Widely tipped to reach the final again, and justifiably so. If France could win the last World Cup without ever convincing up front, then the spectacular blossoming of Thierry Henry and David Trézéguet augurs well for their prospects of retaining the trophy. The loss of a player of Robert Pires' class would have been catastrophic for most countries, yet he was not integral to the 4-2-3-1 formation with which Roger Lemerre's men followed up Aimé Jacquet's 1998 success by winning Euro 2000. In the French system, Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit present a barrier at the base of midfield to those who would seek to exploit Frank Leboeuf's increasing vulnerability or the occasional foibles of Fabien Barthez. The former Arsenal allies provide a platform for the sumptuous Zinedine Zidane. The Real Madrid playmaker is adept at finding space to hit a killer pass or to support the target man, almost certainly Trézéguet. Much will depend on whether Zidane avoids injury he is invariably singled out by opponents and how the veterans at centre-back cope with sharper strikers in the later stages. If nothing else, a repeat triumph for France's multi-ethnic team would have the advantage of annoying the hell out of the "patriotic" Monsieur Le Pen.
While football has had to vie with everything from cycling to rugby for a place in France's sporting life, it is said of their probable first-round rivals:
"Other countries have their history; Uruguay has its football". The two nations, also disparate in population terms, have crucial common ground, however. Just as the last World Cup winners initiated a long-term strategy 15 years ago to nurture talent at the Clarefontaine academy, so the inaugural winners overhauled their youth policy in the hope of ensuring a finals place for the first time in 12 years. Victor Pua, who resumed as coach after the Daniel Passarella interregnum, will draw heavily on the squads who fared promisingly in the 1997 and 1999 World Youth Cups. Whether Pua finally settles on 3-5-2 or a variant of4-4-2, their strength will lie in a defence marshalled by Paolo Montero. Which means that Uruguay, vicious in 1986 and anonymous in 1990, will be counterattackers. Their record of 13 goals conceded in 18 matches was the best in South American qualifying. But even with European-based attackers like Alvaro Recoba and Dario Silva, they scored only 19 and had to play off with Australia. Last in, though it will be a surprise if they are among the first out.
Anyone expecting the first-time qualifiers from West Africa to be a soft touch should think again, even in this group. Senegal not only reached the finals ahead of Morocco, Egypt and Algeria, but overcame Nigeria in the African Nations' Cup and lost the final to Cameroon on penalties. With a French coach, the hippy-haired Bruno Metsu, and a squad largely born and based in the old colonial mother country, their meeting with the world champions should have a "derby" feel. El Hadj Diouf will be dangerous up front and Khalilou Fadiga the supplier. Whether they possess sufficient quality and resilience to reach the second phase if they lose the tournament opener to France remains to be seen.
Made the last eight four years ago before bowing out to Brazil, after which the Laudrups left the scene; then they flopped at Euro 2000 in what proved to be Peter Schmeichel's swansong. Instead of taking time to rebuild, Denmark found they already had players eager to escape the shadows of those dominant figures. The coach, Morten Olsen, was in the "Danish Dynamite" side of the Eighties, and while his team lack their flair, they may be more organised and obdurate. Playing 4-4-1-1, with the ex-Newcastle and soon-to-be Milan man Jon Dahl Tomasson feeding off Ebbe Sand, they cruised through qualifying ahead of the Czechs and Bulgarians. Will be competitive, but a lack of creativity could preclude real progress.
La Liga is arguably the best league in the world, yet its status will not be reflected by the national side's showing unless Spain can consistently display attributes they have previously demonstrated only spasmodically. Amazingly, given the calibre of their clubs, two lost quarter-finals represents the sum of their achievements since finishing fourth in 1950. Those who argue that the presence of so many top-class foreigners at Real Madrid, Barcelona et al works against Spain never explain why Italy frequently challenge for honours. Could this be the year when Spain, under the guidance of José Antonio Camacho, finally break the mould? Unlikely: though unbeaten in a weak qualifying group, they have a modest record against higher-ranked countries. Because of the very intensity and depth of their league, the Spaniards invariably come into major tournaments jaded. Moreover, they will enter the opening phase carrying the stigma of so many poor starts in world and European finals; one win in 11 attempts. Despite this baggage, any team containing Raul, Fernando Hierro and Gaizka Mendieta should be strong enough to get past Slovenia, South Africa and Paraguay. Then will come the true test of Spanish mettle.
