WORLD CUP USA '94 : All Eyes On The Prize : SOCCER BECOMES BIGGER THAN A BIG STORY IN THE FOUR NATIONS IN THE SEMIFINALS: IT BECOMES THE ONLY STORY

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If there are Bulgarians in Italy tonight, they are silent Bulgarians.

From the Alps to Sicily, nothing will move in Italy beyond flickering images on TV sets when the beloved Azzurri play Bulgaria in a World Cup semifinal game. More than half the country--about 30 million people, nearly half of them women--will watch every move with unconcealed partisanship.

In Bulgaria, the team's ascent has been compared to the fall of communism there in 1989. A victory today would send hundreds of thousands of celebrants onto the streets of Sofia, some bearing beer and schnapps, others wearing masks of hero Hristo Stoitchkov's face.

In Brazil, Luzinete Nunes de Santana, a 32-year-old domestic, again won't be able to watch her nation's semifinal game against Sweden without first taking tranquilizers.

"I scream, I cry, I kick; whoever is at my side suffers," says De Santana, who spent most of her $64 monthly salary to buy a uniform resembling the national team's. "I feel my heart pounding and I'm afraid of getting sick."

If Sweden wins, fans by the thousands, with faces painted in the blue and yellow of the Swedish flag, can again be expected to dance and strip and swim in the fountain of Stockholm's central square, Sergels Torg, reveling in cool water against the heat of victory and shouting "Sweden, Sweden, Sweden," until they lose their voices.

The fervor today in four nations with teams in the World Cup semifinals will stretch across class, color and geography, from the Rocinha slums of Brazil to the majesty of Rome. It will be all-consuming.

"It's hard for Americans to understand," says Vanderley Borges, Rio de Janeiro police press secretary. "There's no equivalent to it for them."

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The local impact of this famous, long and contagious international athletic event rivals Carnival , outshines the Northern Lights, outdraws the pope, and, as party-starter down east, humbles the fall of communism.

Yes, by now everybody knows the World Cup transfixes the world outside the United States, but today Brazil, Sweden, Italy and Bulgaria are most viscerally afflicted.

The disparity of finalists is remarkable this year, rich and poor, large and small. There is an eastern team, a western team, a northern team and a southern team. Two teams that expected to be here; two that most expected would be long gone by now.

"The real miracle of this World Cup is not the presence of Italy in the semifinal, a point the team has reached four times in the last five editions. . . . The real miracle has been achieved by little Bulgaria," said Giorgio Tosatti in the Milan daily Corriere della Sera.

Brazil and Italy, cases in point, are among the final four because that is where they belong. Any of the millions of soccer experts walking the streets of Sao Paulo or Milan this morning can explain why, although few would resist also criticizing the much-maligned Italian and Brazilian coaches.

After Italy beat Spain to advance to the semifinals, a reporter asked Italian Coach Arrigo Sacchi why the same teams always seem to advance.

"It is not the case of a single tournament but of the history, the organization and the soccer environment in any given country," said Sacchi, who once coached AC Milan, which has consistently been the best team in the Italian League, itself the world's best.

There are four soccer giants in the world, and Italy and Brazil, each three-time Cup winners, are two of them. Germany and Argentina, now among the 20 also-rans, are the others.

Fans at home, their opponents--indeed, the entire world--expect these teams to do well. If they do not, heads roll as well as soccer balls.

There are no such lofty expectations in Sweden, which hasn't placed since 1958 and nearly didn't qualify this year, or Bulgaria, which had never won a World Cup match until this year. They have triumphed, even if they lose today.

So is it that soccer-crazed millions in four competing nations will watch semifinal matches today from perspectives as disparate as the countries that engender them.

BRAZIL

In Brazil, millions of hearts teeter on the edge of collective agony and ecstasy with each game, particularly as the country advances closer to the final.

Cardiologist Carlos Sheer has been busy.

