Ready for Their Close-up
Arguably, no bigger bunch of prima-donna superstars
has ever been assembled on one team -- and never has a nation so desperately
craved the diversion of a sporting championship. Argentina's best players,
like strikers Gabriel Batistuta and Hernán Crespo or midfielders Juan
Sebastián Verón and Diego Simeone, are millionaires who play for top
European teams thousands of miles from the social and economic chaos
of their homeland. But if anybody can bring together the government
and the people, the suffering working class and the hated bankers, they
can. This Argentine squad plays stronger defense and is presumably less
prone to needlessly dirty play than their notorious forebears. It's
an exciting, high-powered team with no obvious weaknesses. But Argentina
is in the World Cup's "Group of Death" alongside England, Nigeria and
Sweden, any of which is capable of upsetting the South American glamour
boys. That grueling first round, along with the weight of an entire
nation's unreasonably high expectations (anything short of the Cup will
be a disaster in Buenos Aires), may bring down the favorites.
Nobody's expecting much from the most storied team in
world soccer this year -- which might be the tonic the boys in gold
and green require. Brazil lost six games in qualifying rounds (having
previously lost only one since World War II) and had to beat lowly Venezuela
in their last qualifier just to make it here. Hardly any fans showed
up at the Rio airport to wish their heroes luck. The Brazilian style
in recent years has been unrecognizable, with the flowing attack of
il jogo bonito ("the beautiful game") replaced by defensive-minded
tactical play. Has forward Ronaldo, once viewed as the world's best
player, recovered from his four-year meltdown that began at France '98?
With Ronaldo and his 22-year-old namesake Ronaldinho in the attack,
Rivaldo (of Spain's Barcelona team) and Emerson (of AS Roma in Italy)
in the midfield and Real Madrid's devastating Roberto Carlos surging
forward from the back, Brazil still has the talent to win it all. But
the team's defensive liabilities and ongoing schizophrenia suggest it
If anything, the defending champs are better than they
were four years ago, when they triumphed on an unexpectedly fluid attacking
style and an ecstatic wave of support from the formerly blasé French
public. But everything depends on the injured thigh of midfield general
Zinédine Zidane, who may look like a balding accountant but has staked
his place among the best attacking midfielders the game has ever seen.
Zidane will miss France's first-round games against Senegal and Uruguay,
neither of which will be as one-sided as you might think. If he comes
back strong, I don't think France can be beaten. With Patrick Vieira
alongside Zidane in the middle, Thierry Henry and David Trézéguet up
top to score goals and a superior defense anchored by Bixente Lizarazu
and Marcel Desailly, this is the deepest and most experienced team in
the tournament. Their path to the finals won't be easy -- I see them
facing Brazil in the quarterfinals and Argentina in the semis -- but
the French have the confidence and composure to go all the way one more
As George Vecsey of the New York Times recently observed,
the Italians have become world soccer's answer to the Boston Red Sox:
a perennial second-place team that always seems to fall short when it
counts despite ample talent. It says here that nothing changes in 2002.
Strangely, coach Giovanni Trappatoni hasn't phoned me for advice, but
I think Italy's two-decade-long reliance on bone-crunching, disciplined
defensive play has drained the spirit out of its game and left the team
unable to compete with the very best attacking opponents. Sure, Paolo
Maldini, Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta are three of the best
defenders in the world, capable of reducing almost any game to a frustrating
hack-fest. But, you know, that isn't really a good thing. For Italy
to win, midfielder Francesco Totti and strikers Christian Vieri and
Alessandro Del Piero, rather than the bruising back line, will have
to make headlines.
Waiting in the Wings
It pains my Irish-American heart at least a little to
say this, but this really could be England's year. No, really. OK, maybe
not. Swedish coach Sven-Goran Eriksson was a controversial hire (as
the first non-Brit to hold the post), but he's instilled a coherence
and spirit that's been missing from the English team for a generation.
The problem is twofold: Beyond brilliant Manchester United midfielder
David Beckham (that's Mr. Posh Spice to fans of girl-pop, circa 1999)
and lightning-fast Liverpool forward Michael Owen (who scored the goal
of the '98 tournament against Argentina), the English talent is frankly
a bit thin. Secondly, trapped in the Group of Death with Argentina,
Nigeria and Sweden, England could be ousted in the first round without
even playing poorly. Even finishing second in that group won't be a
picnic, and whoever manages that will probably draw France in the second
round. Toodle-oo, mateys!
Since last lifting the Cup in 1990, Germany has gradually
slipped in the world rankings and is no longer considered one of Europe's
most dangerous teams. Past heroes like Lothar Matthaüs and Jürgen Klinsmann
are gone, and the new generation of German players hasn't risen to the
same standard. There is hope, though; attacking midfielder Michael Ballack
has emerged, seemingly from nowhere, as the team's sparkplug, and Dietmar
Hamann and Jens Jeremies join him in one of soccer's best midfield units.
The German defense is strong, as always, but this experienced team lacks
scoring punch. The Germans actually have an easy group and should make
it at least to the quarterfinals and possibly the semis, a fine result
considering their recent woes.