Participating in football's great showcase events is getting to be a habit for the tiny former Yugoslav republic where the official national sport is skiing.
Having entered their first World Cup as recently as 1996, Slovenia surprised everyone by making it to Euro 2000 and gaining two points. They began the qualifying for Japan/Korea as if it had been a fluke, letting the Faroe Islands come from 2-0 down to draw part of a sequence of one win in five games but earned a play-off against Romania. Again they defied the odds, winning at home despite being outplayed and drawing in Bucharest. Huge credit must go to their coach, Srecko Katanec, not yet 39, who has proved a strong motivator and shrewd tactician. Most of his squad are fringe players with foreign clubs, an anomaly that could cut two ways for Slovenia. One theory says they will be ill-prepared for combat against battle-honed opponents; another that they may surprise the Spaniards, for example, by virtue of being fresher. Zlatko Zahovic, a striker and schemer rolled into one, is sure to take the eye; likewise the Tottenham-bound midfielder Milenko Acimovic. But unity and organisation hold the key to their creating another surprise.
If the finals witness the Paraguay whose qualifying record featured two draws with Argentina and victory over Brazil, they might make the quarter-finals. However, if the players who turn up are those who ended the group with heavy losses to lowly Venezuela and Colombia, causing Sergio Markarian to be fired in favour of Cesare Maldini, they will not survive the opening round. Although friendlies are no barometer, the former Italy coach was clearly perturbed by the recent 4-0 surrender to England. José Luis Chilavert, the striker-keeper, is suspended for the first game, making it vital that Maldini, now 70, lives up to his reputation as a defensive organiser and José Cardozo to his billing as a top-class striker.
The exuberance which the "Bafana Bafana" brought to France in 1998 played a considerable part in their departing the competition with two points and their honour intact.
Sadly, the pride that stemmed from representing a newly liberated nation has given way to cold reality, as evinced by a flat showing at this year's African Nations' Cup. Carlos Queiroz, their Portuguese coach, paid with his job, but South Africa's luck has not changed under Jomo Sono. Shaun Bartlett misses the finals, putting the onus on Benni McCarthy to come good at last, while the previous captain, Lucas Radebe, has been injured almost all season. In the circumstances, matching their haul of four years ago would represent success.
Imagine Muhammad Ali being decked by Audley Harrison and Richard Dunn, or the All Blacks losing to Romania and Italy. Far-fetched, but to the generation who regarded Brazil as a byword for pure footballing values, no more implausible than the litany of losses the country of Pele, Garrincha and Tostão has suffered since blowing out in the 1998 final. Among those to claim the ultimate scalp are Ecuador, South Korea, Honduras, Bolivia and Australia. Sadly, the Brazilians lost not because their skills were negated by cynical opponents, as in 1966, but because they lost touch with the qualities which made them special. Players are now groomed for industrial football rather than the beautiful game; for winning at all costs and servicing the European market. As players and coaches came and went as if on a production line, Brazil were in danger for the first time of not qualifying. "Big Phil" Scolari guided them through and is hinting at a traditional style. It could all come together. Rivaldo and Ronaldo may live up to expectations, though there is no guarantee that either will play. Brazil should reach the last eight, though it may be unwise to expect more or to hope for the life-enhancing football of tournaments past.
First finals appearance, incredibly, since Hungary were a football superpower and Matthews and Finney patrolled England's flanks in 1954. Turkey are not, however, naïve newcomers after competing in the last two European Championships. In the longer term this belated coming of age bodes ill for England, their chief rivals to qualify for Euro 2004, and had its origins in the appointment 18 years ago of a German, Jupp Derwall, as coach. The talent had always been there, but was poorly directed. Derwall and his successors raised standards and expectations to the extent that Senol Gunes risks vilification if his team do not at least advance from the first phase. Gunes was stung by the vitriol which was heaped on the failure to proceed automatically from Sweden's group. Turkey routed Austria in the play-offs, yet the pundits are right to be demanding. Despite the absence through injury of playmaker Sergen Yalcin and doubts over the fitness of the fine Aston Villa defender Alpay Ozalan, most of the Galatasaray team who beat Leeds and Arsenal to win the Uefa Cup are available. Several, like the British-style striker Hakan Sukur, need to woo prospective purchasers.
