The game of their lives: When the US met Italy at the 1990 World Cup

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<span>Photograph: PA Images/Alamy</span>
Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

Here they are, back in the bus, and there’s something exhilarating about being on the move with a police escort. It’s a special little part of the pomp and pageantry of a truly big event. Just like the sound of aluminum studs clack-clack-clacking in a stadium tunnel before kickoff, it’s a mental and sensory cue that it’s game time. It’s on.

The US team steadily moves through traffic, winding through the Eternal City, gladiators on their way to Rome’s latter-day Colosseum, the Stadio Olimpico. Just like in Trinidad, they’re once again playing the antagonist to the crowd favorites. It’s them against an entire nation, and they’re behind enemy lines.

Inside the bus, the mood is, somehow, looser than it was on the way to the Czechoslovakia game. How to describe it? The feeling on the way to their first game was filled with ignorance. Now that they’ve been stung, they feel a little wiser. And, oddly, a little more confident, even if they’re the only ones.

Someone pushes play on a boom box. It’s a hip-hop song, and the beat sounds awfully familiar.

It’s “Victory” … their celebrity-studded novelty rap song/video!

Hoots and hollers light up the bus. John Harkes stands up in the aisle and starts dancing the Roger Rabbit, to more cheers.

They aren’t Italy, they aren’t Brazil, they aren’t Argentina. They’re the United States men’s national team, and this is their song. This is them.

The mood is suitably lightened.

•••

A couple hours before kickoff, they get another warm-up out on the Stadio Olimpico field. The field is like a putting green – but even this early, the stadium is nowhere near as quiet as a golf course. There are maybe 500 people in the stands, and it already seems noisy.

By kickoff, there will be 72,500 more.

All 73,000 fans are expecting a goleada … meaning a rout. A thrashing. A trouncing. A licking. The Italian press has already written the script for this game. They’ve been whipping up the nation ever since the Czechoslovaks had their own goleada against the United States four days ago. Actually, they’ve been dreaming about it since last December, when Sophia Loren fatefully matched up the US with Italy at the World Cup draw.

Pope John Paul II – a former goalkeeper – moved forward the Corpus Domini parade happening elsewhere in town today by one hour so that Italians won’t miss a single goal of this match.

The LA Times describes the US team as “walking through the valley of the shadow of death” … that “there may be a blackout in Rome from all the electricity consumed by the Italian side of the scoreboard” … and that “the situation may be hopeless.” The New York Times’ headline in its article about today’s game is “Olympic Stadium or Colosseum?”

John Harkes stunned reporters earlier in the week when he was asked how much of a blowout he’d consider to be a good result.

“A tie or a win,” he responded to the press pack.

Silence.

“A tie or a win,” Harkesy repeated. “Look, if we do lose, I want to at least show the Italians we can play.”

His fellow Jersey boy and buddy-cop counterpart in midfield, Tab Ramos, was more pragmatic.

“This game is going to be more difficult because the Italians are better than the Czechs,” Tab told reporters. “The first few minutes are going to be difficult to stay composed. Then it’s only going to get worse. I said before the World Cup that we might play the best games we’ve ever played and lose them all by 3–0 or 4–0. That’s a reality. It’s not something we’re ashamed of.”

Then there was Paul Caligiuri, ever the beatific Southern Californian, with his own take.

“I look at it as an inspiration to play against the best, in the most spectacular environment imaginable,” he said. “It’s the time of my life, and I’m going to make the best of it. I want to step up and take the challenge.”

The media have been talking about the record scoreline in a World Cup, since history might be about to beckon: It’s a nine-goal margin, which has happened three times before. Oh, and this Italian team has not allowed a goal in its last 653 minutes –that’s seven straight shutouts.

The Italian players already seem to be celebrating their victory, which is worrying their coach, Azeglio Vicini.

“I’ve seen too much optimism here this week,” he told reporters after practice. “There is too much talk of a high-scoring game, which I think we should forget about. We have to go for the two points and the mathematical qualification it will give us. We think the United States, having suffered five goals, will revamp their lineups and tactics and be even more determined to avoid such a result.”

