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Italy Takes Out Joy, but Brazil Restores It

Friday’s matches in Nantes and Saint-Denis weren’t so much quarterfinal encounters as opposing viewpoints on the World Cup Way To Conduct Business.

There is the Italian way, as envisioned in the dark recesses of Cesare Maldini’s mind--soccer as an Inquisition torture chamber, with boot studs tearing into the flesh of opposing attackers, with limbs twisted and contorted, with bodies hacked and bloodied and beaten in a grim all-out defense of one’s own goal.

And there is the Brazilian way, as bright and as sunny as the yellow shirts on their backs--soccer as a day at the beach, or during a commercial shoot at the airport, with bicycle kicks and balls whipped behind backs and heads spinning around to keep up with the frenetic pace.

With both teams needing a victory to reach the Final Four of the World Cup, Italy and Brazil played it about as dissimilarly as present soccer rules allow.

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Italy played for 0-0 and penalty kicks, cynically packing its defense with eight defenders against France, not even bothering with the pretense of a strategy that might take the Italians within the same postal code of the French penalty area.

Brazil played to outscore Denmark, which proved more of a challenge than originally thought, as the Danes scored in the second minute and, amazingly, again in the 50th, requiring the Brazilians to counter with goals in the 11th, 27th and 60th minutes.

Both got what they set out for, but there will be no rematch of the 1994 World Cup final.

Brazil’s 3-2 triumph over Denmark moves the defending champion into the semifinals against either the Netherlands or Argentina, but Italy’s 0-0 tie with France only brought on penalty kicks--and this much must have slipped Maldini’s mind:

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The Italians aren’t very good at them.

The resume is starting to become redundant.

Italy in World Cup ’90: Eliminated in semifinals by Argentina on penalty kicks.

Italy in World Cup ’94: Eliminated in final by Brazil on penalty kicks.

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Italy in World Cup ’98: Eliminated in quarterfinals by France on penalty kicks.

Evidently, God is a fan of jogo bonito, the “beautiful game” that is the First Commandment of Brazilian soccer, even if it does on occasion leave Mario Zagallo, the Brazil coach, on the brink of a nervous breakdown.

Italy deserved its tournament red card for dragging France--doing all it can to be the congenial host--into the muck and mire of the ugliest game of this World Cup. France went at the goal hard, but found scoring difficult when it would release a quick counter pass that normally would trigger a three-on-one break--only to look up and see itself outnumbered, three on five, swamped by blue shirts.

In 120 minutes of thumb-screw soccer, Italy put all of three shots on goal. Overall, it tried seven shots. Fouls and cards came easier. Italy and France combined for 50 fouls and five yellow cards, leaving almost 80,000 fans inside Stade de France to wonder why they had spent exorbitant amounts to sit through the Paris stop of the WWF World Tour ’98.

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The Italian media see variations on the woolly-mammoth theme every Sunday during Serie A season. But this display was so crude, so blatant, that even their mood was cranky by the time Maldini entered the mixed zone.

Why didn’t Italy play more aggressively, why didn’t it attack more, they wanted to know.

“What do you mean--'more attacking?’ ” Maldini shot back. “I have no complaints to make of the way my players played. It’s easy for journalists to sit back and critique.

“We didn’t miss out on anything and we played well. Nothing went wrong, as you can see by the score at the end of 90 minutes. Nil-nil. A flawless match.”

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Great. Here FIFA is trying to sell soccer to such backwater outposts as the United States and the coach of one of the world’s elite teams is calling 90 minutes of mugging Frenchmen in the park soccer perfection. Next time, do not let this man anywhere near an ESPN2 telecast.

If that’s perfection, may the last nine days of this World Cup wallow in the kind of glorious miscues that produced Denmark’s second goal against Brazil.

In the 50th minute, with Brazil protecting a 2-1 lead, Denmark sends a looping pass down the flank, into Roberto Carlos territory. Piece of cake for Roberto. Can of corn. He either heads it away or chests it down or half-volleys it 40 yards the other way.

No, too easy, Carlos decides.

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Too boring.

Trying to enliven the proceedings a bit, Carlos tries to clear the ball with a backward bicycle kick, a little something for the evening news back in Rio.

Carlos swings . . . and he misses.

The ball bounds instead to Denmark forward Brian Laudrup, who latches on and slides in the tying goal.

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Zagallo all but keeled on the spot. But, realizing boys from Brazil will be boys from Brazil, he calmed himself down, waited 10 more minutes and then watched Rivaldo score his second of the night, the eventual winner.

Afterward, Zagallo decided the match “was an example of two teams playing an open-minded game. It was a match that showed how football should be played in the World Cup.”

Maybe with time it will catch on.

Italy, take the next four years.

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