WORLD CUP USA 1994 : ...


As in all epochal battles, mythical or otherwise, there has to be a hero and there has to be a villain.

But which is which?

That's the difficulty facing neutral observers of today's World Cup final between Italy and Brazil at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

For the first time in history, two three-time winners of the planet's most coveted sports trophy are squaring off in the championship match.

But which team should you support?

Do you take Italy, which won the World Cup in 1934, 1938 and 1982, because of its courage in the face of adversity? Because Coach Arrigo Sacchi has managed to avert disaster time and again? Because striker Roberto Baggio sports a ponytail and spouts Buddhism?

Or do you take Brazil, which won the World Cup in 1958, 1962 and 1970, because of its tradition of entertaining soccer? Because Coach Carlos Alberto Parreira has managed to get here unbeaten? Because striker Bebeto has the most unusual post-goal celebration?

The contrasts between the opponents could not be more striking. This is not simply Baggio and friends against Romario and friends. This is the Old World against the New. This is Europe against South America. This is the Imperial world against the Colonial world.

Rome or Rio? Tiber or Amazon? Vesuvius or Sugar Loaf?

You make the choice.

But here are some pointers to guide you.

Brazil comes into this afternoon's game having beaten Russia, Cameroon, the United States, the Netherlands and Sweden. The only blot on its copy book is a first-round tie with Sweden.

Italy comes into the game having beaten Norway, Nigeria, Spain and Bulgaria. The question marks on its record involve a loss to Ireland and a tie with Mexico.

Brazil has scored 11 goals and allowed three. Italy has scored eight goals and allowed five.

Italy has used 20 of its 22 players. Brazil has used 16 of its 22.

The Brazilians have never trailed in a game. The Italians have trailed twice, losing to the Irish but coming back to defeat the Nigerians in the final two minutes.

If it wins, Brazil would go through the tournament undefeated with one tie. If it wins, Italy would be the first team to take home the World Cup after losing a tournament game since Argentina in 1978.

The statistics can be read any way you please. Brazil has the better offense and the better defense. Italy has been through the fires, has been tested and has survived. Brazil has not been tested. Make of that what you will.

Then there are the coaches. Tactically among the most astute and inflexible in the world, they both have mapped out World Cup campaigns and stuck to their plans, ignoring the sniping by the media and the clamor for change back home in their respective countries.

By tonight, one will wear a halo, the other a set of horns.

Sacchi has chopped and changed the Italian lineup with an almost cavalier attitude, but he has not made change for change's sake. There have been thought and intention behind his moves.

So far, they have all paid off, although even he acknowledges having a little buona fortuna , but what coach does not need a bit of luck now and then?

It would have been good to see Giuseppe Signori given a chance as a forward, rather than having been tied down in midfield, where he has clearly been less than effective. The player is a goal-scorer, let him score.

But Sacchi has his own ideas.

Parreira has had to do far less patching and repairing. He mended his defense early on and has pretty much stuck with the same lineup, tinkering here and there with his midfield but still not getting it quite right.

Once left back Leonardo had been tossed out of the tournament for that especially nasty foul on American midfielder Tab Ramos, Parreira was widely criticized for playing Branco in Leonardo's place and not the more exciting and adventurous Cafu.

But Branco silenced the critics and vindicated Parreira's faith by scoring with an unstoppable, perfectly placed free kick against the Netherlands in the quarterfinals. Score one for the coach.

It would have been good to have seen the 17-year-old Ronaldo given some playing time, if only that in World Cups to come the youngster can say, "Yes, I played on the 1994 team in the United States," but Parreira has resisted that temptation.

There is a feeling that rather than being the exciting, wide-open final that everyone would like to see, today's match could bog down into a dour struggle, with the victor the beneficiary of one defensive mistake or a single piece of offensive brilliance.

A 1-0 result is not beyond the realm of possibility.

Italy's defense has been weakened by injury and suspension, and it will have to have the midfield help out. That will take away from the Italian offense, especially if Baggio, who has a strained hamstring, misses the game.

Brazil, despite the presence of Romario and Bebeto, struggled to score against the United States and Sweden, the latter twice proving a handful. The reason is the lack of imagination in the Brazlian midfield. Imagination is not something Parreira can have flown in overnight from Rio.

What he can do, however, is look to his bench. Alongside him sits Mario Zagalo, who played on Brazil's World Cup-winning teams of 1958 and 1962 and coached the winning team of 1970. Zagalo knows very well the meaning of jogo bonito , the "beautiful game."

Parreira can also consult his memory. He was the physiotherapist for the 1970 team. In his heart, he knows the way Brazilians like to play. But in his mind, will he let them do so, even if it means risking defeat?

It's very unlikely. As long as the result is more important than the performance, entertainment always will take second place.

Up in the press area, one man will be watching with particular interest. He's a television commentator, but he would much rather be down on the field.

His name is Pele.

In his epochal battles of yesteryear, none of them mythical, it was always easy to tell the heroes from the villains.

The heroes always wore green and gold.

Today, it's not that simple.

They might be wearing blue.

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