The 1994 World Cup took yet another bizarre turn Thursday when Italy defeated Norway, 1-0, in front of 74,624 at Giants Stadium.
The result was expected. The manner in which it was achieved was not. Consider:
--The first time Italian goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca touched the ball, he was out of the penalty box and was tossed out of the game.
--When Italian Coach Arrigo Sacchi sent reserve keeper Luca Marchegiani on in place of Pagliuca, somebody else had to come off.
--To the surprise of many in the stadium and to the utter astonishment of the Italian media, Sacchi chose Roberto Baggio, the world player of the year in 1993 and the player who was to lead Italy to glory in USA '94.
Only 20 minutes had gone and Italy was down to 10 men. It got worse.
--Franco Baresi, once regarded as the best sweeper in the world, was injured only minutes into the second half and limped off the field, his World Cup participation possibly ended.
--Later in the second half, Paolo Maldini, among the best left backs in soccer today, also was injured and was sidelined for about four minutes. That meant Italy was playing nine against 11.
And still the Italians won, making a 69th-minute goal by Dino Baggio (no relation to Roberto) stand up for the final 20 minutes despite increasingly dangerous offensive forays by the Norwegians.
As a result, Italy, Ireland and Norway have each won a game in Group E and share the top spot with three points each. Mexico, which plays Ireland in Orlando today, is still looking for its first point.
It was a peculiar day all around at Giants Stadium, where a World Cup face lift and new grass field have turned it into an altogether satisfactory soccer stadium.
To begin with, Sacchi once again juggled his starting lineup. The coach has been criticized repeatedly by the Italian media and the fans for confusing players by constantly using different lineups and formations. It has not stopped him from tinkering with the team.
On Thursday, Sacchi made three changes from the team that lost to Ireland, 1-0, also at the Meadowlands. He dropped defender Mauro Tassotti, injured midfielder Alberico Evani and midfielder Roberto Donadoni and brought in defender Antonio Benarrivo, midfielder Nicola Berti and forward Pierluigi Casiraghi.
Meanwhile, Norway Coach Egil Olsen appeared quite satisfied with the team that had beaten Mexico, 1-0, at Washington and made only a single change. He dropped midfielder Jahn Ivar Jakobsen and replaced him with forward Sigurd Rushfeldt.
None of the changes seemed to have the slightest bit of impact.
Giuseppe Signori kicked off to Roberto Baggio and the game immediately settled into a familiar pattern, with Norway defending and Italy attacking. The Norwegians are capable of absorbing tremendous pressure without cracking and the Italians got more and more frustrated.
Then, in the 21st minute, came the surprise.
Oyvind Leonhardsen broke free up the middle and bore down on the goal with only Pagliuca to beat during a rare Norwegian counterattack. The goalkeeper rushed out of his net and, indeed, out of his penalty area and tried to tackle Leonhardsen just as he tried to chip the ball over him.
Up went Pagliuca's arm to block the ball and Germany referee Heinz Hellmut Krug immediately produced his red card. Pagliuca had handled the ball outside the area and had to be sent off. There was no choice involved.
On came Marchegiani, who turned in a respectable performance, and then, to the raised eyebrows of almost everyone, off came Roberto Baggio.
"The substitution of Roberto Baggio was a difficult decision to make," Sacchi told the Associated Press. "But it was good for him and the team because I needed nine players who could run a lot. And I did not want to tire him too much. He can be decisive against Mexico."
Down to 10 men for the better part of 70 minutes, Italy actually played quite well, with Demitrio Albertini orchestrating matters in midfield and Signori, Casiraghi and Berti causing Norway all sorts of headaches when they went on the attack.
Finally, with the crowd beginning to wonder if it was going to witness the first 0-0 game of World Cup '94, the long-awaited goal came.
A foul by the inexperienced Alf Inge Haland, Norway's right back, led to a free kick from Signori. The ball curled into the box, Dino Baggio forced his way between two defenders and headed home a splendid goal over the outstretched arms of Erik Thorstvedt, who until then had produced a flawless performance in the nets.
The Norsemen attacked in numbers for the final 20 minutes, even bringing Kjetil Rekdal, who scored against Mexico, into the game with slightly less than 10 minutes to go, but it was to no avail.