Almost unnoticed, Nicola Berti trudged wearily from the centre circle, grateful for the grace of God that he had not been the one to miss the penalty, and offered a shoulder of consolation. His gesture was ours. All but Italians were comforted that the best team had won the World Cup yet only the most unforgiving of Italians felt anything other than sympathy for poor piccolo Roby.
When the plane loaned to the team by Italy's deputy president touched down in Rome last Tuesday, the only demonstration of dissatisfaction came from Lazio fans, protesting about Arrigo Sacchi dropping Giuseppe Signori for one of the coach's former Milan players, the ineffectual Daniele Massaro, who also missed a penalty. All was quiet after the final leg of the journey to Milan; neither rotten tomatoes nor turnips. The team had done better than expected. The only, trivial, inquest appears to centre on whether Sacchi felt compelled to play Baggio for fear of what might happen if Italy lost without him, or whether the sponsors, Italian Petroleum, put pressure on the coach to include the central figure of their advertising campaign.
Baggio himself returned to his home at Caldogno, near Vicenza, which had been burgled during the tournament, for five days before embarking on a hunting trip in Argentina. He kept his own counsel despite being pressed for explanations or excuses. There were none.
It would be easy to condemn. Any professional player - let alone the World Footballer of the Year - should score, or at least find a target measuring eight yards wide by eight feet high, from a spot 12 yards away. All 14 penalty kicks during normal time at the tournament were converted. And, after all, you see it done routinely every Sunday morning on park pitches.
But is this seemingly simple task, rendered nerve-jangling by the most glaring of spotlights, any way to settle a match - rather, the match - or indeed any valid test of footballing ability?
The goalkeeper's fear of the penalty? There is none in the men who are not expected to save the shot but who have gamesmanship down to a fine art by moving forward off their line before the ball is kicked. The kickers are more the frightened ones, which can be the only reason beyond simple human error for the expert shooter Baggio's miss, even allowing for the weakness in his right leg. And debilitating fear is what should be removed from the game.
Fifa have gone some way to doing it, by clamping down on the tackle from behind. If, out of Baggio's pain - which he will no doubt bear with dignity - comes football's gain, then it will have been worthwhile. Chris Waddle's similar over-the-top miss for England against Germany four years ago did not provoke the game's governing body to rethink because it was a mere semi-final. After a distasteful final showpiece, however, came their determination to seek improvements in the game. They should not rest on laurels. Perhaps now they will resolve to find a more satisfactory manner of reaching a verdict.
Sharing the trophy seems a pure, sound answer, but that might encourage further the less gifted team to play for a draw. So a winner does have to be found.
Already there are noises about 30 minutes extra time being replaced by sudden-death extra time for France in 1998, and we may even see it in England in two years' time at the European Championship finals. There appears no cogent argument against - except one that television planners might advance - and one overwhelming one in favour: Romania and not Sweden would have gone on to contest a more appealing semi-
final against Brazil.
Eventually, however, a time limit would have to be imposed and the alternative to penalties implemented. We have often ridiculed American kite-flying changes such as bigger goals, but perhaps there is something to be learnt from them: the shoot-out employed by the North American Soccer League in the Seventies.
From, say, 35 yards out, a player has a limited time to go on and beat a goalkeeper allowed to advance from his line, though not permitted to handle outside his area. It would certainly demonstrate a proficiency in more skills of the game: dribbling, ball control, ability to beat a man and shoot. Goalkeepers, too, would need to show something other than guesswork.
It would also smooth the rough justice of last week's final, seen in a miss, too, by Franco Baresi, who should not have been on the field - and not because of his knee injury, which had healed sufficiently for the senior players in the squad to tell Sacchi on the eve of the final that they wanted their captain back in place of Luigi Apolloni.
If it was an irony of a joyous tournament containing one more goal every two games than the previous one that its final should be goalless, then it was plain perverse that Baresi, defying some of us who mistakenly thought his class had waned with the advancing years, should have been allowed to go on and give one of the great defensive performances.
Twice Baresi had brought down the uncomplaining Romario from behind in normal time before bodychecking him in the extra period. Another tackle went unpunished, negating Romario's skill of timing his touch just as a defender commits himself.
Had the referee Sandor Puhl, who thus modified the Fifa instructions which were designed to encourage the attackers, protected Romario as he should have by issuing a yellow card for Baresi's first challenge, we might have seen a match where Brazilian attacking superiority in the face of expert Italian defence was more adequately rewarded.
As it was, we saw a fascinating final rather than the appropriately thrilling one. 'Making soccer history' went the American slogan. Fifa did not want it made with the first penalty competition in a final.
Still, make soccer - oops, football - history the United States did. Officially, 3,567,415 tickets were sold, even if the touts who bought many of them did not sell them all, producing a record average crowd of 68,604 and ample evidence of an enthusiasm that was spirited from pitch to stand, with most teams catching the mood.
Fifa did much towards switching the balance of power from defence to attack and while another record of 227 yellow and 15 red cards may give the appearance of a foul-ridden tournament, conversely they helped it to flow. The group tables reveal that positions would have remained the same with two or three points for a win but the incentive of three did make for a more adventurous attitude. Referees did, naturally, make mistakes and odd innocents were punished; better that strikers were favoured, however. Would that more linesmen had reacted similarly. Players no longer needed to dive to win just deserts, notably Jurgen Klinsmann, and the humiliation of a stretcher aided recovery from minor knocks.
All was not sweetness and light, however, and the pall of sadness caused by the murder of Andres Escobar was a reminder of football's capacity, too, for tragedy. The timing of matches in the heat of the day was cruel, as were the travelling distances, through three time zones. And sumptuous the stadiums may have looked in this televisual feast but some would not have passed the Safety of Sports Grounds Act.
It was not a tournament filled with great matches - Argentina v Romania, halves of Argentina v Nigeria and Brazil v Holland - but there were few bad ones. Now that the Brazilian monkey is off their back - the maligned Carlos Alberto Parreira having steered a needs-must course - perhaps they will feel better able next time to demonstrate more fully their repertoire.
Nigeria offered us a new prospect, though the betrayal of their expansive instincts caused their downfall. One sensed that if Argentina could have just eased past Romania they might have gone on to win, that if Germany had done similarly against Bulgaria they might, in the shape of Klinsmann and Rudi Voller, have offered something more than the containment of Italy against the Brazilians. If . . .
We did not see a Pele, and may never again given the demands of the modern game and the processing of talent, and Maradona's departure as a man of substance seemed symbolic. The grace and invention of Romario was almost compensation.
Neither tactically did the tournament offer anything radical, merely emphasising the virtues of a flat back four with holding midfield player in front and adaptable, rotating attacking players. Nor are two-man striking partnerships obsolete, dependent, as with any system, on the quality of player in it.
'Tactically it did not bring anything new,' said the wise Mario Zagalo, head coach to the 1970 Brazilians, assistant to the class of '94. 'The only lesson is that without the ball you are going nowhere. Anyone who wants to be a world champion has got to know how to defend. A team that attacks indiscriminately or can only defend is not going to win the World Cup. Truly, you have to have balance in the team.'
It was not said gloomily. And indeed we saw many promising young players, among them Argentina's Ariel Ortega and Nigeria's Austin Okocha, give glimpses of what to expect next time around, this experience inside them. We urge them to gather in France in four years time to carry on the work born in the USA.
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