•••

From the Stadio Olimpico locker room, the Americans can hear the noise.

Chanting. Stomping. A hum. A white noise. Energy vibrating through the steel and concrete, and into their safe little bunker. Everyone’s suited up. Bob Gansler and the other coaches are once again dressed for a special occasion, in navy suits. Here comes one more talk by Bob.

“Gents, I’ve said it before. You can’t be in awe of a team, and you can’t be in awe of a situation,” he reminds them.

What awaits them outside that locker door isn’t 40,000 delirious Trinidadians all in red expecting victory. It’s 70,000 Italian fans expecting a massacre. It’s indeed beginning to resemble the Colosseum. And this time, the US are not about to face the finest players from a tiny island, they’re about to face the finest gladiators in the world: Walter Zenga, goalkeeper for Inter. A back line of Franco Baresi of Milan and Riccardo Ferri of Inter, with Giuseppe Bergomi of Inter and Paolo Maldini of Milan the fullbacks. A midfield of Nicola Berti of Inter, Roberto Donadoni of Milan, Fernando De Napoli of (yes) Napoli, and Giuseppe Giannini of Roma. The forwards are Andrea Carnevale of Napoli and Gianluca Vialli of Sampdoria.

These are the very best Italians in a country with the very best professional league in the world. Baresi is already a legend. Maldini, the son of the great Cesare Maldini, is quickly becoming one. Donadoni is virtually unstoppable, a man who’s everywhere at once. Vialli is hailed as Italy’s finest forward. He’s scored against the US before, when they played his club team in the Italian Alps last summer.

Italy are so strong that not even Roberto Baggio, The Divine Ponytail – the man who just joined Juventus for a world-record transfer fee – can get into this starting XI!

Most of the US team don’t even play for a club. What a contrast this is.

So, once again, just like back in Trinidad, here they are in a little locker room with their back against the wall and their reputation on the line, and once again they’re about to walk onto a grassy stage where a hostile crowd expects them to be executed. Another blowout would be a terrible look indeed for American soccer. And it’d be a terrible look for each of these players before the eyes of the world – destroying any career hopes they have in the world’s game.

Same shit, different stakes.

“Draw on the closest experience you have,” Gansler tells his troops. He brings up Trinidad and Tobago, a do-or-die situation.

“The Czech game was a ‘do’ situation,” Gansler says. “And we didn’t.”

Yogi Berra couldn’t have said it better.

But this, he says, is bigger. This one’s another do-or-die.

And just as his players are quietly, confidently up for this game, Coach Gans is too. He’s got a trick up his sleeve – not a genius one, but at this level, an effective chess move need not be elegant, just unexpected.

Soccer tactics 101 dictates that the inferior team set themselves up to defend deep, then try to make the most of their few chances throughout the game with quick counterattacks. After the world joyously ridiculed the Americans’ last game, Gansler knew that everyone expected him to set up his team in accordance with this well-worn playbook.

Gans decides, then, to mix up the quick counterattacks. The Americans would be defending deeply, in three banks like a Macedonian phalanx. No surprises there. When the Americans do get possession of the ball, they will aim to strike quickly if the chance is there; but other times, they’re to slow it down. Get control. Hold it up. Focus on stringing passes together. Actually retain possession. It’ll be the last thing the over-confident Italians – and their goal-hungry fans – will expect. And the last thing the Italians want is their own crowd on their back.

As he always does, Gansler simplifies the strategy for his players and gives each a basic, straightforward assignment: Marcelo Balboa’s job as a defensive midfielder is to break up attacks, and when he wins the ball back, just feed it to Harkesy or Tab. Jimmy Banks is to stick to Donadoni no matter what, like overcooked pasta. Bruce Murray is to lead the line, win battles in the air, and hold up play when necessary. Peter Vermes is to drop deep and help hold up the ball and retain possession.

If they each do their jobs and keep the game close, all they need is one single chance to present itself – which it will, if their game plan can throw the Italians off of theirs.

