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Under Siege : As Coach of Italy’s World Cup Team, Sacchi Accustomed to Second-Guessing

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a quiet street in one of this rich city’s richest neighborhoods, beyond a security guard, up two flights of marble stairs and behind an iron gate, waits one of the most besieged men in Italy.

As he greets his visitors, appearing tanned, trim and in gentle good humor, it is difficult to imagine the powerful social forces that are churning outside the doors of this tasteful apartment. Detractors would like to take his job, at least.

So why is Arrigo Sacchi smiling? The coach of the Italian World Cup team is at the center of a predictable public hysteria--traceable every four years to this desperate period of weeks when the Azzurri are in their final preparations for the World Cup finals, soccer’s world championships, which begin June 17 in nine American cities.

In a country where soccer ranks alongside religion in public debate, a good many of the citizens consider themselves to be highly qualified to coach the Italian national team, one of the World Cup favorites.

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Criticism of Sacchi has been scalding since he took the job in 1991. It has increased dramatically with the national side’s three losses this year. The first two, in international “friendlies” against France and Germany, were no great shame. The latest, though, was too much. The national team was beaten two weeks ago by Pontedera, a lowly fourth-division Italian club team, 2-1. The soccer world tittered.

Italian-language newspapers in New York called for Sacchi’s sacking, and one even editorialized that the coach should be exiled to an island in the Pacific.

In Italy, the reaction was more strident. There is even some sentiment for the Pontedera coach taking over the World Cup team.

An Italian soccer magazine recently mocked Sacchi for calling up 73 players in two years to play with the team, but not yet settling on any. Running under a headline that read, “Arrigo, have you forgotten anyone?,” the magazine displayed a full page of mug shots of the players Sacchi has used, sprinkling in photographs of Sylvester Stallone as Rambo, Robin Williams as Popeye and even Pope John Paul II.

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But the way most Italian fans feel about Sacchi’s methods, not even the Pope can help this team.

Sacchi has been criticized for calling up too many players, too few players from the south of the country, for using players in the wrong positions, for using bizarre tactics and for being an odd guy who reads too many books. But through it all, Sacchi, 48, has maintained a Zen-like peace, a philosophy he might have borrowed from his team’s star player, Roberto Baggio, a Buddhist.

In 21 years as a soccer coach in Italy, Sacchi has fashioned an American-style success story. Growing up in a small town near Ravenna, Sacchi played in a nearby farmer’s fields. He began his coaching career in the lowest professional division and worked his way up to the coaching job at AC Milan, one of Europe’s premier teams. He left Milan to become national coach.

Dubbed “Mr. Nobody” by Italian journalists, he has come from nowhere to the most important sports job in Italy.

“I am a lucky man,” Sacchi said last week. “I am doing the work I choose. I never even dreamed of this. It is beyond a dream, it is Utopia. I was in Milan with two years to go on my contract. I told them, ‘Stop!’ Why? I’d hadn’t any more enthusiasm. Every day I was no longer going to work, I was going to a job. It was time to go.

"(As a coach) I began in the second category. I am accustomed to suffering and I am accustomed to criticism. I am accustomed to hearing people say, ‘You can’t do that. It can’t happen.’ I have always been a dreamer. But it’s also important for my players to have dreams. If everyone dreams the same dream together, it will become reality.”

Sacchi’s dream involves changing the style of the Italian national team, which is sacred territory for fans who have been resistant to change. Even the national team players have been slow to adopt Sacchi’s system, a reluctance Sacchi explains is part of the very Italian trait that prizes winning, but fears losing more.

This has bred a conservative, suffocating style, he said. Italy’s gift to the soccer world has been fast, scrappy and shrewd defensive players and an effective zone defense. In the past, few goals have been scored against Italy, but neither have Italian teams scored many goals.

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Sacchi is dedicated to the concept of attacking soccer, and his players are asked to be constantly on the move, making quick decisions. Because he doesn’t adhere to a strict distinction among his forward players, Sacchi has been open to criticism about Baggio, in particular, whom he has played both in the midfield and as a forward.

“I hope to have a team where it is difficult to know who is the forward, who is the defender,” he said, emphasizing the importance of confusing opposing players. “If the situation would be clear, the game would not go well. I want 11 players who attack and 11 players who defend.

“We do not come to the United States promising victory. But we promise a great will and dedication to the job. We would like to play a style of soccer that is very pleasing to the fans, a soccer that takes great risks, a dynamic and very fast game. If we succeed at this, then the results will be unimportant.”

Sacchi’s philosophical outlook does not sit well with Italian fans who expect victories, not style points. The constant demands on his time and sharp criticism in the media often drive Sacchi to his childhood home in the country, where it is possible, he said, to ride his mountain bike for two hours and see only two farmers.

Sacchi told a story of a bike ride he took in the country this week. He was riding along a lane and came across on old farmer, one he had known since he was a child. They discussed the recent controversies and public outcry against Sacchi. The farmer reminded Sacchi of all that he had already accomplished in guiding Italy through World Cup qualifying. He deserved to be proud of what he had done, the farmer told him.

Sacchi smiled.

“He told me, ‘Life is like a piece of cake. Everyone pushes around the table to get a piece of the cake. The big ones first and the not-so-important ones last. Now, you have a place at the table,’ ” Sacchi said, laughing.

“You see? Mr. Nobody now does not have to fight for a place at the table!”

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