SAGGING ITALY HOPES FOR DIVINE TIME Series: World Cup Soccer Fifth in a Series

Article excerpt

America had (has?) Elvis, the King. Italy has Roberto Baggio, the Divine One.

Italian soccer fans hung that oral halo on Baggio, a 5-foot-6 forward, because of his heavenly touch on the ball. They hope he'll provide some divine guidance for their beloved "Azzurri" - the Blues - in the World Cup.

Baggio, the 1993 world player of the year, has the ability to lift Italy to a fourth World Cup title. He has 109 goals in 219 games with Fiorentina and Juventus of the Italian League, and 19 goals in 33 games with the national team.

But the Azzurri, who in the past have been criticized for an overly defensive style, may be too dependent on Baggio. He'll be a marked man in the Cup, vulnerable to physical play. FIFA, soccer's governing body, has vowed to crack down on shin kicking in this Cup. Baggio isn't convinced.

"There are no guarantees, but I hope that nobody will try to injure me," Baggio said. "If I don't score, that does not really matter. I cannot be judged by goals."

The Italians have been in poor form in Cup warm-ups, losing to non-qualifier France, Germany and Pontedera, a third-division Italian club. That's a depressing trend for the Italians, always considered among the top contenders for the title.

Italy, host of the 1990 Cup, bowed out in the semifinals then, losing to Argentina on penalty kicks. When Italy failed to qualify for the 1992 European championship, coach Azeglio Vicini was fired. Arrigo Sacchi, who led AC Milan to consecutive European club championships, took over.

He's tried to inject some of AC Milan's offensive panache into the Azzurri. His roster includes seven AC Milan players, including its four starting defenders.

Giuseppe Signori of Lazio of Rome, who led the Italian League with 23 goals this year, figures to team in front with Lazio teammate PierLuigi Casiraghi and Roberto Baggio.

The Italians, who will play two games in East Rutherford, N.J., can expect strong fan support from the large Italian-American population of the region and the many Italians visiting the United States.

Ireland: Italy won't be the only team in Group E tapping its ancestral roots for support.

"I know a lot of our players are going out to enjoy themselves in America," Irish coach Jack Charlton said. "They'll be able to visit some of their relatives."

Ireland tapped its British roots for players. Only seven players were born in Ireland; the remainder qualified through parentage.

The joke in British soccer is that Ireland has a better English team than England, which didn't qualify for the Cup. Two Irish players are from club teams in Scotland; the remainder are from English clubs. Even Charlton, who led Ireland to the quarterfinals in 1990, is an Englishman.

The Irish play a direct, physical style in the English manner.

"We have good players and a good method of playing," Charlton said. "We will get on with it and see what happens."

Many of the players who figured in the last World Cup are back: goalkeeper Pat Bonner, defenders Paul McGrath and Kevin Moran, midfielders Ray Houghton, Andy Townsend, John Sheridan and Steve Staunton, and forwards Tony Cascarino and John Aldridge. …