Football: Weber warms up for finals with five-goal debut: Croatian exile in striking start for Belgium

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The Independent Online
WHILE the likes of Dejan Savicevic and Darko Pancev can only dream of what might have been, one player born in what was Yugoslavia could make a name for himself at the World Cup finals.

Two years ago, Josip Weber, from the modest Belgian club, Cercle Bruges, was a regular in the forward line for Croatia when they launched their post-independence international career. Weber, 29, has been top scorer in the Belgian League for the past three seasons - he hit 31 in 34 games last term - and his striking prowess made him a desirable commodity for his adopted country, traditionally short on goal power.

With some special parliamentary assistance, Weber became a naturalised Belgian just two months ago, and he made his debut for his new country in Saturday's friendly against Zambia in Brussels. The result: five goals in a 9-0 win, which was completed by a hat-trick from Marc Degryse and a first international goal, on his 23rd appearance, for Luc Nilis.

'Weber's incredible, he really knows how to put them past the goalie,' Belgium's coach, Paul van Himst, said. He must now have high hopes that his side can prosper in their crucial first-round game against the Netherlands - who found their scoring touch with a 7-1 win over Hungary last week.

Weber's former compatriots, Croatia, had the better of a 0-0 draw against Argentina in Zagreb on Saturday. Diego Maradona lasted 90 minutes but he, Gabriel Batistuta and Claudio Caniggia seemed sluggish compared with Alen Boksic, Davor Suker and the other home attackers.

Brazil fared no better than Argentina, being held to a 1-1 draw by Canada in Edmonton last night, despite spending most of the game on the attack. They only had one goal to show for their domination, however, scored on the stroke of half-time by Romario.

The Barcelona striker collected a throw-in, dribbled past three Canadian defenders and beat the Ipswich Town goalkeeper, Craig Forrest, with a well-placed shot. Canada rode their luck and equalised in the 71st minute when Eddy Berdusco, who plays for a Swiss Second Division club, FC Wil, broke through a hesistant defence and shot past Taffarel.

Coventry City's Roy Wegerle, just back after a knee operation, came on as a half-time substitute and scored the decider for the United States in an encouraging

1-0 win over Mexico in Pasadena on Saturday. Miguel Mejia Baron, Mexico's coach, was impressed by the home side. 'I don't know why everyone says the US cannot play soccer,' he said. 'It was obvious they know what they are doing.'

Greece did not enjoy last night's visit to the Giants Stadium in New Jersey: they lost 2-0 to Colombia and suffered from a dressing-room theft. 'We were robbed. They took everything, money, jewellery and watches,' Alketas Panagoulias, the Greek coach, said. Herman Gaviria and Freddy Rincon profited from two second-half free-kicks to score Colombia's goals.

Nine men who earned their living with English clubs last season were involved in last night's friendly in Stockholm, but it was a forward based in Italy, Parma's Tomas Brolin, who scored both goals in Sweden's 2-0 win over Norway.

Northern Ireland's three-match American tour opened with a 2-0 loss to Colombia in Foxboro, Massachusetts, on Friday; Wilson Perez and Adolfo Valencia hit the goals in the first half. Bryan Hamilton's team meet two more finalists this week: Saudi Arabia at the Giants Stadium on Wednesday followed by Mexico in Miami on Saturday.