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Original Issue

Soccer Italian Style

In Italy, where the World Cup finals begin this week, soccer is not merely a national pastime, it's a national passione

When I recently returned to Rome, my adopted home for a dozen years, one of the first things I noticed was The Clock. How could I possibly miss it? Perched high above the city, on a hill known as the Pincio, it silently clicked off the days, hours, minutes and seconds remaining to the kickoff of the World Cup finals.

Not that anyone needed to be reminded. The World Cup countdown has been going on for years in the Eternal City, punctuated by pandemonium at press conferences, celebrity-studded pseudo events and a nationwide promotional campaign that beats on the brainpan like a mallet on a drum. At countless intersections in Rome, death-defying vendors leap into the traffic to hawk World Cup souvenirs—everything from tie clasps and beach towels to T-shirts and bikini underpants, all stenciled with the same red-white-and-green slick figure of a man with a soccer ball for a head. No conceivable tie-in has been overlooked. One of the most unusual promotions is a contest sponsored by Akuel, a condom manufacturer. To win a big-screen TV, all you have to do is correctly predict the top three finishers in the World Cup—three being a reminder that Akuel's products carry a "triple control electronic test" guarantee.

In Italy, as one fan told me, soccer "is not just a sport, and it's more than a business. It's a fact of life, like breathing or eating. For Italian men, three things are important—women, food and soccer. But on the day of a big game, the order changes to soccer, food and women. Even Freud couldn't explain this."

Actually, the estimable doctor from Vienna did offer a possible explanation for Italy's obsession with soccer when he observed that anatomy is destiny. If it's true for humans that form helps determine function, then it shouldn't be surprising that in a country shaped like a boot the people have a fetish for a sport played with the feet.

Calcio, as soccer is called in Italy, literally means "kick." And kick is what Italian males do from infancy to senescence. They don't even need a ball. A tin can, an empty milk carton, a bundle of rags in the street—almost anything can be used as an excuse to break into the national dance. Matches are apt to erupt anyplace—in the Renaissance piazzas of Florence, on the turbulent docks of Palermo, in the tunnellike streets of Naples. One in every 30 Italians is a paying member of a registered team, and there are 800,000 officially sanctioned matches each year.

The highest level of soccer heaven is occupied by the national team. The Azzurri, as the players are called because of their blue uniforms, are one of 24 national teams competing for the World Cup title. Because the monthlong series of matches will take place on Italy's home turf—52 games played in 12 cities from June 8 to July 8—Italians expect, nay, demand, that the Azzurri win the title for an unprecedented fourth time. Anything short of victory would be an embarrassment to the country, a brutta figura beamed live by satellite to billions of TV viewers around the world.

Still painful are the memories of 1986, when the Azzurri were knocked out by France in the second round of the World Cup, in Mexico City. A huge crowd gathered at the airport outside Rome to meet the team when it returned home. But the fans didn't come to console the players. They came to jeer and spit at them, and to scream, "Italy vomits on you!"

Most Italians feel confident the Azzurri will reach the final game this time because the team is talented and has the home field advantage. As one Italian put it, "If Italy is beaten in an early round, interest will fall off and a lot of people will lose money. They won't let that happen. Money and power always rule."

The relationship between soccer and Italy is not a placid marriage, but rather an edgy love affair in which betrayal is not uncommon. When they learned I was American, many of the Italians I talked to for this story asked how much the U.S. had paid Trinidad and Tobago to lie down and lose its last qualifying match last November, allowing Team USA to play in the World Cup finals for the first time since 1950. To the Italian mind, the notion that a wealthy nation would buy its way into the World Cup is perfectly logical. After all, there have been repeated allegations that Italy paid off Cameroon not to win a first-round match against the Azzurri in the 1982 World Cup finals. And several years ago, film director Franco Zeffirelli, an avid fan of the Fiorentina club, suggested publicly that a rival team, Juventus, had bribed referees to win its final game of the season (against Roma) and edge out Fiorentina for the first-division title. Juventus sued Zeffirelli, and the court ordered him to pay the team $30,000 in damages, though he has yet to come up with the money.

