WORLD CUP USA ’94 / THE FINAL : COMMENTARY : It’s One, Two, Three Strikes You’re Out


O , what a show this World Cup final promised to be.

Baggi- O !

Romari- O !

Bebet- O !

Maestros of the sweet sound of soccer ball hitting net, that’s how they were billed. Virtuosos. Magnificos . The Three Tenors of the unstoppable shot on goal, brought together for the biggest performance of their lives--live, Sunday, at the Rose Bowl.

So we watched and waited, waited and watched.

Score after 45 minutes: O to O.

Score after 90 minutes: O to O.

Score after 105 minutes: O to O.

Score after 120 minutes: O to O.

They are supposed to be the three greatest strikers in the world, give or take a Stoitchkov or a Klinsmann, and all they had done was go down swinging. Strike one, strike two, strike three.

They were forced to endure the striker’s ultimate indignity--the game of their careers, decided by penalty kicks--meaning they had failed before all the world to do their jobs, meaning that the World Cup, the prize jewel of their sport, would be won and lost for the first time in history in a crapshoot.


“It was our responsibility to win the game,” Bebeto had to somberly concede in the aftermath. And his team was the penalty-kicks champion. “But in soccer, there are always surprises.”

Well, not quite. Pele never needed penalty kicks to win his three World Cups. Maradona, Paolo Rossi, Gerd Muller--the greatest strikers of their day all managed to strike when their countries needed it the most.

But Romario and Bebeto, the Goal Dust Twins for the first Brazil side of the post-Pele era to reach the World Cup final, hemmed and hawed and turned Italian goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca into a two-hour hero. Bebeto never put a serious shot on net and Romario spent most his time playing bumper pool off the legs of blue-shirted defenders.

As for Roberto Baggio, what can an Italian fan possibly say without reaching for a handkerchief? Baggio played in pain, played while dragging his right leg around the yard, but when all was said and done, Baggio had four chances to win the game and punted every time.

Thrice, he went high and over the crossbar--in the 83rd minute, in the 97th minute and on the last kick of this World Cup, the penalty kick that will live forever in Azzurri infamy.

But it never should have reached so dire a strait--that’s the point, the only one evident during regulation and overtime.

Romario and Bebeto had combined for eight of Brazil’s 11 goals through the semifinal round. Baggio had five of Italy’s eight, including two in the semifinal triumph over Bulgaria (the score was 2-1) and two in the great round-of-16 escape against Nigeria (that score again: 2-1).


After the game, Romario was awarded the Golden Ball as outstanding player in this World Cup. Baggio won the Silver Ball. (Bulgaria’s Hristo Stoitchkov won bronze.) But during the game, both were kicking leaden balls.

At least Baggio had an excuse from his doctor, even if no one in Italy wants to hear it this morning. Baggio’s pulled hamstring would have kept him out of any game that didn’t have the bragging rights of modern civilization riding on it. Under any other circumstances, Baggio should have had that right leg wrapped and propped up on the Italian bench, basking in the cooling misting jets.

Instead, Baggio decided to take the heat. Ninety-plus degrees on the field and who knows how many Fahrenheit in the tabloids back home. He played every single minute, albeit not with quite the same panache as he had along the road to Pasadena.

Would a fit Baggio have spun in the box in 24th minute of overtime, with the far corner of net yawning at him, and squibbed a one-hopper that Brazilian goalkeeper Claudio Taffarel fielded like a shortstop? The Baggio of the Bulgaria game would have netted that one before Taffarel could have blinked. Roma would be closed today for the national holiday.

Instead, Taffarel made the save and Baggio sat dejectedly in the area, legs splayed in front of him, like a 6-year-old deprived of his birthday cake.

Romario and Bebeto, meanwhile, were largely hamstrung. Italy’s backline was makeshift and injury-depleted, but Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini and the others surrounded Romario like a police escort. Bebeto managed a few blunted crossing passes, dribbled a ball off his foot in the box and generally played the part of invisible man.


He even failed to make an appearance during penalty kicks, as World Cup trivia buffs are sure to some day note.

When Baggio swung and missed, Bebeto was the man on deck.

“It was an injustice for us to win this game on penalty kicks,” Bebeto reiterated. “We were the best team.”

On a day when all the best players struck out.