Italy semi-tough, Bulgaria semi-serious WORLD CUP 1994

July 13, 1994|By Bill Plaschke | Bill Plaschke,Los Angeles Times

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The Italians realize it is no longer luck.

Forget the short-handed victory over Norway, the last-minute escapes against Nigeria and Spain.

When Roberto Baggio performed his goal-celebrating somersault Saturday and landed on his feet, they knew.

"We now feel we have a duty to take this thing all the way to the end," said Italy's goalkeeper, Gianluca Pagliuca.

But look what just wandered into their path for today's World Cup semifinal at Giants Stadium.

What did they say their name was? Oh yeah, Bulgaria.

Those guys with shirts untucked, bad hair or no hair, shaggy PTC beards, and plenty of postgame whiskey.

"I prefer to play Bulgaria," Italian forward Giuseppe Signori said.

Uh-huh.

Today's matchup features one team on a mission, and the other on a field trip.

The Italians are silk suits, serious stares, an abiding sense of history.

The Bulgarians are bowling shirts and belly laughs.

The Italians, like the Brazilians in the other bracket, are trying to become the first country to win four World Cup championships.

The Bulgarians will be satisfied with a qualified interpreter so somebody can finally understand them.

After Bulgaria's stunning upset of defending champion Germany the quarterfinals Sunday, an alleged linguist claimed one player said he was "on narcotics" during the game.

The coach, meanwhile, supposedly said the entire team played while "loaded."

"Such a small country, such a big success, this is a surprise to everybody," said Yordan Letchkov, dubbed "Air Yordan" after his flying header gave Bulgaria the win.

It's only a surprise when you consider Bulgaria had never won a World Cup game until two weeks ago. They have since defeated former world champions Argentina and Germany, sandwiching those victories around one against Mexico on penalty kicks.

For the Italians, the surprise is not that they reached this level, but that their coach is still employed.

Under great criticism for using 20 of his 22 players in a variety of lineups that have confused his own team, Arrigo Sacchi nonetheless has saved his job.

Well, OK, his job was saved by the likes of offensive stars Roberto Baggio and Dino Baggio, and defenders Alessandro Costacurta and Paolo Maldini.

Italy also has two other scorers considered among the best in the world, Daniele Massaro and Giuseppe Signori.

But Sacchi has benched them today, apparently hoping they can provide second-half spark if the physical Bulgarians beat his team down.

"Sacchi can still be a hero," said Giorgio Chinaglia, the former Italian star. "But he can also still be in big, big trouble."

That will only happen if the Italians blow this chance to advance to the final for the first time since they were world champions in 1982.

After their dramatic victory over Spain in the quarterfinals, they finally don't believe such a thing is possible.

"In the beginning of this tournament, this team knew it was lucky," Chinaglia said. "But what happened against Spain, that was the Italian team that everybody was waiting to see on the field.

"This team is ready now. There is no chance they will let down. Not with just one game keeping them from the finals."

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