Calcio continues to flourish despite—perhaps because of—these scandals. Italy has four daily newspapers devoted entirely to sports, and soccer is the lead story 365 days a year. Couch gnocchi can now watch more than a thousand hours of calcio on TV annually, including live broadcasts of matches from England, France, West Germany and Brazil. Certainly there are provincial antagonisms of the Zeffirellian kind, but at the national level soccer unifies Italy like nothing else. As sociologist Franco Ferrarotti says, "Soccer is the key to understanding the country. Our constitution claims we are a republic founded on labor. But we are a republic, a loose aggregation of diverse groups and geographical regions, founded on calcio."

To get a feel for Italy's national mania, it's difficult to do better than to see a derby match, a game between club teams from the same city. I chose to attend a derby between Roma and Lazio. The rivalry is an old one, and it has evolved since the early days when Roma was supported by the city's lower and middle classes, and Lazio by the upper crust. Today the boundaries are less distinct, and it's not uncommon for members of the same family to root for different teams.

Some fans couldn't wait for the kickoff to express their allegiance. Indeed, the day before the game, a band of Roma supporters, or tifosi, as fans are called, spotted a few Lazio players and pounced on them like wolves on a flock of lambs. The players took refuge in a bar and wisely waited for the police to rescue them.

Lazio has a group of tifosi known as the Irriducibili, the Diehards, who follow the team around the country, their faces wrapped in blue-and-white scarves, like terrorists on a suicide mission. But judging from their ubiquitous graffiti, Roma's rabid fans, the CUCS (pronounced "kooks"), are far more numerous than the Irriducibili. "CUCS" is the acronym for Comando Ultrà Curva Sud—Curva Sud being the south curve of Roma's stadium, where the CUCS cluster to chant, hurl smoke bombs and firecrackers, and unfurl banners insulting the opposing team.

Just before the derby, I met with the only American who is a regular denizen of the Curva Sud. As I arrived at our rendezvous, a restaurant on Monte Mario, I expected to see a boisterous adolescent with a shaved head, earrings and a motorcycle jacket. Instead, Christoph Baker was a sandy-haired, well-dressed man in his mid-30's. Urbane and intelligent, an employee of an international environmental group, he told me he had never played soccer—basketball was his game—and he hadn't followed the sport until he moved to Rome in the early '80s. At that time, Roma was always in contention for the first-division title, and soccer was something that everyone, even foreigners, could share. For all their friendliness, Baker said, "Italians are generally a lot more closed than one thinks. But soccer is a great icebreaker."

Baker started attending games and sitting in the Curva Sud. Because he wore a Stetson, he stood out, and the tifosi greeted him each week, shouting, "Ehi, americano!"

"There was an immediate sense of belonging," he recalled, "and since the tifosi aren't just spectators—they're experts—they taught me a lot about calcio. Soccer here is theater, a spectacle, and the CUCS are part of it."

Some tifosi, Baker admitted, merely wanted to dress in their team's colors, do something outrageous, and be infamous for 15 minutes. But there was also "a transmission of values" in the Curva Sud, and Baker soon took on some of the attitudes of his adopted tribe. He also delved into the history of the team. Roma was formed in 1927 and played its early matches in a rickety stadium in the Testaccio district, near a slaughterhouse. In contrast, Lazio was founded 27 years earlier in Parioli, an affluent neighborhood, and most of its supporters lived in the wealthier parts of the city. To root for Lazio was to be against the capital city, the central government and its indolent bureaucrats. To root for Lazio was also to be seen as a snob or, worse, a fascist.

The issue of fascism is a ticklish one. For all its importance to Italy, soccer, like pasta, was imported. The British brought the game with them in the late 19th century, when they came to work in northern Italy. But it wasn't until Mussolini's time that Italy became a major force in international soccer. II Duce, who realized the propaganda value of soccer and regarded athletic excellence as a sign of national superiority, launched a massive program to increase soccer's popularity. Stadiums were built throughout the country, teams and competitions were organized, and the Azzurri were held up as a repository of national values. The team won the World Cup in 1934, the Olympic soccer championship in 1936 and a second World Cup in 1938.

