Well, that's better. The U.S. soccer team, which had resembled a flock of sheep being led to the World Cup slaughterhouse, reared up and said "Baa!" to its critics last Thursday with a scrappy 1-0 loss to the Italians in Rome's Olympic Stadium. Yes, the U.S. did lose its second game in the three-match first round and almost any chance of advancing in the 24-team tournament. And yes, a 1-0 score in soccer can be as lopsided as a 20-0 score in American football. But this was, oh, about a touchdown to zip, and if you don't think Italy's top-seeded Azzurri were happy to get off the sod with a W, then you probably think that that nutty tower in Pisa doesn't lean.
After getting routed 5-1 (let's call it 55-3) by a supposedly mediocre Czechoslovakian side in their opening game on June 10, the Americans were on everybody's short list of alltime worst qualifiers for the World Cup finals. "If we lived in another country, we would ask for political asylum," said U.S. midfielder Tab Ramos, "but since we're American, we'll stay in New York, and nobody will recognize us."
The U.S. players were so bad, the critics said, that they should rethink their future sporting plans, even as recreational athletes. Coach Bob Gansler was so bad he couldn't teach anybody how to inflate a soccer ball, let alone defend against one bouncing toward the American goal. The U.S. players were dwarfs, according to a story in La Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy's premier sports daily: "Nice guys perhaps and maybe even destined for a great future, but for now, dwarfs." And the writer wasn't talking about the players' heights.
Journalists dug up the scores of the worst World Cup slaughters in history-Hungary 9-0 over South Korea in 1954, Yugoslavia 9-0 over Zaire in '74, Hungary 10-1 over El Salvador in '82—and prepared to inscribe the U.S.-Italy result alongside them. Before the game there was speculation that the Italians might lie down with the lambs and win by no more than, say, 3-0, out of compassione. After all, Italians don't hate Americans the way the citizens of some other nations do. Indeed, it's hard to find an Italian who doesn't have a relative somewhere in the States or who isn't thinking about heading there himself, at least for a look-see. "Mamma mia, give me 100 lire," said Italian goalie Walter Zenga before facing the U.S., quoting a popular Italian song from the '20s. "I want to go to America!"
Instead, Zenga almost went to Mars when U.S. striker Bruce Murray blasted a free kick in the 24th minute of the second half that bounced off the startled goalie's outstretched hands. The ball rebounded to the other U.S. striker, Peter Vermes, whose follow-up shot hit Zenga and nearly trickled past him into the net as he was falling backward. Italian defender Riccardo Ferri cleared the ball, and the U.S. didn't make any serious scoring threats after that. But the dwarfs had made a statement. Another inch one way or the other, and the mighty Azzurri would have been looking at a 1-1 tie with Sneezy, Dopey and Doc.
Italy got its only goal early in the game, when Giuseppe Giannini waltzed through a pack of defenders and fired the ball past U.S. goalkeeper Tony Meola. At that point, it appeared that the rout was on. However, the Americans, having switched to a defensive posture after trying to play aggressive offense in the fiasco against Czechoslovakia, frustrated the slick-footed Italians by slowing the pace. The 73,423 home fans were considerably more than frustrated when Italy's Gianluca Vialli missed a penalty shot in the 33rd minute. The flag-waving crowd filled the air with whistles, and Vialli knew exactly what the locustlike chorus meant. "All of Italy wanted me to go to hell," he said after the game.
The fans' displeasure with their team took some of the pressure off the U.S. "I noticed that when we started stringing passes together or forcing the Italians to kick back to their goalie, the crowd started whistling at them," said U.S. captain Mike Windischmann. "The Italian fans are very demanding. I know how it is. I'm from New York."
Hey, fellas, put a lid on the New York material. Windischmann grew up in Queens, after having been born in West Germany. He would like people to know that despite what they may think, the U.S. team is not made up of foreigners. You would never know that from looking at the roster. With names like Eichmann, Stollmeyer, Trittschuh, Windischmann, Balboa, Caligiuri, Covone, Meola, Ramos and Vanole, the American team sounds like a Euro-Latin joint business venture. In fact, every member of the World Cup squad was raised in the U.S. "The kids back home need to know that we're real Americans," says Windischmann. "They need to know that soccer is a beautiful game."