In two important respects China can look forward confidently to an overdue finals debut. Their coach, Bora Milutinovic, is steeped in the requirements of tournament play, having had charge of Costa Rica, Mexico and Nigeria in previous finals. And they will have vast support. Whether that will be enough to enable them to bridge a chasm in experience and physical power must be doubtful. Fan Zhiyi, a useful if unexceptional defender for Crystal Palace and Dundee, is their mainstay, which perhaps indicates why the phrase "learning curve" may come to characterise their participation.
We have nothing to fear from Costa Rica. So said Scotland's manager, Andy Roxburgh, before the Central Americans won 1-0 en route to the second phase of the 1990 finals.
They return under the stewardship of Alexandre Guimaraes, Brazilian-born but a substitute for his adopted country in Genoa that day. His record in the final qualifying round should disabuse Brazil and Turkey of any notions that the group will be a formality. With a tight defence and a plentiful supply of goals from Paulo Wanchope, they finished six points clear of a field which included the United States and Mexico. Could take advantage if the favourites flop, but are more likely to assume Scotland's role of gallant failures.
The image of Portugal as a flaky European equivalent of Brazil, oozing tricks but liable to crumble under pressure, is old hat. That much was transparent in their run to the semi-finals of Euro 2000, which they launched by outclassing England, and again during a qualification process for these finals that ended with their winning the most gruelling of groups. As with France, their eventual conquerors two summers back, the coming-together of this team is no happy coincidence. It is the result of the visionary planning which followed a slump in fortunes after their last World Cup appearance, 16 long years ago. Resources were poured into youth football. The success of the policy can be gauged from the fact that the backbone of the current side is formed by members of their World Youth Cup-winning squad of 1991. Luis Figo is the most conspicuous example, and within the Portuguese set-up the Fifa World Player of the Year embodies the all-for-one, one-for-all ethic. The so-called "golden generation" are ageing and will probably not have another chance to land the biggest prize. Yet results like the 2-0 away win over the Dutch and a draw in Dublin after trailing 2-0 late on prove they have the style and steel to pursue their ambition all the way.
Like Portugal, the Poles have not qualified for the finals since 1986, although they boast a proud pedigree. In 1974 the team containing the goalkeeper Brian Clough infamously dubbed "a clown", Jan Tomaszewski, beat Brazil to finish third. With Zbigniew Boniek bursting on to the scene, they repeated the feat in '82. Boniek now sits among the Polish FA hierarchy and played a key part in helping his country reach the finals. He proposed that a Nigerian striker who was playing for Polonia Warsaw, Emmanuel Olisadebe, be granted citizenship to score the goals the team's build-up cried out for. The national coach, Jerzy Engel, who had given him his club debut, needed no persuading, and any doubts Polish society harboured about relying on a black African were forgotten as Olisadebe's contribution helped them qualify ahead of Ukraine, Norway and Wales. Another Jerzy, Dudek of Liverpool, fosters confidence at the other end. Engel, whose psychological ploys have included showing his players a film of how the last World War affected Poland, claims they can again reach the semi-finals. That sounds fanciful, but in an even group apart from Portugal, second place is a realistic aim.
Officially last in 1998 and unlikely to show a drastic improvement. The coach has changed, Bruce Arena stepping up from DC United, but the faces are familiar. The goalkeeping spot is between two "Anglos", Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller. Sunderland's Claudio Reyna will direct midfield; Crystal Palace's Gregg Berhalter is a contender for the back line; and Joe-Max Moore, of Everton, should see action up front. Veterans such as Cobi Jones and Earnie Stewart still feature, but at some stage Arena will want to test two forwards tipped to become America's first home-grown football superstars, Clint Mathis and Landon Donovan. If the team's form remains patchy, the last group game could be one for experimenting.
