Just when it came time to say, “Ciao, baby,” Italy, somehow, some way, reached the World Cup quarterfinals Tuesday at Foxboro Stadium.
And in the waning moments of a breezy afternoon not far from Boston, Italy’s hopes of winning a fourth world championship were restored to life by the man who was expected to lead the Italians all along--Roberto Baggio.
With all the intrigue of Italian opera, the Azzurri finally ascended, whereas Nigeria disappeared, victim of inexperience and, perhaps, stage fright.
Italy defeated Nigeria, 2-1, in a game that turned exciting the moment Baggio emerged from a three-match stupor. Baggio scored in the 89th minute to tie the score, then made a penalty kick in the 102nd minute before 54,367 in the tournament’s first overtime match.
It happened so quickly that Nigeria, the African champion, was left reeling, wondering how it had lost. "(We) had it in our hands,” said Finidi George, a Nigerian midfielder. “It’s something I’m going to remember the rest of my life.”
Nigeria, first-round winner of Group D, never unleashed its potent offense but took a 1-0 lead in the 26th minute and frustrated Italy until Baggio’s first goal. And until two minutes were left, Nigeria looked like the team Spain would face here in Saturday’s quarterfinals.
That was the result of Emmanuel Amunike’s goal after George had launched a corner kick from the right side, the ball bouncing around in front of the goal. When none of the Italians cleared the ball, Amunike tapped it in.
The goal held up for the longest time and so did Nigeria’s unorthodox play. Not only was Italy trailing, it lost Gianfranco Zola, who was ejected in the 76th minute for arguing with referee Arturo Brizio Carter of Mexico, who also gave out a Cup-record-tying nine yellow cards. That matched the tally in last week’s game between Argentina and Bulgaria.
Although finally using its superior skill to launch attack after attack, Italy was no closer to scoring through most of the second half. The Italians had open shots in front the goal but let the opportunities pass.
But they never stopped trying, and that, as much as anything, resulted in Nigeria’s elimination.
Italy finally scored when Roberto Mussi got the ball in the penalty area from Roberto Donadoni. He passed sideways to Baggio when defender Sunday Oliseh challenged him, and there was no one there to cover Baggio, who put the shot past goalkeeper Peter Rufai.
“It took something out of us psychologically,” George said of the goal.
And it lifted the Italians. "(After that,) we were convinced we were going to win,” Baggio said.
So was everyone else. The goal sent a buzz through the mostly partisan crowd, and Italy, although a man short, was lively as the 30-minute overtime began.
By then, Nigeria had little fight left and shot impatiently, as if in desperation. The Nigerians had come so close to duplicating Cameroon’s 1990 performance of reaching the quarterfinals, but it was slipping away.
Even as Nigeria led throughout, it was not the Nigerians’ best effort. The Super Eagles were unable to use their blazing speed to throw Italy off stride. They were hurt when forward Daniel Amokachi suffered an injury and was replaced by midfielder Mutiu Adepoju in the 35th minute.
“When an attacker gets injured, another attacker should come in because of the way we play,” said Rashidi Yekini, the team’s star striker. “They concentrated on me. It’s very difficult for one attacker to play against four defenders.”
But Nigeria could have made it 2-0 had Paolo Maldini been ejected for taking down Yekini as he broke for the goal in the 81st minute. Instead, Maldini was issued a caution, and instead of a penalty kick, Nigeria got Austin Okocha’s free kick, which was saved.
Yekini was bitter about Coach Clemens Westerhof’s treatment of players, accusing Westerhof of playing favorites.
“This is a lesson to Africa,” he said. “Before you choose a coach, you must think twice. It’s all politics. We played the game the way the coach wanted, and you see the result.”
Westerhof, who is Dutch and said he would retire from the Nigerian national team, probably had less to do with the loss than Italy’s determination. Although they trailed throughout, the Italians showed creativity.
Then came the overtime, and Italy looked confident for one of the few times in the tournament.
The penalty kick was set up when Baggio played give-and-go with Antonio Benarrivo a few yards from the right side of the goal. Baggio flipped the ball back to Benarrivo, who was tripped in the air by Austin Eguavoen. The penalty kick was awarded as Benarrivo lay sprawled on the grass.
Baggio slowly took three steps toward the ball and when Rufai lurched to his left Baggio shot in the other direction and bounced it in off the post.
“The World Cup begins now, not just for myself but for Italy,” Baggio said.
Just when it looked as if it might be ending.