"Last Cup, I took care of various urgent calls of high blood pressure and chest pain," Sheer said. "This year, for the time being, I've only received calls of people worrying if they could watch the game."

So intense is the emotion in Brazil that when a power outage in the remote Amazon town of Pimento Bueono sent television pictures flickering off the screen, an enraged mob of 1,000 rushed out of their homes, stoned the mayor's office and stormed the town's electrical power plant, setting fire to a power company car. And that was just for Brazil's first game.

The entire country borders on collective fanaticism, swept up in futbol fever. Even in the middle of a presidential campaign and a complete change of the national currency, football, accompanied with a huge photo, has been the lead story in every newspaper since the World Cup began.

Nationally, congress adjourns, schools close, government offices and local businesses shut down early for every game that Brazil plays, a phenomenon akin to shutting down all of America for a playoff game. Except for neighborhoods where tens of thousands gather to watch huge, big-screen televisions, urban centers such as Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo--a total of 30 million people--seem like ghost towns. Nearly everybody is inside watching the game.

"Football is more emblematic for the Brazilian population than a change in the economy," says anthropologist Jose Carlos Rodrigues, professor at Pontifica Catholic University and Federal Fluminense University. "We have our own mythology, like the Greeks have their own. Football is the God of our national mythology. It cauterizes emotions and makes each citizen feel like part of the whole."

Neighborhoods and even cities have been transformed into a sea of green and gold as residents have hung banners and canopies of streamers across streets that have been repainted in the national colors. One Sao Paulo store alone has sold 60,000 meters of decorative green and gold ribbon, enough to stretch the length of 650 football fields.

Exploding fireworks on game day give the city the sound of a war zone. And after each victory, streets are closed to vehicular traffic as people pour into the streets to celebrate.

With each victory, the anxiety is heightened. With a victory in the World Cup, the country will explode in a celebration bigger than the massive Carnival, which takes over the city every year.

"It's so big that it's actually frightening," says Eloisa Leuzinger, a 45-year-old researcher.

And if they lose?

"We'll all cry," said Jorge Luiz Nascimento, 52, head of a neighborhood association. "The whole country. You don't want to see it."

SWEDEN

The headline in Monday's afternoon Aftonbladet tabloid in Sweden said it all: "Yes!"

"This Was The Wildest Party of All," the paper said in its 16-page special section after Sweden defeated Romania on penalty kicks in the quarterfinal on Sunday.

So wild was it that one woman delivered a baby boy in the central square, unable to get through the throngs to the hospital; so wild that a man in the southern city of Malmo suffered a heart attack watching the game but refused to let his wife call the hospital until the penalty shooting was over; so wild that another woman fatally stabbed her husband who preferred the game to making love.

He and half the nation felt that way--4 million Swedes.

Then, in the cities early Monday morning, drivers honked their horns, pedestrians climbed traffic lights and lampposts to wave their flags higher, higher.

"We are so proud to be Swedish," enthused sports writer Bengt Olsson at Aftonbladet. "We haven't had a success like this since (Bjorn) Borg won Wimbledon back in the '70s."

Or since Sweden went to the semifinals in 1958.

"We made it through from the torture chamber of soccer," wrote Aftonbladet's Ulle Svenning.

Svenning is a political columnist, but then what could be more important to the nation than soccer now?

"This is a triumph for a team, not for any individual," he wrote. "That's how we want it in Sweden. Nobody should be a hero, bigger than the team."

Nobody but goalie Thomas Ravelli, perhaps, whose picture was plastered across the country.

"He Saves Us" said the headline in Aftonbladet.

"England, France, Germany, Holland, Colombia--All out," the Swedish paper Expressen celebrated. "And Sweden in the semifinals against Brazil."

Victory is thrilling, exciting, fantastic, Swedes said. Even the drunken fans, the soccer hooligans who turned over a patrol car and went for a bus before police evacuated Sergels Torg, even they didn't dampen the national enthusiasm.

