SAINT-DENIS, France — Baggio in '94, Di Biagio in '98. The names have changed, only slightly, but for Italy, the offramp out of the World Cup has resolutely remained the same.
Again, a final misfire in a penalty shootout has turned an entire Azzurri-loving nation blue. This time, the agony simply took hold earlier and closer to home--in the quarterfinals instead of the championship game, in Stade de France instead of the Rose Bowl, against next-door neighbor France instead of Brazil.
"It seems we might be cursed," Italy Coach Cesare Maldini lamented Friday evening after his team had played France to a scoreless draw through 120 minutes, only to be eliminated in the shootout, 4-3.
An eight-year curse. Counting its semifinal ouster at the hands of Argentina in 1990, Italy now has been knocked out of the last three World Cups via the same painful route--shut down in the shootout.
None was more traumatic than Roberto Baggio's failure to convert the last penalty attempt of the 1994 World Cup. For four years, Italy had been haunted by the forlorn image of Baggio standing alone at the penalty spot, hands dejectedly resting on hips, as he somberly contemplated the shot he had just pummeled over the crossbar.
Friday didn't entirely purge that nightmarish memory from the Italian consciousness, it only replaced it with a new torment to occupy the country until 2002: the sight of Luigi Di Biagio buckling at the knees and writhing on his back in despair after pounding his penalty try squarely off the center of the crossbar.
Di Biagio was the fifth player to step to the penalty spot for Italy in the shootout. France's fifth, Laurent Blanc, had just given France a 4-3 advantage, meaning it was convert or bust for Di Biagio, a 27-year-old midfielder making only his eighth appearance for the Italian national team.
Di Biagio would have beaten French goalkeeper Fabien Barthez had his kick been on the mark--Barthez already had committed himself on a lunge toward his left post. But Di Biagio banged the ball off the crossbar, sending Barthez, his teammates and 80,000 French supporters into spasms of joyous delirium.
And who could blame them?
Since concluding group play, the French have been the Hitless Wonders of this World Cup. They played 113 scoreless minutes in the second round against Paraguay, but advanced when Blanc finally drove one home in the 114th. They played 120 scoreless minutes against Italy in the quarterfinals, but advanced when Italy missed 40% of its shootout attempts.
That's one goal during the run of play in 236 minutes of soccer--almost four hours.
Yet France is on to the semifinals for the third time in the last five World Cup tournaments, to face the winner of today's Germany-Croatia match Wednesday at Saint-Denis.
"I feel utterly wiped out," France Coach Aime Jacquet said. "It's hard, having to go through on penalties. It takes the coolest of heads to win penalty shootouts. [But] we stuck to our plan and didn't lose our nerve. In the end, the best team won."
Or at least the team that made the best attempt to win. Italy, for all its neuroses and phobias regarding sudden-death duels from the 12-yard spot, played Friday's game as if 0-0-and-on-to-penalties was its only path to the semifinals.
Employing dangerous strikers Christian Vieri and Alessandro Del Piero primarily as decoys, Italy played with eight men behind the ball for most of the game, often stationing as many as half a dozen defenders inside its own 18-yard box.
Offensive surges into French territory by Italy were rare. Italy allowed itself to be outshot, 24-7, and put only three shots on goal in 120 minutes. Italy's only real threat to score in regulation came on a header Di Biagio flicked just over the bar in the 82nd minute. In overtime, Baggio made one foray into the France box and nearly volleyed in a spectacular winner, pushing the ball inches beyond the left corner.
France made the attempt to attack, but its nagging lack of a capable finisher made the return of playmaker Zinedine Zidane a lengthy exercise in exasperation.
Zidane, back in the French lineup after serving a two-game red-card suspension, was the best player on the field despite being frequently double-teamed.
After grimacing through 65 minutes of ineptitude, Jacquet finally pulled both of his starting forwards, Stephane Guivarc'h and Christian Karembeu, and replaced them with David Trezeguet and Thierry Henry.
"It was absolutely necessary," Jacquet explained, "because we were wasting clear scoring chances. I had to do something to refresh the team."
Trezeguet and Henry didn't make much of an impact until the shootout, when both of them successfully followed Zidane to give France a 3-2 lead.
Teammate Bixente Lizarazu, however, knocked his effort right at Italian goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca. So when Baggio, Alessandro Costacurta and Vieri countered with conversions--sandwiched around Demetrio Albertini's shot that was blocked--Blanc approached the spot with the shootout even, 3-3.
Blanc beat Pagliuca high inside the left post, setting the stage for Di Biagio to tie or bust.
"It hardly seems fair to lose the World Cup in this way," Di Biagio said as he struggled to fight back tears. "And to feel in some way personally responsible is a dreadful feeling.
"It's been amazing taking part, but it's dreadful it ended like this."
Baggio, who had been there four years ago, knows the feeling too well.
"Unfortunately, this is the third time for me," said Baggio, a veteran of the near misses of '90, '94 and now '98. "It leaves a very bitter taste. Penalties are the worst way of all to lose."