When the World Cup seeds were first announced one team looked weaker than the others. As Glenn Hoddle was crossing his fingers before last night's draw, it is a fair guess he hoped he would be paired in the group headed by Romania.
Not that the Romanians lack ability - Gheorghe Hagi and Marius Lacatus will have few equals in the tournament - but their age will count against them. Euro 96 was supposed to be the last hurrah for the team; to extend their world-class status for another two years is asking much.
Hagi will be 33 in France while Lacatus, who scored the first goal in the Europe versus Rest of the World match last night, will be 34. At 29, Ilie Dumitrescu, the former Tottenham player, almost represents a youth policy within the team.
Coached by Anghel Iordanescu, whose nickname is "The General", they reached the quarter-finals in the United States fours years ago but flopped in England, losing all three of their matches.
Then, reaching France seemed an unlikely prospect but instead of struggling they romped through qualification to finish 10 points ahead of the Republic of Ireland with an unbeaten record, scoring 37 goals and conceding only four in 10 matches. "They are a formidable team," Mick McCarthy, the Irish manager said after losing in Bucharest. "On their day, they can beat anyone."
As the statistics suggest, Iordanescu is a lover of attacking football and is prepared to take risks. "Whoever tries to understand my tactics," he said, "must realise I often reach my decisions by gut reaction."
Skilful, temperamental and as likely to be ordinary as brilliant, fatigue can drag the Romanians down and England are probably happier to face them in their second match, in Toulouse on 22 June, when their legs will be wearier.
The countries have met nine times previously and England have lost only once, in 1980. Ominously, that was in a World Cup qualification match. Their last match was at Wembley three years ago,which was a 1-1 draw.
While England will know a lot about the Romanians - and anything they lack they can get from McCarthy - their other opponents are less familiar. Newcastle's Faustino Asprilla is a known commodity, of course, but Colombia are a difficult side to assess. Tipped by Pele to win the World Cup in 1994 they lost all three of their group games, and the campaign had a tragic aftermath in that one of their players, Andres Escobar, was subsequently murdered.
A team ranked ninth in the world cannot be dismissed, however, and any side that can partner Asprilla with Carlos Valderrama has the potential to score goals. They, rather than Romania, might prove to be England's most difficult opening opponents.
Tunisia are unlikely to fill that role. They pose England's first test but look likely to be the whipping boys in qualification. This will be only their second appearance in the World Cup proper and despite being ranked 23rd in the world, they will probably repeat their first-round exit of 1978.Reuse content