Last week when Governor Jim Edgar opened the 49th FIFA Congress by greeting the curators of soccer's World Cup "on behalf of the 11½ people of the state of Illinois," he didn't mean to imply that among the state's millions the world's premier single-sport event has a local following numbering fewer than a dozen. But the omens didn't look all that good as the Cup got under way last Friday at Chicago's Soldier Field.
There was the mistress of ceremonies, Oprah (If Your Problem Is Making a Commitment to Soccer, America, Maybe We Can Talk This Thing Out) Winfrey, kicking off the whole affair—only to stumble and fall while leaving the podium. Barely a minute into the opener, between Germany and Bolivia, the ball found its way into the stands, which occasioned a delay while a fan learned that this wasn't Comiskey Park, and you couldn't keep it. And could that have been a state trooper in deep slumber during the Germans' 1-0 victory, drooling onto his embroidered sleeve patch? (Integrity. Service. Pride. Spittle.) "I think we weren't the only ones who suffered from the heat," said Jürgen Klinsmann of Germany, the defending champions' star striker, who scored the first goal of the Cup. "I think the spectators did too."
It took only 24 hours and a change in venue for this desultory beginning to metamorphose into something closer to the event's gargantua-and-goose-bumps billing. At Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., in heat and humidity as remorseless as Chicago's, the World Cup opened for real on Saturday when Ireland beat Italy 1-0. Thirty-nine million Americans claim Irish descent, 15 million cite Italian ancestry, and the greater New York area has the nation's highest concentration of these two types of hyphenated Americans. Here was a summit meeting of the two peoples who, more than any others, built the megalopolis straddling the Hudson, and later often governed it, and with their bars and restaurants still slake their thirst and fill their stomachs.
The game had been on New York's brain since the World Cup draw was announced in December. Mayor Rudy Giuliani, welcoming the emperor and em-press of Japan last week, suddenly found himself praising the warm friendship between the U.S. and the people of...Italy. Irish actor Stephen Rea, at work on a film in Hungary, had a clause in his contract requiring the producers to fly him to the States and back via Concorde for the game. At Elaine's, long regarded as the epicenter of Manhattan celebrity nightlife, the staff was resolutely pro-Irish—except for headwaiter Giacomo Lodi, whose nephew Luigi Apolloni is a defender for the Azzurri.
Tickets for the Showdown in the Swamp were going for as much as $900 apiece. Not the afterglow of the Rangers, not the anticipation of the Knicks, not the opening of the Gay Games, not even the O.J. Simpson saga could eclipse Italy versus Ireland. "I think the U.S. can absorb a scandal and the World Cup," said FIFA executive Guido Tognoni, who added, "better they produce the scandal outside the World Cup."
With only 12 minutes gone, this occasion that was supposed to honor the hyphen wound up enshrining an exclamation point: Ray Houghton, a Glasgow-born son of an Irishman, leftfooted a ball 25 yards and over the fingertips of Italian goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca. This was the first goal Ireland had scored against Italy in nine years and would lead to a recurring refrain of "You'll never beat the Irish!" over the next 78 minutes. That was perhaps the most astonishing thing about Saturday's game—as much as 80% of the crowd of nearly 75,000 cheered for the Gaels. Organizers had expected 15,000 to 20,000 Italian fans to cross the Atlantic and barely half that many Irish to make the pilgrimage to Exit 16W on the New Jersey Turnpike. But almost everything was green, while and orange. Some fans blew bagpipes and beat bodhrans. Others toted guidebooks that included lyrics, to be sung to the tune of He's Got the Whole World (in His Hands), that went, "You've got the best footballers in the world /But they look like Sophia Loren."
Hundreds of tricolors covered virtually every festoonable spot on the facades of the stadium's two upper decks. How could this be, when the Football Association of Ireland and Irish tour operators received only 7,200 tickets between them? The others must have been Irish-Americans; or people with Irish blood from points on the European continent, Canada and Australia; or obsessive Emerald Islers who merrily paid ransom to scalpers. As it happened, it was a good thing that many of the last group made the trip: A barkeeps' strike in Dublin shut down close to 500 pubs.
Good thing they came, too, for this was a bit of history. Manager Jack Charlton and the Lads had lost to Italy in the World Cup quarterfinals in Rome four years ago, when a Sicilian substitute named Toto Schillaci, a second-division pro barely as tall as a bottle of Campari, drove home the goal that eliminated Ireland 1-0. (It wasn't a completely wasted trip; the whole team took advantage of the occasion to visit the Vatican, where Charlton, dozing off briefly, awoke to see the pope's hand raised in benediction. Thinking the pontiff was waving to him, Charlton waved back.)
For his part Italy's coach, Arrigo Sacchi, had tried to scale back expectations by declaring that his goal was to finish among the top four in this year's tournament. No one back home was buying that. The last words the team received from Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who's also the owner of European champion AC Milan, were a twist on Vince Lombardi: "Winning isn't everything, but if you lose, I'll take away your passports and not let you come home."