Today, far from being a cornerstone of fascist ideology, Baker said, calcio is a great leveler. "In the Curva Sud, there is no social stigma," he told me. "Class and politics don't matter." All that counts is devotion to the team.

Baker's fidelity to Roma reached its apogee not in the Italian League championship season of 1982-83 but in 1984, when the squad lost the European Cup final in Rome to Liverpool, in a penalty-kick shootout. Afterward, Antonello Venditti, a popular singer, gave a free outdoor concert at the Circus Maximus, and 200,000 fans showed up, many of them in a foul mood. But when Venditti came onstage, he said, "The greatness of men is seen when they lose," and that seemed to take out some of the sting. Soon they were all singing Grazie Roma.

Since then, Baker acknowledged, Italian soccer has lost some of its charm. After 39 spectators—most of them Italians—died in a riot at Belgium's Heysel Stadium during the 1985 European Cup championship, many fans stopped going to games, and the crowd in the Curva Sud and its counterparts in other stadiums got much rougher. Attendance at Italian soccer matches has been declining for six years. Halfway through the 1989-90 season, the crowds at first-division games were down by half a million compared with those of the previous year, and gate receipts were off by $4.6 million. Although the plethora of soccer on TV has kept some people home, a nationwide survey showed that for 74% of those questioned, fear of violence was discouraging them from attending matches.

Nevertheless, Baker remains unshaken. In his view, the excesses of the fans have less to do with the sport than with larger problems in Italian society. "To be with the CUCS," he said, "is to refuse to accept the blandness of modern life. Calcio gives pepper to life."

After lunch on that Sunday, I set out for the derby and along the way came across several groups of men discussing their bets. Like soccer, gambling is big business. Italians wager an estimated $12 billion annually on legal and illegal games of chance. Totocalcio, a weekly national lottery in which bettors predict the outcome of matches, generates $2 billion in wagers a year. A parallel, clandestine lottery, dubbed Totonero, attracts at least as much action. The advantage of Totonero is that it offers better odds and secret payoffs. The disadvantage is that it's run by hoodlums with no qualms about corrupting the game.

Midway through the 1979-80 season, police arrested the president of AC Milan and key players around the league and accused them of accepting bribes to fix games. Two disgruntled bettors in an illegal gambling syndicate in Rome had filed a complaint alleging that certain players had taken money but not fulfilled their part of the bargain. In December 1980 a Rome tribunal acquitted all but one of the defendants because of insufficient evidence. But an Italian Soccer Federation disciplinary board was not as lenient. It conducted a hearing of its own and levied penalties based on suspicion of "sporting illegality." A few players were banned, and others were suspended for periods ranging from three months to six years. It surprised nobody, however, when many of the penalties were reduced. The suspension of the Azzurri's best striker, Paolo Rossi, was cut from three years to two, and it ended three weeks before the start of the 1982 World Cup finals. When the Azzurri, led by Rossi's six goals in the last three games, won the title that year, the country indulged in what Ferrarotti characterizes as "a moment of total national reconciliation." All kinds of scandals—soccer-related and otherwise—were hurled into history's rubbish bin.

Because the Stadio Olimpico was being renovated for the World Cup, the derby had been moved to the Stadio Flaminio, a smaller arena. Feelings ran so high over the match that 1,500 policemen and carabinieri on horseback were dispatched to control the crowd of 23,000 fans. Both the Irriducibili and the CUCS arrived early, rolled out their banners and began chanting insults at each other. Roma fans also orchestrated elaborate cheers to the tune of I've Been Working on the Railroad, the triumphal march from Aida, and the Coke jingle that goes, "I'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony." But mayhem, not harmony, was the mood of the day.

To keep out troublemakers, admission to the press box was carefully controlled. I had to stop at an office outside the stadium to show my ID, have my name checked off a list and collect a pass for an assigned seat. Then I proceeded to a gate a good distance from the stadium, where my ID and pass were scrutinized by armed guards. At the entrance to the press box, there was yet another control point, where guards demanded IDs and passes and checked each reporter's name against a master list.

