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Original Issue

Having a Ball

With enough flair and drama to captivate even Americans, soccer's showpiece got down to its final four

The Sunday Times of London says it simply: If Americans aren't transformed into soccer fans by this World Cup, it's their own damn fault. "Let them languish in heathen worship of fat men playing rounders, freaks of nature mucking about at glorified netball or the tedious travesty of rugby league that is American football," the paper wrote recently. "We are witnessing a prolonged epiphany of the one true sport."

Having nothing to compare a World Cup to, why shouldn't we take the Sunday Times at its word? Last weekend, as the draw got whittled down to semifinalists Brazil, Italy, Bulgaria and Sweden, the Cup seemed jolly good indeed, decanting for us four lasting images: a perfect game-winning kick by a Branco in Dallas that had nothing to do with field goals, the Cowboys, Denver or, yes, the tedious travesty of rugby league that is American football; a half-drowned rabbit brought back to life; a team that caused nearly as much trouble for gamblers as it did for defending-champion Germany; and a keeper of a 'keeper. Turns out there is a way to get to a Final Four without going through Knoxville and Dayton and Boise.

With Leonardo, Brazil's star defender, suspended for the rest of the World Cup for elbowing a crack in the skull of U.S. midfielder Tab Ramos, coach Carlos Alberto Parreira needed to find another Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle to fill out his lineup. For the quarterfinal against the Netherlands he' settled on Branco, a 30-year-old defender recently recovered from a back injury, whom many fans considered unworthy even of nomination to the national team.

Several games' worth of action was crammed into 30 minutes of the second half of the Brazil-Netherlands match, which Parreira would call "the best of the Cup and certainly the most dramatic." With Brazil leading 2-0, its goalie, Clàudio Taffarel, was going on 175 minutes without fielding a shot. But just when it looked as if he could continue his on-the-beach-at-Rio impersonation indefinitely, the Netherlands suddenly scored twice in 12 minutes. This set up Branco's moment, what he would call "my put-up-or-shut-up goal."

In his book Twenty-Two Foreigners in Funny Shorts, Pete Davies wrote, "A good Brazil-style free kick, the ball creasing through space, is a living demonstration of the theory of relativity. Don't blink, or you'll miss it." The Dutch blinked. The shot Branco let rip in the 81st minute, a seeing-eye liner from 30 yards out, found the one hole in the Netherlands' wall. It split the narrowest space between two players, a Dutchman and a Brazilian. Then it entered the goal at the only possible aperture, in the few inches between the right post and Dutch goalie Ed de Goey.

"We have shown the soccer art today," said striker Romario after the 3-2 victory, "the soccer art Brazil has always played." Indeed, there's a folk art practiced in Brazil called capoeira. Part dancers and part athletes, capoeiristas originally attached knives to their feet and then launched into a light-footed slashing of each other, trying to wound and dazzle at the same time. This choreographed martial art is still practiced, albeit without the knives, in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, the blighted neighborhoods from which most of the great Brazilian soccer players have come. And, some would say, capoeira is practiced whenever the Magnificent Mononyms take the field.

Italian coach Arrigo Sacchi did the unthinkable in the first half of Italy's first-round game with Norway. He replaced forward Roberto Baggio, who is the world's best soccer player. As he was summoned from the field, Baggio clearly enunciated the Italian words for "Has he gone mad?!"

Sacchi hadn't entirely. Italy's goalkeeper, Gianluca Pagliuca, had just been ejected from the game for intentionally using his hands outside the penalty area. The Azzurri were now forced to play 10 players against 11. And with Baggio already suffering from a sore Achilles tendon, Sacchi's move made sense, particularly since Baggio hadn't scored for the national team in more than 800 minutes of play. Indeed, the fans—in Italy they're called tifosi, which literally means typhoid carriers—would agree with Sacchi, even though 84% of them had said in a recent poll that the coach should be replaced. Most astoundingly, the Italian press, which has scarcely needed an excuse to lambaste Sacchi for everything from his previous profession as a shoe salesman to his singsong Parman accent, stood by him too. Nonetheless, some members of the press did their best to stoke the controversy, which caused forward Giuseppe Signori to upbraid them. "Just because Baggio was taken out, no need to start Baggio-gate," he said, without explaining why, with all the scandals in Italy, he couldn't come up with some suffix besides the American "gate."