From the $375,000 worth of Armani suits the team is wearing to official functions, to the Italian Soccer Federation's indignant response to a recent plea from the Vatican to end league matches on Sundays, to the relentless hazing of Sacchi by La Gazzetta dello Sport, the nation's largest daily, soccer in Italy is imbued with a grim seriousness that seemed to show up in the pinched quality of the team's play against Ireland. "The right to fear does not exist," clucked an editorial in La Gazzetta on the eve of the Cup. "Fear would be a passport to a painful shame."
For weeks La Gazzetta had pilloried Sacchi for introducing a system of four defenders, three midfielders and three forwards, which in its considered opinion didn't make nearly as much sense as a more defensive-minded 4-4-2. On Saturday, Sacchi appeased the press and most of his players by opening in a 4-4-2. But after Italy failed to score in the first half he went back to the 4-3-3 alignment he had used over the past few months.
"It's clear this should make us reflect a little," said a shaken Sacchi after the loss. In fact, the Azzurri reflect too much, always seeming to go for beauty and precision. The Irish just go. In the end the game came down to soccer as art versus soccer as craft. The Italians play as if they invented the sport; the Irish make no such claim—but jaysus, the Lads have good craic with it, wha'?
With Mexico and Norway the Italians and Irish had been thrown together in Group E of the World Cup draw, the so-called Group of Death or prone della morte, for its top-to-bottom quality. How Italians deal with the prospect of death is the subject of a joke Europeans like to tell about the three shortest books ever written: German Humor, English Cuisine—and Italian War Heroes. If the Irish face an uncertain fate more intrepidly than the Italians, the reason may quite well be Charlton, a plainspoken Protestant from the coal country of northeastern England who likes nothing more than spending an afternoon fishing. Before a game in Belfast not long ago, some Northern Ireland fans began abusing the man who was known as the Giraffe when he anchored the midfield for England's 1966 World Cup champions. Shouting through a restraining fence, they called him an English traitor and a long-necked bastard. Charlton simply ambled over and bummed a cigarette.
Of the 22 players on Charlton's team, only seven were born in Ireland. The rest have sufficient Irish ancestry to qualify for the national team. Thus the apocryphal tale about a recent addition to the Irish team who's standing at attention before a game as the national anthems are being played. "This one lasts awhile," he says, turning to a teammate beside him.
"Shut up," comes the reply. "It's ours."
Houghton tried out for the Scottish national team as a teenager, but the Scots didn't want him. So if he's a mercenary, he's one nobody but the Irish cared to grant a chance. While Houghton provided the required offense, Paul McGrath led a defense that throttled Italian superstar Roberto Baggio. McGrath, 35, the son of an Irish mother and a Nigerian father, was left with social workers at Dun Laoghaire when he was only a few weeks old. He has survived eight knee operations and chronic alcohol problems, and the toughness of his life shows up in the way he patrols the last few yards before the Irish goal. A cheer of "Ooh, aah, Paul McGrath" goes up from the stands whenever he does the slightest thing to merit the chant, which on Saturday was often. Such is McGrath's standing among the Irish that, when Nelson Mandela visited Dublin four years ago, the throngs lining O'Connell Street to greet the South African leader broke into a chant of "Ooh, aah, Paul McGrath's da'."
Fifteen minutes from Giants Stadium, the city of Hoboken, N.J., is best known for giving birth to an Italian-American icon, Frank Sinatra, and the American pastime, baseball, into which soccer has tried in vain to make inroads. But in its single square mile Hoboken also accommodates a multitude of Irish bars, where on Saturday many of Ireland's ticketless supporters holed up. "Italian fans are more serious about their football," said a Dubliner named Robert, who was imbibing in a place called Moran's as he watched the game. "If we lose, we lose. After Italy beat us in 1990, 10,000 fans waited for Jack [Charlton] after the game to cheer him. About a half million people in a country of four million turned out when they got home. If we win today, it'll be the biggest achievement in our sports history. If we win, this place will go mad."
As Houghton's goal stood stoutly up, giving Ireland its first victory ever over Italy in international competition, Italians everywhere would only be mad. With three minutes to play, across the Hudson in a restaurant called I Tre Merli in Manhattan's trendy SoHo district, a commentator on Italian TV could be heard intoning the word difficultissimo. Then a patron named Bernardo uttered a disgusted "Pfffff." Pressed, Bernardo elaborated: "He started with a 4-4-2 when they've been playing the last few months in a 4-3-3." There's no way poor Sacchi can win. Unless, of course, Italy does.
Soon, in the bowels of Giants Stadium, Charlton was sucking on a cigar and saying, "People keep writing us off, and we keep beating people." A soaked but beaming Albert Reynolds, Ireland's prime minister, divulged plans to name Charlton minister for fisheries in the next cabinet. And one of the Azzurri griped that Houghton's goal was "ugly."
Leave it to a scoreless Italian team to complain that the goal that made it a loser wasn't pretty enough.