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The Chain Snags Argentina

By GEORGE VECSEY (NYT) 958 words
Published: June 30, 1982

BARCELONA, Spain I n Italy, they call it a ''catenaccio'' -

a great big chain. The Italians created it 30 years ago. Purists hate this defense of four men aligned near the goal mouth, because it spoils the beauty of fast little men dribbling for goals. It has been maligned in World Cups and European tournaments. Yesterday evening it tripped and cut and ultimately beat the defending world champions.

''Italy played at not playing,'' said Cesar Menotti, the longhaired and long-faced coach of Argentina, after Italy had surprised his team, 2-1, in the second round of the World Cup competition.

On Friday, Argentina must come back and play Brazil, the favorite in the Barcelona end of the world's most widely followed sports tournament. If Argentina loses, it is eliminated. Italy will play Brazil on Monday.

The entanglement of Argentina took place in front of 40,000 fans, close to capacity in Sarria Stadium in this vibrant Catalan capital. Sarria is called ''La Bombonera'' - The Candy Box -because it is small and compact, with seats towering over the field.

Above the field were the flags of a dozen nations, the most prominent the yellow and green of Brazil. And like an outdoor street theater in another century, the game had a stirring mixture of violence, emotion and acting.

But the principal character in the game was the four-man defense of the Italians. In his definitive study of soccer, ''The Simplest Game,'' Paul Gardner recalls that the poorer Italian clubs tried to keep pace with the rich ones in the early 1950's by deploying extra defenders near the goal.

''Eventually, catenaccio became more than a style of play; it became a mentality that dragged Italian soccer down through boring negativity to almost total sterility,'' Gardner writes. And Menotti would certainly second the opinion.

The Italians had squeaked through the first round by failing to win or lose any of their three games. They merely tied everybody, and slipped in by scoring one goal more than Cameroon, for goodness' sakes.

''In our three previous games, Italy was equally as good as today,'' said Enzo Bearzot, the Italian national coach, who takes considerable criticism for his grinding style. ''What we were lacking was the ability to score goals. Today we had good play, plus two goals,and we played the same 90 minutes of aggressive football.''

Aggressive is one word for it. There are others. Diego Maradona had a premonition of what was coming when he said two days ago that he feared Italy more than Brazil. Maradona is the chunky little scorer who was recently purchased for about $8 million by F.C. Barcelona, one of two teams in this city. He is 21 years old, a refugee from the worst cardboard-and-tin shacks of Buenos Aires, where he was the fifth of eight children.

His fast feet and muscular thighs have allowed him to wear the No. 10 Pele wore for Brazil and live with the comparisons. He knew the fans in Barcelona would be watching him carefully in this tournament, sizing him up to see if F.C. Barcelona had got its money's worth.

Maradona saw it coming when he said this week: ''The last times the Italians gave us more work than the Brazilians, although they're both very difficult. We're going to suffer to beat Italy, and we will win more easily against Brazil.''

He could already feel that chain lashing against his ankles. Bearzot assigned Claudio Gentile, a curly-haired defender, to mark Maradona, no matter where he went. The two kicked and slashed at each other in the first half, each picking up a yellow warning card. Maradona got one good shot at goal, a deflection of a pass that sailed high above the crossbar.

The first half was scoreless, but Menotti, once a member of the defunct New York Generals, must have sensed something. He had two substitutes warming up early in the second half, but before they got into the game, the chain lashed out in the kind of counterattack that Bearzot favors.

At 10 minutes of the second half, the ball got loose down the left side and Marco Tardelli chased it down, got behind Luis Galvan, and kicked it past Ubaldo Fillol, the goalie.

Thirteen minutes later, the chain struck again. The ball was punched downfield and Paolo Rossi chased it down. He may even have been offside a bit. Fillol made a good save but Antonio Cabrini kicked in a loose rebound for a 2-0 lead, and fell to his knees before an adoring section of The Candy Box.

Argentina scored after a foul by Gentile in the 83d minute, when its captain, Daniel Passarella, fired a free kick past 40-year-old Dino Zoff while the Italians were arguing. The Argentines tried desperately but could not tie the game.

''There is a rule, as I recall, it is Article 512, that says if you repeatedly foul somebody, you are warned and then sent out of the game,'' Menotti said ''Gentile must have fouled Maradona at least 20 times. I think Italy was lucky.''

An ancient world philosopher named Charles Dillon Stengel used to say, ''You make your own luck.'' The Italians made theirs by sticking to their nasty defensive posture and performing opera buffo gestures - falling to their knees and writhing on the ground to prove they had been fouled. But they also knew when to counterattack, and they beat the world champions.

Now Argentina must play Brazil sooner than it expected, with no margin for failure. And the catenaccio will not perform again until Monday, giving it plenty of time to pick up more punishing rust and nicks and gouges to apply to the Brazilians. As Diego Maradona predicted, to play the Italians is to suffer.

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