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Italy lucky to get win; Americans readying for Germany.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Saturday, June 13, 1998) -- Italy was fortunate, thanks to a controversial late handball ruling, to get a 2-2 tie yesterday with Chile in the World Cup opener for both teams.

In 1994 the pedigreed Italians were lucky to escape in a couple matches early in the tournament . . . and managed to make the final before losing to Brazil in a shootout.

Germany, another of the world's elite, also has a tendency to start slowly, which means a U.S. victory Monday is not inconceivable. But we do wonder about the American lineup and the condition of some of players under consideration to start.

Coach Steve Sampson says he doubts he can get full games from either forward Eric Wynalda or wide midfielder Frankie Hejduk due to lack of fitness caused by injuries this spring.

Will they start? I don't see how a coach can go into a game with two substitutions already mapped out. You only get three.

One presumably has to be kept for Preki Radosavljevic if instant offense is needed the last 20-25 minutes. What happens if midfielder Claudio Reyna or someone else gets injured by the rough-tackling Germans? What happens if someone is out of form? Remember the quick yank Mike Sorber got midway in the first half of the second World Cup qualifier against Jamaica?

Maybe Hejduk won't start. A last-minute addition to the original group of two players to be interviewed by media Saturday was . . . defender Mike Burns. He might start at the wide right slot, relatively unfamiliar to him, stay in the game the second half if the score is tied or the United States is ahead, or yield to . . . Radosavljevic if the Americans are trailing.

Burns doesn't provide the speed needed for the position, but he is capable of playing decent, energetic soccer for 90 minutes.

Kudos to Coach Bora Milutinovic for leading Nigeria to a 3-2 win against favored Spain today, which means his team has a shot at getting to the quarterfinals.

He came in cold after being fired in December by Mexico. He spent most of the spring traveling throughout Europe, seeing his players perform. He experimented frequently in warm-ups, not worrying about the pre-World Cup losses. Yes, the scores were big, but so was the opposition -- Germany, Netherlands, Yugoslavia.

Furthermore, the team was hard hit by injuries. Two top strikers were held out of the opener, trying to recover -- Nwankwo Kanu and Daniel Amokachi.

Pressure in Nigeria was heavy after the most recent 5-1 blowout to the Dutch. Milutinovic's influence, however, already is apparent. This team did not blow up when it fell behind. Just the opposite, it rallied twice.

The backs were credible most of the time, but it is not a semifinal-type defense. Furthermore, the goalkeeping is shaky with the May injury loss of Ike Shorunmu.

The three previous teams he coached in the World Cup -- Mexico, Costa Rica, and United States -- all at least reached the second round, a remarkable achievement. Bora looks headed there again.

A couple observations from four days of World Cup-watching:
* When is the first yellow card going to be given for diving? It's an art form with some teams, but thank goodness referees generally aren't buying. Top grade in this category goes to Chile. One Chilean player did a spectacular flop, and the TV replay showed he wasn't even touched, much less brushed.
* Referee Guenther Benko (Austria) was justified in handing out the red card to Ha Seok-ju of South Korea in the 30th minute, for his sliding tackle-from-behind on Ramon Ramirez of Mexico near midfield. The fear of such a harsh penalty has led to much cleaner, more wide-open soccer in the tournament.

Jerry Langdon is sports editor of Gannett News Service and can be e-mailed at jlangdon@gns.gannett.com.