If this system had worked, it would have been a reassuring augury for security at the World Cup. But inside the stadium the charade broke down. In the press box, exits and aisles were choked, and assigned seats were taken up by friends, wives and children of Italian reporters. Worse, the area was tangled with TV cables and radio wires. In an emergency, we would all have been snarled like helpless butterflies in a spiderweb.

Helmeted guards patrolled the ranks of the CUCS and the Diehards, but few other safety procedures were observed. Spectators lounged in aisles and exits or shouldered their way into standing-room-only areas. Every time a firecracker exploded, the crowd recoiled and people got mashed against barricades.

Around the field, a few feet from the playing area, ran an unbroken row of knee-high billboards canted to catch the eye of spectators as well as TV viewers. Sponsors pay teams millions of dollars to plug their products, and players take the field wearing commercial logos rather than the team's name. Instead of ROMA, INTER, BARI or NAPOLI on their shirts you see BARILLA (pasta), MISURA (food products), SUD LEASING (finance) or MARS (candy). Still, few teams have been reduced to the abject level of the minor league Brindisi squad that was sponsored a few years ago by a coffin company and had to wear the slogan FURNITURE FOR ALL ETERNITY.

If advertising is the engine nudging soccer nearer the line where sport and entertainment intersect, then television is the fuel, and money—billions of dollars—is the ignition. Italy, a nation previously known better for its dolce vita than its vita industriale, has grown very rich in the past decade, and recently it boasted that its gross domestic product had surpassed that of Great Britain. Typically, this was accomplished in a bizarre fashion. For years, Italy, a third of whose work force is self-employed, has had the Western world's most robust "submerged economy." So in 1987 the government factored in estimates of illegal employment and income, and the GDP jumped 18%.

Whatever the source, Italy is suddenly awash in cash, and entrepreneurs have become almost as celebrated as soccer stars. In a recent poll, 69-year-old Gianni Agnelli, chair of Fiat, was voted the man that women most wanted to have an affair with. Coincidentally, Agnelli is the owner of Juventus.

Agnelli and other owners have bid boatloads of lire for star players, and in the past decade, 135 foreign mercenaries have been imported, at a cost of $200 million. Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten and Frank Rijkaard came from Holland, and Ramon Diaz, Diego Maradona and Claudio Caniggia from Argentina. Top players from Brazil, Uruguay, Germany, Sweden and, more recently, the Soviet Union have done the same. Not surprisingly, Italian League clubs won all three of this year's European cup titles.

The teams and fans aren't the only ones who have benefited from the imported stars. The players' arrival has also been a bonanza for journalistic bottom-feeders, who sift through sludge searching for scoops. Even the dreariest domestic details are big news. Several years ago, when England's Mark Hateley was playing for AC Milan, his daughter got her finger caught in a door. Reporters churned out updates—not because the little girl was badly hurt but because Hateley might have to visit her in the hospital, which might make him miss practice, which might affect his fitness, which might....

Although many players object to the press's snooping into their private lives, some are willing to use it to sow the seeds of disinformation. At one time there were persistent rumors that a well-known foreign star was gay. When a woman filed a paternity suit and claimed publicly that the player had seduced, impregnated and abandoned her, there were equally persistent rumors that she had been paid to do so by his team. Far from undercutting the star's popularity, these accusations enhanced it.

During the derby, Roma's Rudi Völler, from West Germany, was the best player on the field, and every time he broke away, the CUCS chanted, "Vola, tedesco, vola!" ("Fly, German, fly!"). This was usually just before a Lazio player cut him down with a tackle from behind.

The derby was hard fought and close, with flagrant fouls and a spirited scuffle among a dozen players. Lazio fans soon concluded that their team was being cheated by the officials and started to climb the 15-foot Plexiglas barrier that rings the field. Guards beat them back with truncheons, and the Diehards responded by heaving rocks and fruit. Then somebody set fire to a pile of trash, and the guards waded into the stands, cracking heads. This started a stampede of troublemakers who knocked over bystanders and sent them tumbling down the concrete stands.

