Football / World Cup USA '94: Baggio sprinkles Italian gold dust

NOW he is no longer Johnny Come Lately but a talent that can also strike early and strike hot, Roberto Baggio will surely not desert Italy in their hour of greatest need. The will of a nation demands that he recover from a hamstring strain and takes his place in Sunday's final against Brazil.

Neither will the rest of the world forgive him if it is to be denied the grandstand finale to what is being called one of the finest tournaments in the history of the game. A game that is never more beautiful than when practised by two young men who will sprinkle gold dust on the championship decider.

In many respects Brazil v Italy is the dream final: Romario v Baggio, the dream shoot-out concluding a fascinating four weeks of intense competition. A re-run of the 1970 final, it brings together 1994's two outstanding influences who come in tiny bundles, as if to remind their grid-iron groupie hosts that to be great is not necessarily to be gigantic.

Both the Juventus captain and the Barcelona goalscorer came to the event with expectations running high. While it has been pretty much plain- sailing for Romario, Baggio has gone from the beast to the beauty in Italian eyes, from the failed genius who cannot deliver on the biggest stage of all to a match-winner divine. No wonder at the end of

Italy's semi-final in Giants Stadium on Wednesday, in which two beautifully-taken goals killed off the East European upstarts of Bulgaria, he cried uncontrollable tears.

He embraced Luigi Riva, who in 1970 had shouldered the burden of Italian dreams, and explained his emotional outpouring in credible terms. 'This is my work,' he said, 'this is my life. It's made of sweat and tears. This time I cried because I am very, very happy.'

Riva has been an inspiration and now Baggio can follow another Italian icon, Paolo Rossi, who dominated the 1982 tournament in Spain after a sluggish start from both him and his team. 'Let's not forget Rossi won the World Cup. We are only in the final, the hardest part for us is just starting.'

Although Baggio enjoyed an outstanding 20-minute period against the Irish in the first game, that cameo of brilliance was quickly forgotten amid the humiliation and recrimination of a single goal defeat. Worse was to follow against Norway when the goalkeeper, Gianluca Pagliuca, was sent off and the coach, Arrigo Sacchi, decided amid the re-jigging of his 10- man force to dispense with his greatest talent. Baggio's critics concluded that in that moment he had forfeited all right to be revered as the side's heartbeat, but never did the coach lose faith in his abilities, which were massively endorsed by the goals that came late and saw off first Nigeria and then Spain.

'I'm not used to surrendering to difficulties,' Baggio added. 'I've been fighting since I was 18.'

The injury removed him from Wednesday's game for the remaining 19 minutes, by which time he had single- handedly driven the fight from Bulgaria, who could never recapture the exuberance and strategy that put paid to Germany three days before. It is rumoured they partied in Manhattan until 4am the following morning and it seems they were content to depart on that remarkable achievement. This does not augur well for Wales in the forthcoming European Championship campaign. They have to meet both Bulgaria and Germany in their qualifying group.

Yesterday, Baggio began the treatment programme designed to have him fit and ready for Sunday's final. Definitely missing will be the defender, Alessandro Costacurta, following two yellow cards. This will be the second major final of this summer he must forego because suspension also ruled him out of Milan's European Cup triumph over Romario's Barcelona. It is a blow that has forced another change on Sacchi, who is described here as the greatest Italian fiddler since Nero, and which could allow for the return of Franco Baresi.

BULGARIA (1-4-3-2): Mikhailov (Mulhouse); Hubchev (Levski Sofia); Kiryakov (Lerida), Ivanov (Neuchatel Xamax), Zvetanov, Yankov (both Levski Sofia); Lechkov (Hamburg), Sirakov (Levski Sofia), Balakov (Sporting Lisbon); Kostadinov (Porto), Stoichkov (Barcelona). Substitutes: Yordanov (Sporting Lisbon) for Kostadinov, 71; Genchev (Ipswich Town) for Stoichkov, 78.

ITALY (4-4-2): Pagliuca (Sampdoria); Mussi (Torino), Costacurta, Maldini (both Milan), Benarrivo (Parma); Berti (Internazionale), Albertini (Milan), D Baggio (Parma), Donadoni (Milan); Casiraghi (Lazio), R Baggio (Juventus). Substitutes: Conte (Juventus) for D Baggio, 55; Signori (Lazio) for R Baggio, 70.

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