MEXICO CITY — How long ago it all seems, that July evening in 1982 when all the world turned Italian.
How long since we saw the craggy features of Enzo Bearzot at last break into a smile, his ordeal over, his strategy vindicated.
How long since we saw Dino Zoff, that most elegant of goalkeepers, triumphantly holding the World Cup aloft in the gathering dusk at Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu Stadium.
How long since the heroes of that Spanish summer--Paolo Rossi, Claudio Gentile, Marco Tardelli, Bruno Conti, Antonio Cabrini and all the rest--earned their place in the history of the game with that convincing 3-1 victory over West Germany.
Now, almost four years later, their reign as world champion is nearing its end--unless, that is, Italy can surprise everyone and successfully defend its title.
But there is a note of caution. No nation has won consecutive World Cups since Brazil did so in 1958 and 1962, and there are many here in Mexico who believe it is too great a challenge for Italy, which meets Bulgaria at noon today in the tournament opener at Azteca Stadium.
If ever there was a wide-open World Cup, this is it. The consensus among players, coaches, the media and even many fans is that the field of 24 finalists contains at least eight, and possibly even 12, teams capable of emerging victorious on June 29.
To begin with, all six previous champions--Italy, Brazil, West Germany, Uruguay, England and Argentina--have to be favored. Then there is European champion France, which boasts the world's best player in Michel Platini, and Mexico, which has the decided advantage of playing at home.
That makes eight, but no one feels comfortable in completely discounting the chances of Denmark, Poland, Spain and the Soviet Union. They might all be longshots, but the task is not beyond them. Poland, for example, finished third in both 1974 and 1982.
Today, in the smog-filled Valley of Mexico before an Azteca Stadium audience of more than 100,000, the play begins.
What follows is a brief look at the 24 competing teams, with their best-ever World Cup performance indicated in parentheses. The 24 teams are divided into six groups of four, with each team playing the others in its group. Two points are awarded for a win, one for a tie. The top two teams in each group plus the four third-place teams with the best records will advance to the second round. Goal differential is the main tiebreaker.
GROUP A ITALY (Defending champion; winner in 1934, 1938, 1982)--The Italians traditionally start out slowly. In 1982, for example, they tied their first three games against Poland and unheralded Peru and Morocco before sweeping aside Argentina, Brazil, Poland and West Germany to claim the world championship.
This time, they face stiff early opposition from Argentina but should manage to advance simply on the basis of their almost impenetrable defense. The one question mark is the lack of a true playmaker to direct the offense.
ARGENTINA (Winner 1978)--Cesar Luis Menotti, the coach who led Argentina to its 1978 triumph in Buenos Aires, has been wandering around the International Press Center here like a lost soul. He has toned down his earlier attacks on the personality, intellect and coaching ability of current Coach Carlos Bilardo, but he is not overly impressed by Argentina's chances.
The ongoing feud between Menotti, here as a broadcast journalist, and Bilardo has caused some dissension on the team (a few players still being loyal to their former coach), but all will be forgotten once play begins.
BULGARIA (first round)--The Bulgarians have an odd sort of record in that they consistently seem to reach the World Cup finals and then just as consistently fail once they're there.
This is their fifth appearance, but they have yet to win a game. The current team is solid, but perhaps stolid would be a better word. It lacks any real star player and its style is unspectacular. In short, it is likely to make an early exit from the tournament.
SOUTH KOREA (first round)--Coach Jung Nam Kim, who has his team playing a refreshing variety of open, fast-paced soccer with none of the negativity surrounding the modern game, is realistic about his team's chances.
"If we do not get beyond the first round, this is normal against teams like Italy, Argentina and Bulgaria," he said. "Getting into the second round would be the best we could hope for."
GROUP B MEXICO (quarterfinals)--Coach Bora Milutinovic has said that if his team reaches the semifinals, it will be in the final. The problem for Mexico, however, may be in getting to--and through--the quarterfinals.
The team's first-round tests seem simple enough, neither Paraguay, Belgium nor Iraq should cause it any difficulty. Once the tournament reaches the knockout stage, however, and Mexico is paired with one of the game's real powers, its limitations could become apparent.