"Sports pulls people together," Olsson said. "This is good nationalism."

ITALY

By this late stage in a madness that sweeps all of Italy once every four years, newspapers can't keep soccer terms out of their headlines even when talking of serious world affairs, such as the outcome of the weekend G-7 meeting in Naples.

"Yeltsin wins the Mondiale (World Cup) of the Eight" said La Stampa of Turin, hailing Russia as a new member of the group of the seven, now eight, leading industrialized countries.

In their customary commentaries that put soccer on the front pages, columnists are not expecting an easy victory for Italy over Bulgaria, which has already beaten Argentina, Mexico and Germany.

"It will be another suffering," predicts Gianni Mura in La Repubblica.

For Italy, suffering is the middle name of World Cup '94. Gritty Bulgaria stormed into the semifinals. Mighty Italy limped, each game a Calvary; every victory a last-minute miracle.

Since the Cup began, Italians have been outwardly unhappy with the coach, the stars and the entire team--singly, or in often arcane combination. Would they qualify? Could they win? Would they advance?

"Ironically, now that they have made the semifinals, the pressure is off. The higher you go, the easier it gets," said commentator Giorgio Chinaglia, one of Italy's greatest former players.

Now that honor is assured, every move that any player or coach makes in America is grist to immediate digestion and instant analysis.

Nearly every day there is a consuming teapot tempest: It is too hot, it is too humid, the team runs too much, the coach is a cretin, the team doesn't run enough, the coach is a genius.

Italian police will watch tonight's proceedings along with everyone else, but after the game there will be work to do if Italy wins: Italians have never been known to celebrate in silence.

Huge, happy crowds jam city centers up and down the peninsula. After the quarterfinal victory over Spain, police banned cars from the center of Rome--there were too many people in the streets.

Naples, particularly, hankers for a festa. Italy's victory Saturday came when the ceremonial heart of the city was closed to Neapolitans and filled with VIPs--President Clinton to Yeltsin to soccer fanatic Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

The best Naples could muster last weekend was a roar when Italy scored its winning goal that interrupted a press conference by visiting French President Francois Mitterand.

Now the bigwigs are gone and Naples is an open city again, able to fully participate in a consuming national thirst for soccer victory.

BULGARIA

Perhaps David Miller, writing in the Times of London, best summed up the feeling in Bulgaria:

"There is an element of national celebration in Bulgaria's victory that few in the United States for the finals can understand. For the nine million population of the country bordering the Black Sea, this performance is a global representation of new liberties, a joyous statement of nationalism enacted far away in the world's most powerful country, where the population is busy searching for Bulgaria on the atlas.

"The exploits of Stoitchkov and Yordan Letchkov have done for Bulgaria what Hungary's triumphs did for theirs in the early Fifties, winning the Olympic Games and, so nearly, the World Cup, and most especially for what it then still meant, defeating England at Wembley for the first time."

So it was not surprising that President Zhelyu Zhelev, in a nationwide broadcast, equated the soccer team's ascent to the fall of communism.

"Only after democracy came to this country our soccer players were allowed to play abroad and to create their real talents," Zhelev said. "So this victory comes naturally as a result of this development."

A crowd of some 10,000 watched the quarterfinal victory over Germany on huge television screens in front of the National Palace of Culture. Hours after the game they formed a dancing and singing throng; cars filled downtown Sofia, causing traffic gridlock and blocking public transportation.

"Our golden boys made us forget the 10th of November," said Alexander Tomov, 40, referring to the day in 1989 when former Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov was toppled. "The 10th of July is our new national holiday."

Maria Mihailova, 75, who was on the street celebrating with the young soccer fans, said she could not remember such a joyful event in Bulgaria.

"I feel at least 10 years younger," she said.

Times staff writers Ron Harris in Sao Paulo and Marjorie Miller in Bonn, Germany; special correspondent Janet Stobart in Rome and Times news services contributed to this story.

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