Can one of Western Europe's smallest nations, long a
fringe player in world soccer, really hope to claim the grand prize?
That probably isn't realistic, but an unusually talented generation
of Portuguese stars, led by Real Madrid's Luis Figo and AC Milan's Rui
Costa, are poised to take their team much deeper into the tournament
than it has ever ventured before. Portugal's defense is arguably not
up to the standard of their exciting attack (which also features forwards
Pauleta and Sergio Conceiçao), but as the U.S. team is likely to discover
on June 5, you can't exploit a weak defense when you're packing 11 players
in front of your own net.
Yes, I have picked the Spanish team to go as far as
the final and yes, that seems foolhardy in the extreme. Despite breeding
some of the best players in the world (and hosting perhaps the world's
best professional league), Spain has never placed better than fourth
in the World Cup. And that was in 1950. Moody star forwards Raúl and
Fernando Morientes, both of Real Madrid, have been down this road before;
both virtually disappeared during France '98. Still, it appears that
coach José Camacho has allowed his team to play a relaxed, fluid style
better suited to its abilities, and the side is certainly brimming with
first-class talent, even without suspended midfield star Josep Guardiola.
Ivan Helguera, Gaizka Mendieta and Juan Carlos Valeron lend a midfield
depth Spain has never previously possessed; they'll have to protect
the defense, an unstable blend of green, untested players and older,
Hoping for an Audition
This marks the fourth straight World Cup appearance
for the Indomitable Lions, the only African team ever to reach the quarterfinals
(in 1990). As ever, they offer a potent mix of talent from professional
leagues in England, Spain and France: defender Rigobert Song, midfielder
Marc-Vivien Foë, forward Patrick Mboma, perhaps Africa's best attacking
player. Cameroon plays an engaging style and should survive the group
phase (especially considering the Irish team's recent implosion; see
below), but that's about it.
The surprise of France '98 -- where this team from the
former Yugoslav republic beat Germany and finished third -- remains
a sentimental favorite. The Croatians are a collection of crafty vets
who still have ample scoring talent in forwards Alen Boksic and Davor
Suker. But "crafty vets" is also synonymous with "old and slow," and
while Croatia ought to make the round of 16, their bracket puts them
in the path of Portugal and Spain.
As teams from Northern Europe go, the Danes aren't all
that boring. Really, I mean it. Furthermore, they could be one of the
Cup's real surprises if they can survive a group that includes France
and Senegal. This is a confident, well-organized club of top-level European
pros -- led by midfielder Thomas Helveg of AC Milan and striker Ebbe
Sand of Germany's Schalke -- whom everyone seems to have forgotten amid
all the glamour-puss teams. If you want to lay a few bucks on a long
shot, see what odds you can get on Denmark taking down an overconfident
Argentina in the second round. You read it here first.
I was all set to deliver a beery soliloquy on the thrilling
new generation of players from my father's homeland, and how they were
prepared to take Ireland to its most glorious sporting result in history.
The second round beckoned; the quarters were there for the taking; a
semifinal berth was possible. Then Manchester United midfielder Roy
Keane, the team's heart and soul, indulged in a bout of nasty name-calling
with coach Mick McCarthy and caught the next plane home. Sure, there's
some veteran leadership left, like goal-poaching forward Niall Quinn
and defenders Ian Harte and Steve Staunton, to accompany young studs
Mark Kinsella, Damien Duff and Robbie Keane (no relation). But without
Captain Roy, the boys in green are out of their depth. A nation mourns.
(And don't think I'm kidding about that, either.)
No, they shouldn't be good enough to make much noise
in this tournament, not really, despite terrific midfielder Hidetoshi
Nakata, who plays for Parma in Italy. But Japan has improved steadily
under French coach Philippe Troussier, and playing before 50,000 hysterical
home fans in every match won't hurt. Japan has two other fine European-based
midfielders in Junichi Inamoto and Shinji Ono, and drew perhaps the
tournament's weakest group (with Belgium, Russia and Tunisia). If they
can find a way to score goals, don't be shocked if they make it to the
second round. Once there, however, they will probably face Brazil.
As usual, there's talent to burn on Africa's deepest
team. But the Nigerians also have a reputation as international soccer's
biggest chokers, and this year they have the misfortune of joining Argentina,
England and Sweden in the Group of Death. Everywhere you look on this
roster, there's a star: defender Celestine Babayaro of London's Chelsea,
forward Kanu of London's Arsenal, midfielder Jay Jay Okocha of Paris-St.
Germain. But given Nigeria's propensity for infighting and grievous
defensive lapses, they might not win a game.
This Russian team is experienced, competent across the
field and rather dull. Given their placement in the relatively easy
Group of Sloth (with Belgium, Japan and Tunisia), the Russians could
easily find themselves in the quarterfinals before anybody notices them.
Russia can 0-0 and 1-1 you to death with solid defense, ball control
and the balanced attack of midfielders Valery Karpin and Alexander Mostovoi
and star striker Vladimir Beschastnykh.