Fiat magnate Gianni Agnelli, the owner of Juventus of Turin, Baggio's club team, said his 5'7" asset had looked "like a wet rabbit"—that's Italian for "wimpy"—during the Cup's first round. But as Italy trailed Nigeria 1-0 in a second-round game, Baggio put his foot bravely forward. He conjured up the tying goal as the game entered its 89th minute. Then, in overtime, he added the game-winner on a penalty kick.

Last Saturday, during the 88th minute of a tied quarterfinal game against Spain, Baggio found himself running onto a looping pass from Signori. Only Andoni Zubizarreta, the Spanish goalie, was left to beat. Baggio did so and, true to his Buddhist beliefs, meditatively took his time before flicking the ball into the net. He then fell on his back, completed a reverse somersault and blew kisses to the crowd. Six Spaniards lay sprawled on the field, trying to come to terms with the notion that they were going to lose, 2-1, and the Azzurri were heading to the semis.

Baggio attributed his return to form to a single episode: hearing over the phone from his wife, Andreina, that their three-year-old daughter, Valentina, had been quite smitten by seeing her papa on TV. Baggio's reaction is a reminder of social critic Luigi Barzini's contention that Italy is in fact a crypto-matriarchy: Men may control the country, but women control the men.

Since 1962 Bulgaria has qualified for six World Cups. Yet until they beat Greece 4-0 three weeks ago, the booters from the Balkans hadn't won a match, losing 11 and tying six. Small wonder no one gave them a shot at winning this tournament. A gambler in Britain lost more than $180,000 when Bulgaria eliminated Mexico on penalty kicks in the Round of 16; and another man, in Albania, didn't have that kind of money—any money, in fact—so he staked his wife on Argentina in a first-round game. After the Bulgarians triumphed 2-0, she reportedly disappeared with the winning bettor.

In addition to being the Cup's surprise, the Bulgarians are its stealth team, going almost undetected behind a screen of closed practices and sparse comment. At Bulgaria's first practice in Austin, Texas, last month, a team official nearly rumbled with TV camera crews, and it only recently came to light that the players had boycotted two days of practice to protest the Bulgarian federation's nonpayment of bonus money. Seems that no one was there to notice.

The players are being noticed now. With a pair of astonishing goals in three game-turning minutes on Sunday afternoon, the Bulgarians sent Germany suddenly and humbly home, 2-1. The first of the two scores came on a free kick off the left foot of Hristo Stoichkov that, like a service ace, left German goalie Bodo Illgner frozen. The second came when Yordan Lechkov found himself gazing at the broad canvas of the German goal, with only 5'5" Thomas Hässler marking him. He nodded his ball-peen head at a cross from Zlatko Yankov, and the World Cup was assured a new champion.

Bulgaria's two goal scorers couldn't be more different. Temperamental, peacocky and bedecked with garlands of gold chains, Stoichkov is best known for having been in the middle of a scandalous brawl during the Bulgarian Cup final in 1985 and for serving a two-month suspension in Spain in 1990 for stomping on the foot of a referee who had just ejected him. His coach at F.C. Barcelona, Johann Cruyff, freely disparages Stoichkov's character, calling him selfish, and Stoichkov is suspected of being the true puller of strings on the Bulgarian team.

Lechkov, by contrast, is humble, obliging and apparently content in his baldness. (Hair transplants seem not to be beyond the means of Bulgarian soccer players; goalie Borislav Mihailov, clean of pate a few years ago, now sports a full thatch.) There was justice in Lechkov's scoring the game-winner, for he had been whistled for a questionable foul in the penalty area on Jürgen Klinsmann, which led to Germany's goal. Klinsmann, who leaves the Cup as its second-leading scorer, with five goals, is so notorious for trying to hoodwink referees that an English newspaper recently published a how-to, step-by-step guide to the Klinsmann Dive, alongside a catalog of his most brazen plunges. Perhaps there are a few summer-stock productions back in Stuttgart to keep him busy.

