World Cup USA '94 was universally hailed as a success on many fronts, including its record crowds. But with an estimated 2 billion viewers tuned in to Sunday's championship game, the tournament exposed an Achilles heel: a format that let Brazil and Italy play through 120 minutes of exhausting and scoreless soccer, only to resort to a penalty shootout in which Brazil outshot Italy, 3 to 2.

This, many immediately opined, was no way to decide the 52nd and last game of a month-long tournament - an event that culminated in a classic matchup between two of the sport's superpowers.

Three other World Cup finals went into overtime, but this was the first and likely the last decided by penalty kicks - a sort of Russian roulette between goalkeeper and shooter that bears little resemblance to soccer's basic nature. Shootouts likely will be scrapped for the 1998 World Cup in France, replaced with a sudden-death overtime.

That's small consolation to the Italians, who saw two heroic players, Roberto Baggio and Franco Baresi, tragically sail penalty shots over the goal's crossbar, a 12-hankie ending fit for opera buffs.

Called ``Mr. July'' for his clutch scoring leading up the final, Baggio took Italy's last shot, a do-or-die blast from 12 yards in front of the goal. ``I could not believe my eyes,'' he said of his errant boot. ``I kicked with power, against my nature.'' Had Baggio made the kick, and Brazil scored on its fifth shot, the game would have gone to sudden-death penalty kicks.

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