On the field, the action continued as if nothing had happened. Occasionally, someone would make a plea for peace over the PA system, but it didn't have any effect. During halftime a recording of the theme from Chariots of Fire came on. However, the music was drowned out by the thunder of police spotter helicopters hovering overhead.

In recent years Italian soccer has been increasingly plagued by similar spasms of violence. Last spring, a Roma fan was severely beaten and then died of a heart attack at the stadium in Milan. Around the same time, in Florence, a 14-year-old boy from Bologna was hideously burned by a Molotov cocktail thrown into his train as it pulled into the station before a game. As if that weren't enough, the Florentine tifosi began chanting "Burn, baby, burn" during Fiorentina games.

Last November, Fiorentina's star forward, Roberto Baggio, visited the boy, who was still hospitalized five months after the incident, and promised to try to curb fan violence at the next Fiorentina-Bologna match. Baggio met with some fans and told them if he heard their gruesome chant again, he would walk off the field. His threat worked temporarily, but the fans erupted again last month when the owner of Fiorentina sold Baggio to Juventus for a record $13 million. Fifty people were injured and 15 arrested in a clash with police at the club's headquarters. The fans had also planned to firebomb the Azzurri's camp near Florence, where Baggio was training for the World Cup.

In January, when Roma visited Bergamo, the hometown tifosi unfurled a cruel banner: LIONELLO, TOO BAD YOU DIDN'T GO TO HELL. The taunt was aimed at Lionello Manfredonia, a Roma player who suffered a heart attack during a match in Bologna three weeks earlier. In late February, Naples fans were greeted with strident abuse in Milan, WE ARE TIFOSI, YOU HAVE TYPHUS, read one banner, HITLER, DO WITH THE NEAPOLITANS WHAT WAS DONE TO THE JEWS, screamed another. To drive the nail deeper, gangs of tifosi waved flags emblazoned with swastikas.

Some observers contend that these incidents are linked to the rise of neo-fascism in Italy. In the north, a number of demagogic politicians have organized home-rule parties that preach enmity toward outsiders, particularly toward people from the impoverished south, whom the northern extremists view as racially inferior. Storm-trooping soccer clubs such as the Goebbels Brigade spout even slimier slogans than the politicians.

Other people maintain that television has worsened the situation by holding a distorting lens to the game. "Violence at soccer is an outcry to be visible," Ferrarotti says. "You break somebody's head and the next day you are on TV."

The second half of the Roma-Lazio derby was a jamboree of violence, both on and off the field. Four players were shown yellow cards. Two were sent off. It was, as journalists in the press box remarked, a bella partita (beautiful match) but a brutta faccenda (ugly affair). Roma held on to win 1-0 on a goal by Völler, and as soon as the match was over, gangs of CUCS clambered over the Plexiglas barrier to celebrate. Scavenging for souvenirs, the fans clawed jerseys and even shorts off Roma players, then sprinted away, pursued by police, German shepherds and irate, jockstrap-clad men.

Spectators set fires as they filed toward the exits, releasing a shower of hot ash and plumes of smoke. Nobody appeared to be particularly concerned. When I asked whether things had been worse than expected, a plainclothesman shrugged and told me it was about normal for a Roma-Lazio derby. Fifteen people, 13 of them policemen, were injured, and 28 tifosi were arrested. More arrests were expected once authorities reviewed the film from their spy cameras.

Strangely, most Italians don't believe this sort of brawling will break out during the World Cup. They argue that their brand of soccer violence is less drunken and indiscriminate than that of other European countries, and more limited to traditional rivalries. Italian fans claim they have no reason to fight foreigners, and they mean to be on their best behavior when the eyes of the world, not to mention the police cameras, are trained on them.

However, everybody is nervous about the possibility of trouble between the hooligans of England and the Netherlands. For the first round, the teams from those nations have been exiled to Sardinia and Sicily, as if to Devil's Island. The city of Cagliari on Sardinia, site of England's matches, is bracing itself for another in a long history of invasions by barbarians. The local police have joined forces with British and Dutch authorities and have considered banning the sale of alcohol in the city the night before each match. If these precautions don't work, maybe the Sardinians will revert to their ancient custom of feeding malefactors to the pigs.