To make the second round, South Korea will probably have to do something they have not managed in six previous appearances in the finals: win. Asia's most regular qualifiers have still to emulate the North's epic victory over Italy at Middlesbrough 36 years ago. Guus Hiddink, the former Holland coach, insists they can make the last 16, and in contrast with Messrs Eriksson and McCarthy he has been working daily with his players for four months. He is confident, too, that the Koreans'warm-up schedule, against stronger opponents than his predecessors lined up, will stand them in better stead. But unless home crowds can spur them to unprecedented heights, a familiar outcome may be in store.
Written off almost universally after the embarrassment of that shocking 5-1 defeat in Munich by England last September, the Germans' subsequent results have actually been rather more impressive than those of their conquerors. What is clear, however, is that their once-iron defence is still vulnerable and will give the excellent goalkeeper Oliver Kahn plenty of work to do. Further forward, Mehmet Scholl's absence from the tournament through injury may be badly felt, however well the younger generation of Michael Ballack and Sebastian Deisler, who may himself not be fully fit, are coming on. Tottenham Hotspur's Christian Ziege should provide some vigorous running and crossing on the left, but there is no obvious goalscoring striker if there were, it would hardly have been necessary for the coach, Rudi Völler, to name six forwards in his squad, with Bayern Munich's Carsten Jancker, who was one of the failures of the disastrous Euro 2000 campaign, still among them. Völler, a World Cup winner in 1990, believes that once the knock-out stage is reached, anything can happen. Even if Germany go through as group winners, however, a probable quarter-final against Italy could hardly be approached with any great optimism.
Rep of Ireland
As the feast draws nearer, the Dutch are still wondering how the Republic squeezed them out of a place at the table. The answer is a combination of unexpected football ability, as in the 2-2 draw in Amsterdam ("We passed them off the park" Mick McCarthy), and sheer bloody-mindedness when Louis van Gaal sent for the cavalry and then reinforcements against 10 men in Dublin. Over those two games, and the rest of an unbeaten group programme, McCarthy's squad illustrated how the whole can be more effective than the sum of the parts. The result is Ireland's first appearance at a major championship since 1994, when Jack Charlton's team shocked Italy in New York before the heat began to tell against an ageing squad. The balance is much better this time, with much greater attacking potential in Robbie Keane and the exciting Damien Duff. A lack of similar pace in the defence may be one cause for concern, especially now that Roy Keane is not there to protect them. Avoiding defeat in the opening game against Cameroon would provide a good platform, though the draw means it may be necessary to win the group to have realistic hopes of going any further than the second round.
Unbeaten on their World Cup debut in 1982 and unlucky in the 1990 quarter-final against England, the Indomitable Lions have been growling to rather less effect since. But after failing to win a game in either the USA or France, they discovered some new young players, who came to the fore in taking the gold medal at the Sydney Olympics two years ago and then retained the African Nations' Cup in March. Scoring only nine goals in six games there, but not conceding a single one, says much about the new priorities under a strict German coach, Winfried Schafer. Group matches against his countrymen and the Republic of Ireland are likely to be low-scoring affairs, and qualification will be tight.
Like Cameroon, the Saudis tend not to keep a coach for long. The Yugoslav Slobodan Santrac lasted two matches of the qualifying campaign, after which the former manager Nasser Al-Johar returned for a second stint and revived a struggling squad. They were fortunate to win the qualifying group and should have been in a play-off against Ireland, who now face them instead in the third group game, by which time the Saudis may already have suffered two defeats. Unusual in having none of their squad playing abroad, they have a good understanding and plenty of experience, with the striker Sami Al-Jaber once briefly of Wolverhampton Wanderers one of the veterans of two previous World Cups.
Finishing 12 points ahead of the field in the protracted South American qualifying group, with only one defeat in 18 matches (away to Brazil), says something about the consistency and commitment of a squad drawn mainly from European clubs.
