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
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
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. …