ireland dares to be different. Actually, it dares play the game manager Charlton played in the days before the technicians got ahold of this sport and turned it into a midfield chess match often played at a walking pace.

The Irish kick the ball downfield and swarm after it. It isn't always pretty and it usually doesn't work, but it makes for uncertainty and excitement. Italian goalkeeper Walter Zenga, who entered the game with 778 consecutive scoreless minutes over 7 1/2 games, had more to do in one half this night than he had in his four previous World Cup games. Because the Irish kept on coming, Zenga had to be alert, adroit and, on one occasion, downright excellent.

The other encouraging thing was Italy forgot about tactics for much of the 90 minutes. In part, that was because the Irish swarm of forwards and midfielders chased every ball. Italy likes to be slow and elegant out of defense, but this time it had to speed up just to get rid of the Irish. The faster Italy went forward, the more chances there were for Roberto Donadoni, Giuseppe Giannini and Schillaci, who keeps producing the impossible on demand.

His only goal resulted from a powerhouse Donadoni shot, a screamer from 24 yards that Pat Bonner could only parry at the top left corner. Schillaci scooped the rebound to the opposite corner and then sunk to the ground as fans sang his name.

Early in the second half, Schillaci hit the crossbar with a free kick. The ball bounced onto the line and away from the goal. That would have given Italy insurance. Instead, the Azzurri had to cling to a 1-0 advantage right to the nail-biting end.

The Irish don't quit, of course. Their fans kept singing, often making as much noise with their chants as the Italian chorus of Aida's Triumphal March that resounded around Olympic Stadium. The Irish flags still waved, making the home fans wave theirs, too. And everybody was smiling and singing well after the final whistle sounded.

The Irish, certainly, play like they enjoy soccer. They brought a similar quality out of the home team, making Italy prove it can survive plenty of pressure and keep its collective head. It is a quality it will need if it is to win this championship Friday.

Saturday night we had a welcome dose of pure fun. This championship needs more of it, but ahead for Italy is dour, tactical Argentina and what would seem to be a nervous semifinal Tuesday night in Naples. Maybe Italian boss Azeglio Vicini should show his players the video tape of this game against Ireland. The Irish, many of whose players qualified for the Republic's team because their relatives rather than themselves were born in Ireland, will head for Dublin and a parade. The pundits will probably decide their record of no wins, four ties and one loss wasn't exactly a crowning achievement in this World Cup. Such an evaluation is incorrect: for 90 minutes in Olympic Stadium they made Italy a better team and earned themselves a lasting place in Irish soccer history.

The final Irish memory of Italy should be of their fans' support, singing "Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be," then calling for Charlton to come out of the locker room for a bow.

For Italy, there are memories still to be made.

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