Urban legend has it that at a climactic moment during Italy's winning performance in the 1982 World Cup final, the television screen at the Bar Italia in Frith Street, Soho, exploded. Such is the passion of Italian football fans.

Saturday night at the Bar Italia was supposed to be that sort of carnival but the team over there let down the fans over here, and at the end the bar had turned into a funeral parlour.

By 7.15pm, a full hour and three quarters before kick-off, Frith Street was, as always, swarming with Baggio-alikes. Most of them, of course, were English - wannabe Italians who never leave home without a Gazzetta dello Sport under one arm and a jar of pesto sauce under the other - but they looked the part all the same. Some lounged on mopeds, some sipped espressos, all smoked Marlboros. One earnest young man at a table outside ostentatiously buried his nose in a copy of Dante's Inferno ('a poseur, io?')

Once inside, though, all thoughts of cool posings melted in the heat of anticipation. Spilling onto the pavement, the crowd was so tight you could remain upright even with your feet off the ground. You could feel the hot breath of the person behind down your neck. At 8.45, my companion beat a retreat home, fearing she was on the point of fainting.

In such a crush you could not help but get to know your neighbours, so I asked mine what he thought of Italy's chances. Luca, a charming banker from Tuscany who had flown in from Luxembourg for the weekend, was utterly psyched-up. Despite reservations about Roberto Baggio's fitness and the Italians' recent adoption of the unfamiliar 4-4-2 system, he asserted: 'I'm supremely confident. We won't lose - no way.'

For the first eleven minutes of the match, he seemed right. The bar purred as the Italians played with languid grace. Each touch of the ball by Baggio was applauded with cries of 'belissimo]' Simon - an Italian fan from the Barbican rather than Bergamo - derided the Irish as 'a load of Dobbins'.

Then, out the blue, Baresi - once said to be on first name terms with the ball - suddenly became complete strangers with it and presented it to Ray Houghton to score. An awkward, uncomprehending hush descended. It was broken only by a lad in an AC Milan shirt shouting 'bollocks' in an unmistakable Cockney accent.

Maria, Luca's friend from Rome who spent much of the evening telling the players when to pass, was distraught, putting the blame squarely on Italy's coach. 'That's the problem with Sacchi,' she moaned, 'he just doesn't care about defence.'

At half-time, Luca and Maria were by no means disheartened. 'We've had 20 attacks, and they've only had one,' said Luca. 'We'll score soon.' But he was still concerned about the formation: 'The Irish are crowding out the midfield. We need to go back to 4-3-3,' Luca added.

When after 65 minutes Guiseppe Signori snaked into the box, the room surged forward - as if on a football terrace - and then back again with an elongated 'ooooo' as Pat Bonner blocked his shot. When John Sheridan hit the bar, however, all life seemed to ebb out of the crowd at the Bar Italia. 'What are we doing?' shouted an Italian voice at the back of the room.

As the game ticked away from the Italians, the fans at the bar, as they do everywhere, turned increasingly to blaming the referee. When Dennis Irwin clattered into Signori, Maria shook her head: 'the Irish game is just too physical.'

During the seemingly interminable injury-time some Italian fans, disillusioned by their team's inability to master the Irish, took to whistling for the end. When it came, the atmosphere was sombre, muted and shocked. 'I can't believe,' someone behind me kept saying. They had come to celebrate, but were leaving in mourning.

Maria angrily berated the players for complacency, and Luca turned to make a swift exit, muttering to me as he left: 'See you here for the final.' He tried to smile in farewell, but he could not bring himself to do it.

(Photograph omitted)

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