Shootout shoots down title game

July 18, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

PASADENA, Calif. -- Let's get this straight right away. Deciding the World Cup by penalty kicks is a bad idea.

Exciting? Yes. A welcome relief after 120 scoreless minutes on a day as hot as yesterday? Yes.

Appropriate? No.

It's no different from deciding the World Series with a homer-hitting contest. The Super Bowl with a punt, pass and kick competition. The NBA Finals with a free-throw-shooting contest.

It's picking the winner with a gadget, not a game. That's just not right. A championship should be decided on the field, not with a gimmick.

"Deciding this by penalty kicks is like playing the lottery," Brazil goalkeeper Claudio Taffarel said yesterday. "There's a lot of luck involved. It doesn't mean the best team is going to win."

That was the only good part about the penalty-kick shootout that decided the World Cup final yesterday on a sweaty afternoon in the Rose Bowl: The right team did win. Brazil's defeat of Italy was entirely appropriate. The Brazilians were the better team throughout the game, just as they were the best team throughout the tournament.

The Italians, in a disappointing move, elected to play Brazil almost as conservatively as the United States and Sweden did in earlier rounds, packing the defensive end and venturing forward only guardedly. It almost made sense for the outmanned U.S. and Swedish teams to play so carefully, but it was just plain chicken for the talented Italians to do so.

The result? A game with the potential to be a high-scoring classic turned out to be a clunker, one of the dullest of the 52 in the tournament. The 94,194 fans were mostly quiet through two 45-minute halves and two 15-minute periods of overtime, perhaps stunned by the reality of seeing a boring game after having paid as much as $950 for a ticket.

In this World Cup, alas, the worst was saved for last.

The Italians' defensive posture succeeded in keeping them in the game, however, primarily because

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their defense was flawless. Franco Baresi, Italy's aging sweeper, was particularly masterful in keeping Brazil's Romario from scoring, the performance made all the more remarkable by the fact that Baresi was playing in his first game since undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery three weeks ago.

Brazil was unable to score despite taking 22 shots to Italy's eight. Brazil's best chance came in the 75th minute, when a spinning shot slipped through Italian goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca's hands and bounced off the post. Pagliuca grabbed the rebound, and went over to the post and kissed it.

Romario also had a chance in the 109th minute. Sliding to his knees to deflect a cross, he knocked the ball just wide.

Roberto Baggio had a dangerous shot that Taffarel pushed over the crossbar, but otherwise was not a factor. It was unclear whether his famously sore hamstring, Italy's conservative pose or Brazil's defenders did more to stop him.

"Every team we played changed their style against us," Brazil's Bebeto said. "They all played in the back. Italy was proof of that. Thank God we were patient and able to win on penalty kicks, which was just."

All three of the prior Cup finals that had gone into overtime (in 1934, 1966 and 1978) were decided by goals in the extra 30 minutes. When FIFA, soccer's governing body, adopted penalty kicks as a tiebreaker in 1986, having a Cup final decided in such a fashion was, no doubt, the worst-case scenario.

"No one likes to see it come to that," Taffarel said.

And that's the guy who won.

Admittedly, it was an electric moment as Taffarel and Pagliuca strode slowly to the south end zone with their arms around each other,

opposing goalkeepers with the weight of their countries' hopes on their shoulders.

"We agreed that it was destiny that would decide the game, not skill," Taffarel said.

Both goalkeepers managed to block one shot, but Baresi and Baggio flew their attempts far over the crossbar, making the difference. The shootout turned Baresi, the best player on the field, into a goat.

It's just not right.

Not that Italy coach Arrigo Sacchi was complaining. "We have to accept the rules with great serenity," he said.

A far simpler and better way to decide the winner would be to let the teams keep playing until a goal is scored, as happens in ice hockey. Considering that fitness is such a critical part of soccer, making it the tiebreaker, in essence, is much more appropriate.

It will be interesting to see if FIFA changes the rule after experiencing the embarrassment of having a gimmick decide the Cup.

At least the best team was celebrating at the end of the exhausting afternoon. Brazil is the first country to win the Cup four times, and though the fourth wasn't as high-scoring as the first three, it was deserved. From the beginning to the end of the tournament, the Brazilians were the most consistent, offensive-minded team. The only thing wrong with their victory was the way they had to score it in the end, and that's not their fault.

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