Swept along by the crowd leaving the match, I strolled toward the Tiber River and crossed the Milvian Bridge. Not far from the opposite shore stands the Stadio Olimpico, site of the World Cup final. It is part of a complex of athletic facilities started in Mussolini's day and known as the Foro Italico. Although II Duce's name has been expunged from most of the monuments, it is still visible on an obelisk near the stadium. The massive, vainglorious buildings and pompous "classical" statues of athletes were meant to recall the grandeur of ancient Rome, which Mussolini hoped to recreate. Now the pretentious hunks of marble serve as billboards for graffiti, and the statues—even the skier and ice skater are nude except for G-strings—prompt more wisecracks than awe.

The hapless dictator wasn't the last Italian with overblown ambitions. After Italy learned in 1984 that it would host the 1990 World Cup, the government allocated $4.1 billion to finance an overhaul of 10 stadiums, the construction of new stadiums in Bari and Turin, and an upgrading of railroads, highways, hotels and press and TV facilities. But politicians got to bickering over the spoils, and more than five years were wasted.

In Florence, the Christian Democratic party opposed expansion of Campo di Marte, declaring that the 1932 stadium designed by Pier Luigi Nervi should be preserved as a work of art. In Bari, Italia Nostra, an organization devoted to the protection of the nation's cultural patrimony, protested that the new stadium was located in an archaeological zone. A spokesman for the World Cup organizing committee retorted, "Except for the mountains, all of Italy is an archaeological area."

A dizzy series of mistakes also disrupted the building schedule. In Genoa, workers had to elevate the field of the newly renovated stadium when somebody discovered that 2,000 spectators would have obstructed sight lines. And in Naples, workers laboring near San Paolo stadium drilled into what they thought was a subway tunnel but turned out to be an important water main.

Then things took a not unexpected turn. A magistrate launched an investigation into the grant of construction contracts to firms that some suspect of being linked to the Camorra, Naples's Mafialike criminal society. As one expert on organized crime told me, "Where you have construction in this country, you have the Mafia."

In Palermo, work on the stadium stopped when several laborers were killed in an accident. Renovations there had no sooner resumed than workers began to die at other sites. Labor unions have protested that safety procedures are being ignored in the rush to finish before the opening ceremonies. The current death toll stands at 25.

In the initial plans for Rome, urban designers envisioned a rail line whisking fans from Fiumicino airport to the Stadio Olimpico or the central train station. A cab driver's union killed that idea. There will be a high-speed train, but it will dump passengers at Ostiense station, in southwest Rome near the Protestant Cemetery, 4½ miles from the stadium.

While this project may sound like the World Cup's ultimate boondoggle, that dubious honor belongs to the Stadio Olimpico. The original proposal was to build a new stadium. When that proved unfeasible, it was decided to renovate the present structure, at a cost of $65.6 million. Then mass insanity—or insatiable greed—set in. As the Italian Business Review summed up the situation, the people overseeing the renovation behaved like "a wife who is playing around with rebuilding her house. First, they thought of something they forgot. Then two weeks later, they remembered something else. Finally, they decided to do all the things they'd always wanted to do, because the husband is going to have to pay for it anyway." To complicate matters even further, environmentalists protested that the stadium's new roof, which bristles with girders, ruined the view of Monte Mario. Local residents dubbed it "the crown of thorns."

The stadium renovation will wind up costing $139.4 million—the same amount it took to build a completely new stadium in Turin. To recoup a portion of this enormous hemorrhage of cash, the Italian National Olympic Committee (CONI) struck a deal with an Italian landscaping company. Following the final at Stadio Olimpico, the firm will tear up the turf and market it in chunks, like pieces of the Berlin Wall. They hope to make $5.8 million, 30% of which will flow to CONI.

On this balmy Sunday afternoon, droves of Romans decided to do as I was doing-cool down after the derby by going over to the Stadio Olimpico to watch the workers wrestle things into shape for Il Mondiale. From what I had read, construction crews were on the job 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But what I found was a stadium shrouded in silence.

