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WORLD CUP USA '94 : All Eyes On The Prize : SOCCER BECOMES BIGGER THAN A BIG STORY IN THE FOUR NATIONS IN THE SEMIFINALS: IT BECOMES THE ONLY STORY

July 13, 1994|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If there are Bulgarians in Italy tonight, they are silent Bulgarians.

From the Alps to Sicily, nothing will move in Italy beyond flickering images on TV sets when the beloved Azzurri play Bulgaria in a World Cup semifinal game. More than half the country--about 30 million people, nearly half of them women--will watch every move with unconcealed partisanship.

In Bulgaria, the team's ascent has been compared to the fall of communism there in 1989. A victory today would send hundreds of thousands of celebrants onto the streets of Sofia, some bearing beer and schnapps, others wearing masks of hero Hristo Stoitchkov's face.

In Brazil, Luzinete Nunes de Santana, a 32-year-old domestic, again won't be able to watch her nation's semifinal game against Sweden without first taking tranquilizers.

"I scream, I cry, I kick; whoever is at my side suffers," says De Santana, who spent most of her $64 monthly salary to buy a uniform resembling the national team's. "I feel my heart pounding and I'm afraid of getting sick."

If Sweden wins, fans by the thousands, with faces painted in the blue and yellow of the Swedish flag, can again be expected to dance and strip and swim in the fountain of Stockholm's central square, Sergels Torg, reveling in cool water against the heat of victory and shouting "Sweden, Sweden, Sweden," until they lose their voices.

The fervor today in four nations with teams in the World Cup semifinals will stretch across class, color and geography, from the Rocinha slums of Brazil to the majesty of Rome. It will be all-consuming.

"It's hard for Americans to understand," says Vanderley Borges, Rio de Janeiro police press secretary. "There's no equivalent to it for them."

*

The local impact of this famous, long and contagious international athletic event rivals Carnival , outshines the Northern Lights, outdraws the pope, and, as party-starter down east, humbles the fall of communism.

Yes, by now everybody knows the World Cup transfixes the world outside the United States, but today Brazil, Sweden, Italy and Bulgaria are most viscerally afflicted.

The disparity of finalists is remarkable this year, rich and poor, large and small. There is an eastern team, a western team, a northern team and a southern team. Two teams that expected to be here; two that most expected would be long gone by now.

"The real miracle of this World Cup is not the presence of Italy in the semifinal, a point the team has reached four times in the last five editions. . . . The real miracle has been achieved by little Bulgaria," said Giorgio Tosatti in the Milan daily Corriere della Sera.

Brazil and Italy, cases in point, are among the final four because that is where they belong. Any of the millions of soccer experts walking the streets of Sao Paulo or Milan this morning can explain why, although few would resist also criticizing the much-maligned Italian and Brazilian coaches.

After Italy beat Spain to advance to the semifinals, a reporter asked Italian Coach Arrigo Sacchi why the same teams always seem to advance.

"It is not the case of a single tournament but of the history, the organization and the soccer environment in any given country," said Sacchi, who once coached AC Milan, which has consistently been the best team in the Italian League, itself the world's best.

There are four soccer giants in the world, and Italy and Brazil, each three-time Cup winners, are two of them. Germany and Argentina, now among the 20 also-rans, are the others.

Fans at home, their opponents--indeed, the entire world--expect these teams to do well. If they do not, heads roll as well as soccer balls.

There are no such lofty expectations in Sweden, which hasn't placed since 1958 and nearly didn't qualify this year, or Bulgaria, which had never won a World Cup match until this year. They have triumphed, even if they lose today.

So is it that soccer-crazed millions in four competing nations will watch semifinal matches today from perspectives as disparate as the countries that engender them.

BRAZIL

In Brazil, millions of hearts teeter on the edge of collective agony and ecstasy with each game, particularly as the country advances closer to the final.

Cardiologist Carlos Sheer has been busy.

"Last Cup, I took care of various urgent calls of high blood pressure and chest pain," Sheer said. "This year, for the time being, I've only received calls of people worrying if they could watch the game."

So intense is the emotion in Brazil that when a power outage in the remote Amazon town of Pimento Bueono sent television pictures flickering off the screen, an enraged mob of 1,000 rushed out of their homes, stoned the mayor's office and stormed the town's electrical power plant, setting fire to a power company car. And that was just for Brazil's first game.

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