Football: Nigeria show way ahead for the smaller nations

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THERE IS a democratic feel to this World Cup. Japan, Iran, Morocco, Saudi Arabia - all the so-called lesser nations have shown what is possible even against the best teams. It says a great deal about how they have managed to play catch-up by introducing foreign coaches, by the experience their better players have gained in the top European leagues and by raising their fitness levels.

However, we should not kid ourselves that there is no longer a big gap between the very best and those now stating their case from unlikely quarters. We saw it on Tuesday night when Brazil easily dismissed a Moroccan side that had surprised many people with the freedom and expression they were able to bring to their opening encounter with Norway.

No matter how much the smaller nations have progressed, however much their coach, Henri Michel, gets them organised, Morocco would still step on to the pitch with Brazil harbouring an inferiority complex. When the early goal goes in, that feeling is doubled. It was also interesting that Moustafa Hadji, who had been so influential against Norway, found it very difficult to find space. The Brazilians singled him out for special attention and his involvement was limited.

I thought the Japanese put up a decent show against Argentina and made it tough for the side who are many people's favourites to lift the trophy. The South Americans did not sparkle as they were hoping to, but I would prefer to praise the opposition rather than look at any Argentinian shortcomings. The Japanese are a great example of how a strengthened domestic league can benefit the national team. Brazil have both their captain, Dunga, and Cesar Sampaio operating in the J-League.

The one side who are the benchmark for all these third division nations would be Nigeria, who can call on players all earning a wage in the top European leagues and who performed so splendidly to defeat Spain 3-2. The Nigerians can run all day and what is so refreshing about them is that they are always looking to get forward. They keep blasting away and blasting away and you feel they must eventually blow themselves up, but there they are, blasting away some more.

I especially like the midfielder Sunday Oliseh, who cracked his side's superb winning goal against Spain, a similar effort to the one I saw him score in the Makita tournament at Goodison Park at the start of last season. I would like to see Nigeria go a long way in this tournament, but I worry about them defensively. The goalkeeper, Peter Rufai, gives me the collywobbles from time to time and he needs to show that he is as secure on crosses as he is as a shot-stopper.

There is still a great deal for the smaller nations to do before they can be considered likely winners of a World Cup. The improvements can take you so far but at the very top you do need someone with that little extra to unlock defences or score the goals that will make the difference in a tight encounter.

It's great for the tournament that these countries can compete so well, but having said that it does still concern me that a World Cup which is boasting 32 finalists for the first time can still find no room for Portugal, the Czech Republic or the Ukraine. They were forced to try and book their place in the finals from extremely difficult qualifying groups, while others came through groups where there were only three sides taking part.

I won't be truly happy that we have a World Cup with the best in the world until we have qualifying groups that do away with continental boundaries. In these days of easy travel there is no reason why it cannot be done. Not that long ago, we saw Faustino Asprilla flying home to South America for a midweek international and returning to England in time to play for Newcastle on a Saturday. It happens all the time with the Brazilians who play in Europe.

Brazil looked very impressive against Morocco. It was their all-round strength that caught the eye this time. Ronaldo showed his character by shrugging off an extremely nasty knock and the full-backs were an inspiration from an attacking sense. It was great to see Roberto Carlos knocking 75- yard passes from left to right for the other full-back, Cafu. They are defenders who make things happen and that is important.

However, let the last word today be for Scotland, who really gave their all against Norway and were unfortunate not to take all three points. Assuming that Brazil beat the Norwegians, a Scotland victory over Morocco will put them through into the second round, so let's hope the Africans are feeling a little bit demoralised after conceding those three goals.