The Americans clack-clack-clack their way into the tunnel, lining up tallest to shortest, as usual, waiting to come onto the pitch. They’re in their white shirts with blue stripes, white shorts, and white socks. If this is to be it for them, at least they’re going down in style. Morituri te salutant.

Soon, the Italians appear, in matching white Diadora warm-up jackets. They’re not Eastern Bloc giants like the Czechoslovaks. In fact, they’re not big at all. But they’re giants nonetheless.

Tab is in awe of these players he’s seen on TV and looked up to. All these stars – the world’s best – are in front of them. Unfortunately, they’re all on the same goddamn team! It’s starting to sink in. But there’s something different in the Americans as they’re here in the tunnel this time. It’s not in the pit of their stomachs, but in their heads and their hearts. They know, somehow they just know that they’re not going to get their asses kicked this time. Even by these world-class stars.

The noise of the stadium surging in from the end of the tunnel isn’t just heard, it’s felt.

Almost time to go out there.

The referees signal that it’s time to walk out onto the field. John Doyle, who’s at the front of the American line, looks over at the first player lined up for Italy, Donadoni, to begin walking together.

“No, no, my friend – you go. You go,” Donadoni says to JD.

Sweet … this guy’s really nice, JD thinks to himself, as the United States team walk out by themselves onto the Stadio Olimpico field, across the track and onto the grass.

Immediately a deafening, terrible sound cascades down on them from all directions: the bellowing of boos and the shrieking of whistling. Christians being thrown to the lions.

It was a trick. The Americans got done again by the Italians.

Moments later, the Italians strut out of the tunnel … one at a time, as the crowd roars for each of them. They’re cheering, waving flags, shouting, and applauding.

The fans here in the Stadio Olimpico have caught the delirium of tournament hosts: they become intensely patriotic, and the hosts’ games are as much celebrations as they are sporting events. Tonight there’s a festive atmosphere in the stadium. The energy is palpable – and not an edgy kind of energy, as if the hosts had to face Brazil or West Germany. No, this feels like a national holiday. Italy’s tricolor flags are everywhere, in all sizes. Thousands of them! And they’re all in motion. It’s a spectacular sight.

The Americans take in the sights: 73,423 people – far more than they’ve ever played in front of before.

They line up on each side of the referees for the national anthems: First is The Star-Spangled Banner. The Americans put their hands over their hearts and look off into the middle distance, focusing on the task ahead.

Then, here it comes: the Italian national anthem, Il Canto degli Italiani. An entire military marching band is in formation behind the players, and they play the jaunty tune.

There’s nothing quite like standing in the middle of 73,000 people who are all belting out the national anthem of your opponent. You can do nothing but stand there and endure it. What a moment – a very, very intimidating one ahead of kickoff. This is what you face when you play the host country. The Americans are already keyed up for this game … but hearing this, oh man … this really gets the adrenaline going.

Holy shit … this is it.

It’s 75F and humid at kickoff, 9pm. Rome time.

As the teams take their positions to kick off, the noise is something entirely different. It’s gone from celebratory to raw energy. The thousands of Italian flags are still swaying throughout the stadium. The Azzurri are in blue shirts, white shorts, and blue socks.

Bruce and Peter stand at the center circle, ready to get the ball rolling. Under the stadium floodlights, the match ball is gleaming, sparkling white. Now the decibels are unlike anything these Americans have ever played in, by a long shot.

Teammates shout to each other, but nothing comes out. So they jog over closer, and still nothing. The Americans can move five yards from each other and still they can’t be heard. How are they going to play in this?

Murray rolls the Adidas Etrusco Unico ball to Vermes, who passes it backward, and with that, the Americans are in the game of their lives – pupils dilated, adrenaline jacked, hearts thumping in their chests, laser focused.

  • This is an excerpt from New Kids in the World Cup: The Totally Late ’80s and Early ’90s Tale of the Team That Changed American Soccer Forever by Adam Elder (University of Nebraska Press, November 2022). Available now.

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