Fit to be tied? Depends on who you're talking to

June 29, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

WASHINGTON -- All of the famous signatures of the World Cup experience were on display yesterday at RFK Stadium. Screeching nationalism. Incomparable footwork. Henry Kissinger walking around, trailing an entourage of serious-looking people. Lots of cheers that sounded like "Aaiiiiioooo! Yah! Yah!"

And a tie.

Mexico 1, Italy 1.

You're not surprised, of course. No one is surprised. The World Cup is the tie-ingest creature in the sporting jungle. (Phrase courtesy of former NBA star Micheal Ray Richardson, who once called Kansas City "the pizza eating-est town in America.")

Approximately one of every four games in the two Cups before '94 ended in ties. (Several were decided on penalty kicks.) This year, there have been eight ties in 32 first-round games.

The sound you hear is the United States surfing to another channel.

We hate ties. We don't do ties. We'd rather wash a tie than watch a tie.

Thai food, we like. Tie games, sorry.

Nicole Miller ties, super. Tie ballgames, we take a walk.

We love winners. Winners and losers. Black and white. Look at our sports. Basketball and baseball don't have ties. Pro football has legislated them almost out of existence. Hockey still has them -- and hockey is still a cable-TV sport.

Go ahead, try saying this: "That's the best tie I ever watched!"

Couldn't do it, could you?

Ties are one of the big reasons soccer has never sustained a following here. Sure, 5 billion people around the world love the sport. Sure, 5 billion people happily put up with ties. But throw too many at us? Check, please.

We'll take a shootout. A session of sudden death. A wing ding. Whatever.

But the World Cup is bringing many new sporting art forms to our shores this summer. (The art of the Valderrama wig and the art of playing sieve defense like Greece, to mention a couple.) The art of the tie is one of them.

On a day such as yesterday, it becomes clear why the rest of the world puts up with all the nil-nil and one-one.

The Cup can do ties, baby.

L It can lay a tie (tie a lei?) on you that you won't believe.

Yesterday's match was a classic. The loser could have been eliminated. Both teams passed deftly and created all sorts of scoring chances. The action went up and down, back and forth. At the final whistle, the stadium shook with roars. Mexico's players hugged jubilantly and thrust their fists into the air. The Italians' shoulders sagged.

Sister-kissing, this wasn't.

This was the best tie I ever watched!

This was a classic World Cup tie. A tie with winners and losers.

"This is a result that makes us suffer badly," said the Italian coach, Arrigo Sacchi.

"We have accomplished a great victory," said the Mexican coach, Miguel Mejia Baron.

Typical translation snafu? Nope, this is what happens in the World Cup. A tie can matter. A tie can be the most important thing that ever happened to you.

Because so few goals are scored and so many games end in ties, positions in the round-robin standings -- and whether or not teams advance -- can come down to minute tiebreakers. Goal differential. Goals scored.

That is why all of Mexico is celebrating and all of Italy is dejected, even though their teams tied.

They were two of the four teams (along with Norway and Ireland) in Group E, the infamous Groupa de Muerte, or Group of Death, the toughest round-robin group. When Italy's Azzurri took a 1-0 lead early in the second half yesterday, they were in position to win the group. Italy hadn't allowed a goal in more than 200 minutes. Things looked good.

Mexico? It was going to be eliminated.

But then, Mexico's Marcelino Bernal banged home an 18-yard shot in the 58th minute, and everything changed. The game ended in a tie. Then word came down that Norway and Ireland also had tied. The final standings of La Groupa de Muerte were harrowing, indeed. All four teams had 1-1-1 records. All four teams had as many goals for as against.

The greatest tie I ever saw!

Mexico was awarded first place because it had scored the most goals. Ireland was second, Italy third. Norway? Muerte.

Thanks to Bernal's tying goal, Mexico had won the group instead of being eliminated. It will play an easier team in the next round. Italy also advanced but will play a tougher team.

"A very big goal for me, yes?" Bernal said through a translator.

As the fans slowly emerged from RFK in the afternoon heat, the Mexicans sang and chanted. The Italians were quiet.

"We had more opportunities," Sacchi said, "but the result was just."

Just, but not just a tie.

A TIIIIIIIIEEEEE!

SECOND-ROUND SCHEDULE

Saturday

* Germany vs. Group B or F third place at Chicago, 1:05 p.m.

* Switzerland vs. Spain at Washington, 4:35 p.m.

Sunday

* Group F second place vs. Sweden at Dallas, 1:05 p.m.

* Romania vs. Italy or Group D third place at Pasadena, Calif., 4:35 p.m.

Monday

* Group F winner vs. Ireland at Orlando, Fla., 12:05 p.m.

* Brazil vs. United States at Palo Alto, Calif., 3:35 p.m.

Tuesday

* Group D winner vs. Italy or Group F third place at Foxboro, Mass., 1:05 p.m.

* Mexico vs. Group D second place at East Rutherford, N.J., 4:35 p.m.

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