Winners four years ago on home soil, the French have subsequently added a dazzling front line to their all-star team, the vast majority of whom ply their trade in the lucrative soccer leagues of Spain, Italy, England and Germany. If they have a weakness, it may be that coach Roger Lemarre has remained stubbornly loyal to the players who won the trophy last time, retaining Leboeuf and Desailly at the center of defense where the aging pair may struggle against pace.
Players to watch: The world’s most expensive player, Zinedine Zidane of Real Madrid, known as ZZ Top because of his balding pate, will provide the passes to exploit the pace of Arsenal’s Thiery Henry, arguably the fastest player in soccer.
Joint favorites with France, the Argentine lineup reads like a who’s who of world soccer. Twice winners of the World Cup, in 1978 and 1986, Argentina breezed through the difficult South American qualification group. Argentina’s problem may be a lack of goals, especially if coach Marcelo Bielsa sticks to his preferred system of one central striker supported by two wide attackers.
Players to watch: First-choice striker Hernan Crespo will be under strong pressure to produce goals with proven goal-scorer Gabriel Batistuta waiting on the bench. In midfield the man known in Latin America as “El Brujo” (The Witch), Juan Sebastian Veron, will pull the strings.
Even though it struggled to qualify, no nation can ever afford to take Brazil lightly. The only nation to boast four World Cup successes, at its best, its soccer seems to match the tempo of the samba rhythms beaten out by its devoted fans. The big question for Brazilian fans is whether coach “Big Phil” Scholari will sacrifice style for a pragmatic approach.
Players to watch: Former World Player of the Year Ronaldo will make his return following almost 2 ½ years out with knee injuries. The whole of Brazil will be hoping he can recapture the form he displayed taking Brazil to the final four years ago, giving them a genuine goal threat and someone to capitalize on the chances created by the magic wand that is Rivaldo’s left foot.
Italy’s traditional style of strong defense and potent counterattacking may be well suited to the forecast hot and humid conditions, and with a back line of Nesta, Cannavro and Maldini, coach Giovanni Trapatoni has the players to suit his tactics.
Players to watch: While soccer aficionados will lament the omission of “the divine ponytail,” Roberto Baggio, in Francesco Totti, Italy has unearthed a new playmaker. Totti will play just behind Christian Vieri, whose mix of power, pace and precision in front of goal has led many pundits to rate him as the most complete striker in world soccer.
Coached by Swede Sven-Goran Eriksson, England ironically opens its World Cup campaign against Sweden. England’s inclusion as a contender largely stems from its historic 5-1 thrashing of Germany in Munich in September, but unless England can adapt its game to the hot and humid conditions, they are unlikely to go all the way.
Players to watch: The husband of Spice Girl pop star Posh Spice, English captain David Beckham generates more column inches in England than any other player. Lethal from free kicks in and around the penalty area, Beckham leads England by example. In Michael Owen, England has a genuine world-class striker whose coolness in front of the goal belies his years.
Spain must be desperate to avoid once again being pigeonholed as perennial under-achievers, having progressed no further than the quarterfinals in 10 previous World Cup appearances. It remains to be seen if coach Jose Antonio Camacho can imbue enough self-belief into his undoubtedly talented squad to mount a genuine challenge.
Players to watch: Already a legend for his beloved Real Madrid, striker Raul has yet to achieve consistently on the biggest stage. In midfield, Spain will look to Gaizka Mendieta, who plays club soccer for Lazio in Italy, to provide the guile necessary to open up opposing defenses.
The United States’ first opponent, World Cup 2002 probably represents the last chance for Portugal’s “golden generation,” the set of players who won back-to-back World Youth Championships in 1989 and 1991. Portugal, perhaps more than any other European team, plays with a flair and openness that, while it wins them many admirers, often leaves them vulnerable to counter attacks.
Players to watch: Current World Player of the Year Luis Figo draws most of the plaudits in Portugal’s starting 11, but for Portugal to succeed AC Milan midfielder Rui Costa must perform to his potential. From his advanced midfield position, Costa has the ability to pierce any defense with accurate passing or his trademark surging runs.
The once-mighty German team has struggled recently, but World Cup history has shown repeatedly not to rule out Germany. Coach Rudi VÃ¶ller has lost the services of several key players, including experienced playmaker Memet Scholl, but expectations in Germany remain high for the three-time winners.
Players to watch: Germany’s recent form suggests that Bayern MÃ¼nchen’s Oliver Kahn, rated as one of the best goalkeepers in the world, is in for a busy time in the next few weeks. In midfield, Michael Ballack has emerged as a key player, cementing his place on the national team and helping his club Bayer Leverkusen to the Champions League final.
And what about the United States?
A kind draw has given the United States a good chance of progressing into the second round. While they are not expected to trouble Group D favorites Portugal, good results against Poland and co-hosts South Korea would see the States through to the second round where, if Group G goes to form, a mouth-watering clash against Italy would await. Coach Bruce Arena will be anxious to avoid a repeat of the three straight losses that saw the United States finish last in World Cup 1998.
The United States’ form has been inconsistent in the run up to the tournament, with encouraging wins over Uruguay and Jamaica followed by a disappointing loss to Holland.
Players to watch: Expected starter between the sticks Brad Friedel, who plays for Blackburn Rovers in the English Premier League, will be a key player if the slow pace of the U.S. defense is exposed. Top soccer clubs in Germany and Italy have already scouted Clint Mathis of the MetroStars, rapidly becoming the pin-up boy of American soccer.
Contact Chris O’Donnell at email@example.com