Goalkeepers tend to be old, as if to prove that, in the trade-off between reflexes and smarts that comes with advancing years, smarts is of greater value. And goalies are an odd lot. They're differently turned out (you can't see the motley designs that Mexico's Jorge Campos wears anywhere else, not even on UHF at 3 a.m.), and they're frequently turned over (at half-time of a Cup qualifier last fall, an order to replace the Saudi goalie came from the royal box). And, frequently, they're just different.

Most of the time Sweden's Thomas Ravelli, this World Cup's most experienced goalkeeper, is a mild-mannered, poetry-fancying father of three who still works part-time as an electrical equipment salesman. But once inside the Swedish goal he's transformed into something else, yapping at opponents, officials, fans, even his own teammates. "During the game I am another person," he says. "I'm..."—and here he gives the index-finger-to-the-temple sign for being a few meatballs shy of a smorgasbord.

On Sunday, after Romania had matched his team at two goals through 120 minutes of play, this 34-year-old lifer of the Swedish league, a man who has never received an offer to play abroad, turned into steel in the crucible of a penalty shoot-out. A shoot-out is cruel in its simplicity. Each team gets five shots. If matters are still tied after those five rounds, every pair of shots thereafter is taken under the pressure of sudden death. Facing penalty kicks is not like taking the SATs. Guessing helps. And all a goalie has to do is guess right just once to seize a huge advantage for his team.

Ravelli couldn't stop Romania's first three kicks, and Sweden went down by a shot because Hakan Mild had sent his team's opening try sailing over the crossbar. But then Ravelli guessed right. He dived to his left to fist away Dan Petrescu's shot to get Sweden back on serve and then flexed his biceps in true superhero fashion. Finally, in the first round of sudden death, Ravelli sent Sweden to the semifinals by thwarting Miodrag Belodedici with an outstretched left hand.

"Aloof, solitary, impassive, the crack goalie is followed in the streets by entranced small boys," Vladimir Nabokov has written. "He vies with the matador and the flying ace as an object of thrilled adulation.... He is the lone eagle, the man of mystery, the last defender." As of Sunday, Ravelli was all of those. But only when he surrenders a losing goal will he become carrion, a marked man, Public Enemy No. 1.

"Yeah," huffed one American sportswriter in a press center last week, unwilling to concede to a colleague that world-class soccer had made an impact during its sojourn stateside. "They're right," he said, stalking off. "And we're wrong."

In fact, the World Cup has gotten to us. Never again should an NFL lineman question the manhood of that Armenian plasterer whose field goal keeps alive his team's hope for a wild-card playoff berth. Sweden's Thomas Brolin scored a goal on Sunday that looked like a hybrid of everything your high school basketball coach tried to teach you—the give-and-go, the backdoor, the old picket fence inbounds play. And purist followers of the Tedious Travesty will be less quick to condemn the end-zone shimmy after having watched George Finidi of Nigeria celebrate his goal against Greece by impersonating a dog marking its territory.

It hasn't reached the point yet where, in living rooms across America, Verns are turning to Mabels and saying things like, "Reckon Stoichkov's playing a kinda withdrawn forward this afternoon." But the One True Sport now has a foothold on its final frontier, and this prolonged epiphany still has a few days to go.



Branco (6), Brazil's unlikely hero, found the hole in the Dutch wall with his game-winning free kick.



Italy goalie Pagliuca stood tall while Baggio (10) found inspiration from his daughter.



[See caption above.]



After the cocky Stoichkov (above) tied the game, the humble Lechkov scored the winner over Germany.



[See caption above.]



Ravelli played a big hand in the Swedes' win by stopping this final sudden-death penalty kick.