It can certainly be a thing of beauty when a side comes back, as the U.S. did, from embarrassment to respectability. After the game, defender Jimmy Banks, who had replaced John Stollmeyer in the starting lineup, said, "All in all, I feel a little bit victorious."
Standing near Banks as he spoke was U.S. midfielder Eric Wynalda, who had been red-carded in the game against Czechoslovakia for shoving an opponent and thus was automatically suspended from the Italy game. As the first U.S. player ever to be tossed from a World Cup finals game, the 21-year-old Wynalda had attained historic notoriety and wasn't happy about it. "To sit and watch the team play," he said shaking his head. "I tear my heart out and throw it on the floor."
If it's any consolation to Wynalda and his heart, rumor has it that the U.S. Soccer Federation will pay his $7,000 fine—a blessing because Wynalda will make only about four times that amount this year as a national team member. Moreover, Josef Blatter, the general secretary of FIFA, the World Cup's governing body, stated that referee Kurt Roethlisberger of Switzerland had been "too harsh" in ejecting Wynalda. As Gansler sat in the stands at Comunale Stadium in Florence watching Czechoslovakia beat Austria 1-0 last Friday, he, too, indirectly sympathized with Wynalda.
"See Number 11 for Czechoslovakia? I love that guy," said Gansler, pointing out midfielder Lubomir Morav‚àÜí‚àö√üík. "He runs the show. You know it was a setup with Wynalda. Oh, yeah. Morav‚àÜí‚àö√üík stomped on Eric's foot. He knew Eric was young and would react."
During the rough Austria-Czechoslovakia game, seven players were given yellow cards, and Gansler turned philosophical. "We've got to have our players play in Europe or start a pro league in the United States," he said. "Our system has taken us as far as it can."
The team that has one of the best systems in the world, of course, is the Azzurri. They also have enough characters on their squad to fill the ceiling of the Sis-tine Chapel. Among the more notable are forwards Salvatore (Totó¬ß) Schillaci and Andrea Carnevale. Schillaci, 25, a 5'6" balding Sicilian who headed the ball into the goal in Italy's opening 1-0 win over Austria, is cocky. "I am a little egotistical, it is true," he says. "But it's also true that the World Cup games are often decided by individual bravery."
The 6-foot-tall, sharp-featured Carnevale, 29, whom Schillaci has been spelling in the second half of Italy's games, has seen things that no one should have to see. As a boy he watched his father stab his mother to death in a jealous rage. Shortly after his father was released from prison, he came home and killed himself. Last week a reporter asked Carnevale if he was upset about having to share time with Schillaci. "With what I've been through in my life," said Carnevale, "you want me to worry about whether I play or not?"
As the U.S.-Italy game approached, it seemed as if the whole country were tuned in. Indeed, the game received the highest ratings of any show on Italian television since records started being kept in 1987—an 81% market share, or 25.7 million viewers.
Just before kickoff, a large group of Meola's relatives, including three great-aunts, his uncle Carmine and more cousins than you could shake a breadstick at, gathered in Torella dei Lombardi to watch the game at cousin Ernesto Teta's house. Torella dei Lombardi (pop: 3,000) is the village in the Campania district of southern Italy where Meola's father, Vinnie, was born and lived until he immigrated to the U.S. in 1958. Because Vinnie's son was playing against the Azzurri, some of the Meola clan had divided loyalties. "When Vinnie left Italy, I wept," said cousin Antonio Sica before the game. "And tonight I am afraid I will weep again—this time for Tony."
A hush fell over the room when The Star-Spangled Banner came on and the camera focused on Tony. "Bellissimo," said 17-year-old Angela Sica, who was wearing a T-shirt with Tony's picture on it. "I am crazy about my cousin. He is outside of everything." If you say so, Angela.
Meanwhile, Tony's great-aunts Luigia, Grazia and Ermelinda cheered in unison, "Meola! Bravo!"
All the same, after Giannini scored for the home team, a loud cheer rang out in the Teta household. By the second half, when the Azzurri looked as if they might let the game slip away, it became clear that Angela was the only one who had remained faithful to Tony. That was confirmed by the roar that sounded at the final whistle. As Antonio Sica put it, "I'm sorry about Tony, but we are Italians."