I asked a few people if they thought the stadium would be ready in time, and they laughed. One said, "It better be." Then they did what comes naturally to most Italians: They started kicking balls around. By the time I left, the Foro Italico resembled a hall of mirrors, with impromptu soccer games going on in every corner, as far as the eye could see.

When I described to Paddy Agnew, an Irish journalist and soccer expert, what I had seen at the Stadio Olimpico, we both had a good laugh. Agnew is an old friend, and, like me, he has lived in Rome long enough not to be surprised by anything.

The Azzurri, he told me, intended to go into monkish retreat at their training camp before the start of Il Mondiale. According to team physician Leonardo Vecchiet, the regimen will include plenty of pasta and no sex for all but two days during the three weeks leading up to the kick-off and throughout the monthlong tournament. Meanwhile, Joseph Blatter, secretary-general of FIFA, has given his authorization for referees to have sex during the World Cup, presumably between games. The hope is to keep the players focused and the refs relaxed.

One of the three teams the Azzurri will face in the first round is the U.S. Although many consider the U.S. the weakest team in the field, Agnew said he didn't expect its match with Italy, on June 14 in Rome, to be a blowout. "It'll probably be close," he said. "The Azzurri don't believe in doing anything more than they have to."

I returned to the 64-billion-lire question: Will the country be ready by June 8, when Cameroon kicks off against defending champion Argentina in the opening match in Milan?

"The stadiums will be playable," Agnew said. But whether the fans will be able to reach them without a herculean struggle is in doubt. Many of the World Cup cities are in shambles, especially around the stadiums. Streets, bridges and tunnels are blocked, sidewalks have been turned into obstacle courses and Italy's infamous public transportation system has become even more undependable than usual. "What if there's a strike?" asked Agnew, pointing out that earlier this year a walkout by truck drivers had come close to paralyzing the nation. "But in the end," he said, "I think Italy will get away with it. No matter what else goes wrong, if the games come off on schedule, the country will get good press. You know Italians. They treat journalists very well."

What will save the 1990 World Cup, in Agnew's opinion, is the quality of the matches themselves. Because Italy is home to so many of the world's best players, few of the stars will have to worry about adjusting to a new environment, as happened in Mexico four years ago. More important, none of the teams will have to perform in half-empty stadiums. Il Mondiale should be the first sellout in World Cup history.

Those Italians who can't get tickets will be glued to their TV sets for most of the month. Indeed, to avoid mass absenteeism, Fiat offered to shut down its factories during the Azzurri's matches, but unions rejected the plan. There's no guarantee, however, that there won't be a repeat of the incident that occurred in Naples during a European Cup game between Italy and Sweden in 1987. Almost the entire staff of San Gennaro Hospital skipped out on patients and off to the stadium. Thirty-nine hospital workers were arrested and 200 others were indicted on criminal charges.

Predictions are a risky business in Italy. But historically, Italians have made a habit of clearing hurdles at the last minute, and as The Clock ticks down, maybe they can bring it off again. Perhaps the World Cup will run smoothly and millions of spectators will experience a "festival of culture and sport," as promised by the organizing committee. The right mix of sun, fine food and wine just might be enough to mellow out tifosi from every country. If so, those fans will be able to enjoy a sport as soul-stirring as opera and as beautiful as ballet, a spectacle that is never less than a microcosm of a fascinating, infuriating, lovely, funny and tragic country that, except when the Azzurri take the field, rarely regards itself as a nation.



Sponsors pay millions to have players wear company logos, instead of team names, on their shirts.

totonero, Italy's illegal lottery, is run by hoodlums with no qualms about corrupting the game.

at the derby, fans set trash fires in the stands, then clawed the jerseys and shorts off players.

if security breaks down, maybe Sardinia will revert to the custom of feeding malefactors to the pigs.

even the "classical" statue of an ice skater at the Foro Italico is nude, except for his discreet G-string.

after the Cup final, a firm plans to sell chunks of the Stadio Olimpico turf, like bits of the Berlin Wall.