New kids on the block always make for fashionable underdogs,
and the entertaining Senegalese side upset a series of favored African
teams on the way to its first World Cup appearance. The fact is, Senegal
may be a great story but the team is weak defensively and has to play
France and Denmark in the opening round. Getting here was a terrific
accomplishment and for young strikers El Hadji Diouf and Khalilou Fadida
-- as for Senegalese soccer as a whole -- the future looks bright.
This is the sleeper squad in the Group of Death that
also includes Argentina, England and Nigeria. Sweden plays a defensive,
ball-control style based around goalkeeper Magnus Hedman and defensive
stopper Patrik Andersson. It's not much fun to watch, but the Swedes
allowed only three goals in a 10-game qualifying run. If they can frustrate
and shut down the potent offenses of their group opponents -- and Glasgow
Celtic striker Henrik Larsson can steal a goal somehow -- Sweden (which
has made it to the semifinals three times, after all) could go further
than anybody expects.
First-Round Games Not to Miss
ESPN, ESPN2 or ABC will broadcast every World Cup match.
But given the 13- to 16-hour difference between Korea/Japan and North
America -- which puts most game times somewhere between martini hour
and donut time -- some games will be tape-delayed for English-language
U.S. broadcast. (As purists already know, Univision will show all games
live in Spanish, so in most of the country you can watch the Cup even
if you don't have cable.) Check your local listings for further clarification.
All times noted are Eastern Daylight time.
France vs. Senegal Friday, May 31, 7:30 a.m.
In the tournament's opening game, the defending champs face their first
test, an entertaining underdog team that just happens to be a former
French colony. (Leave the Frantz Fanon racial politics out of it; around
half the French team is of African descent.)
Ireland vs. Cameroon Saturday, June 1, 2:30 a.m.
An early showdown between two charismatic teams with high hopes. Whoever
wins is probably through to the second round. Unhappily, in world soccer
that's the perfect prescription for a 0-0 draw.
Argentina vs. Nigeria Sunday, June 2, 1:30 a.m.
These two teams could score 10 goals between them. Argentina will score
England vs. Sweden Sunday, June 2, 5:30 a.m.
On the other hand, this one's for purists. Likely to be a tactical nail-biter
decided by a bad call in the penalty box.
Croatia vs. Mexico Monday, June 3, 2:30 a.m.
Two teams that play attractive, attacking soccer and really have nothing
to lose. Ought to be a barn burner.
USA vs. Portugal Wednesday, June 5, 5 a.m.
Showtime for Bruce Arena's young U.S. squad, against a star-studded
team with tremendous expectations (that might be looking past this game
just a little).
Argentina vs. England Friday, June 7, 7:30 a.m.
The match of the first round and maybe of the entire tournament. The
plot is rich and deep: the Falklands war, Argentina's tainted victories
in '86 and '98, the two countries' general dislike of each other. (And
the fact that the two opposing star midfielders, David Beckham and Juan
Sebastián Verón, are teammates at Manchester United.) Even if nobody
scores, the atmosphere, the level of play and the fouling will be intense.
Italy vs. Croatia Saturday, June 8, 5 a.m.
The world will want Croatia's squad of crafty but stylish scorers to
break down the stifling defense of the Azzurri. Sadly, it won't happen.
This also has the smell of a 0-0 draw, but with two teams this theatrical
on the field, somebody's likely to get red-carded for faking an injury.
Brazil vs. China Saturday, June 8, 7:30 a.m.
Nobody knows what to expect from the physically imposing, grindingly
defensive Chinese team, which is making its first Cup appearance. Nor
from the melodrama-plagued Brazilians either, for that matter. Could
be deadly dull, could be a classic.
Japan vs. Russia Sunday, June 9, 7:30 a.m.
Well, it's an important and unpredictable game, anyway, involving two
nations who don't historically get along. But it's likely to be tedious.
Forget I said anything.
South Korea vs. USA Monday, June 10, 2:30 a.m.
The Americans probably have to win this one to advance. In front of
a maniacal home crowd in Daegu, that might be asking too much.
Denmark vs. France Tuesday, June 11, 2:30 a.m.
An intriguing matchup that ought to decide the group championship. Zidane
should return to the French lineup here, and even if les Bleus
have already booked a spot in the second round, there's plenty of incentive
to win: The loser probably gets Argentina or England next.
Cameroon vs. Germany Tuesday, June 11, 7:30 a.m.
One of these teams -- and possibly both -- is for real. Cameroon will
surely settle for a draw, but the Germans will want to make a statement
Nigeria vs. England Wednesday, June 12, 2:30
Two tireless, talented sides with big dreams, in a match that ought
to mean one goes home and one advances. Of course it could end up being
a stinker -- that's the nature of the sport -- but after Argentina-England
this is the game to catch.
Mexico vs. Italy Thursday, June 13, 7:30 a.m.
If Italy still needs points and Mexico still has a chance, don't miss
this one. This year's Mexican team is a shadow of its high-style former
self, but still might be capable of playing the best soccer in the world
for 15 minutes at a stretch.
Poland vs. USA Friday, June 14, 7:30 a.m.
OK, by this point this tough, evenly matched game might not matter much
(except to the Poles, who have a decent shot at advancing). But in all
likelihood it's the Yanks' last chance to go home with good memories.
Salon.com - Andrew O'hehir