World Cup soccer reaches climax

As it turns out, what started two years ago as a globe-spanning, l06-nation World Cup playoff could have been decided this week with a Eurailpass. The tournament's four survivors are West Germany, Italy, France, and Poland.

OK, maybe the Polish team would have to find alternative transportation, but at least they're in the neighborhood. And that's the point.

Stung by the South American domination of last year's Gold Cup tournament, Europe has wiped the egg off its face in the most convincing way possible - shutting out every other continent from today's semifinal matches.

For the first time since 1966, Latin America is without a representative in the final stages of this quadrennial competition. Argentina, the defending champion, was eliminated by back-to-back second round defeats, then flew home only to have the team's baggage held at the Buenos Aires airport until $18,000 in overweight baggage charges could be paid.

Also absent is Brazil with its dancing, yellow-shirted fans. Winners of a record three World Cups, the Brazilians were anything but plain on the soccer plains of Spain, where 24 teams began the final rounds nearly a month ago. Free-wheeling artists in a sport too often straitjacketed by paint-by-number defensive strategies, they were the consensus favorites to samba home with the most prestigious team title in international sports.

Their dreams were shattered, however, when the Italians, and particularly Paolo Rossi, came alive with a memorable second-round performance. Italy's controversial striker had joined his mates in relative goal-scoring hibernation until Monday's crucial match.

Then, like Reggie Jackson rising to the occasion in the sixth game of the 1977 World Series, he found the range, scoring each of his team's goals in a 3-2 victory. Italian President Sandro Pertini, watching the game on TV, leaped from his chair, while in Barcelona's intimate Sarria Stadium, known as the Candy Box, fans chanted ''Ee-Tal-Ya'' long after the game ended.

Back home in Milan, a regional shoemakers' association voted unanimously to keep Rossi shod in free shoes for the rest of his life. Such is the nationalistic fervor of the World Cup.

The irony in all this lies in the fact that Rossi only recently ended a two-year suspension from soccer for his alleged involvement in a betting scandal. Enzo Bearzot, Italy's national coach, had taken a good bit of heat for even selecting the rusty Rossi, who warned everyone not to expect him to transform the Italian team the way Pele once did with Brazil.

Another irony here is that Brazil was sent packing in part because of its unwillingness to sit on the ball. Needing only a tie to reach the semifinals, Brazil refused to go to anything resembling basketball's Four Corners, keep-away offense. Stallball just isn't part of the Brazilian makeup, nor should it be considering how players like Zico and Socrates tickle the ball toward the goal.

This wide-open style, of course, is fairly alien in the World Cup, where not losing takes precedence over winning and draws are a rather frequent fact of life. Italy, in fact, won a berth in the second round of Spain's 24-team shootout without winning a game, tying each of three first-round opponents and scoring a measly two goals. The World Cup's system of counting goal differentials basically explains why a team can play close-to-the-vest soccer, win a key game here or there, and still come out smelling like a rose.

One of Italy's draws, incidentally, was a scoreless 90 minutes against Poland each team's Cup opener. The rivals have survived the first two stages of round-robin play to set up today's rematch in Barcelona, while West Germany and France meet in the other semifinal game in Seville.

Both Poland and Italy will be without a key player. Defender Claudio Gentile , whose close shadowing of Zico helped Italy beat Brazil, is serving an automatic one-game suspension for rough play. But so too is Polish midfielder Zbigniew Boniek, who scored a hat trick to account for his team's margin of victory in a 3-0 win over Belgium. Boniek was ticketed with his second yellow warning card in a politically charged 0-0 draw with the Soviet Union. Beyond the brandishing of Solidarity banners, however, the game was pretty much without incident.

West Germany won the Cup in 1974 and hasn't lost to European competition during 32 games over the last four years. The Germans haven't looked particularly sharp, though, and advanced rather unimpressively after playing England to a scoreless tie and beating the host Spaniards 2-1. They can't expect much fan support either, after what even the German press called a shameful game against Austria in first-round action. Whether fixed or not, the contest was eyed suspiciously by those who felt a pact existed between the two opponents. After the West Germans took an early 1-0 lead, both teams exhibited little interest in scoring. The score never changed, and Austria moved into the second round on the basis of goal differential instead of Algeria, which had earlier sprung a tremendous upset on the Germans.

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