A glance at the possible starting line-up and then the options available Batistuta, Caniggia and Simeone emphasises why Argentina are so strongly fancied. Such is the depth of talent that the coach, Marcelo Bielsa, can concentrate on fielding the best partnerships and combinations all over the pitch, rather than simply throwing together disparate individuals. He is known to believe, for instance, that Gabriel Batistuta and Hernan Crespo are too similar to play up front together. Juan Sebastian Veron is a playmaker among playmakers in Bielsa's strict 3-3-1-3 formation, and the forbidding defensive line will not allow much past them. His squad even seem unlikely, despite the country's reputation, to succumb to provocation; vast experience, at international level and with leading European clubs in Spain and Italy, has added some discipline, to the extent that not a single red card was received in those 18 qualifying games.
Reflecting from time to time how close England came to missing out on the World Cup finals ought to prevent their supporters from succumbing to the unrealistic optimism that bedevilled Euro 2000. If it doesn't, the draw should. At other tournaments England have often muddled through early on, then found the right team and formation and improved as a world-class talent like Geoff Hurst, Paul Gascoigne or Michael Owen emerged. Eriksson, given his recent injury problems, could do with someone making a similar impression but it will have to be early, for there can be no muddling along. Eriksson, not a manager even to whisper from the rooftops, has his players believing in themselves again. Against that, England look vulnerable at full-back, Steven Gerrard will be sorely missed, the left midfield is unresolved and there are questions over the fitness of key players. To win the group is asking an awful lot, but the prize would be huge the road to a semi-final against France potentially opening up via a combination of Denmark, Uruguay, Russia or Turkey. Second place, while a worthy achievement, would mean encountering the French rather earlier, which even the optimists might find daunting.
Bottom of their group without a win at Euro 2000, the Swedes sailed through qualifying, albeit in a moderate section, ahead of Turkey and Slovakia. Disciplined and organised, they can be lifted above dull efficiency by Celtic's Henrik Larsson and now, perhaps, by Freddie Ljungberg, whose confidence will be high after his irresistible recent run with Arsenal. Larsson has found a new partner in Marcus Allback, a more mobile forward than the old-fashioned target-man Kennet Andersson, and their interplay with Ljungberg will be crucial. So too will the opening game against England, who hold no surprises for a side packed with British-based players and who have not beaten the Swedes in their last nine meetings.
Poor performances at the African Nations' Cup led to a change of coach, the veteran Adegboye Onigbinde replacing Shaibu Amodu and transforming the squad. England's spies have had several chances to look at them, in friendlies at Loftus Road (against Paraguay and Jamaica), Aberdeen (against Scotland) and Dublin (against Ireland), for which players such as Finidi George, Sunday Oliseh and Taribo West were omitted. Talent remains, as Julius Aghahowa showed against the Scots his quintuple-somersault celebrations of goals should also be a highlight given the chance. Onigbinde says he is trying to instil "discipline and professionalism". Nigeria will need it, and more, even to avoid the wooden spoon.
A settled and confident side with increased attacking flair, wonderful individual talent, and a highly favourable draw it is no surprise that Italy figure so high on both the bookmakers' and critics' lists of potential World Cup winners. Not only should they cruise through a section containing Croatia, Ecuador and Mexico, but Spain or Portugal in the quarter-finals looks like being their first serious challenge. If consistent attacking menace was the one element lacking in Dino Zoff's Euro 2000 team, who were beaten only in the final by David Trézéguet's golden goal, the old fox Giovanni Trapattoni has found some in a revitalised Christian Vieri (who missed every qualifying match bar one) and just about any other partner, with Roma's Francesco Totti lurking just behind. The defence should still be as solid as ever; Gianluigi Buffon, who was forced to drop out of the European Championship finals, has regained the jersey from Francesco Toldo, and he will be well protected by some of the continent's meanest markers. Whether or not Italy manage to equal Brazil's record of four championships, they should go a long way, and they know that there will be severe recriminations at home if they do not.
Bursting with national pride, Croatia marked their first appearance at the World Cup finals in 1998 by taking third place. After a narrow failure to qualify for Euro 2000, they ditched their long-serving coach Miroslav Blazevic, and Mirko Jozic soon had them back on track. Kevin Gallacher's goal for Scotland in Zagreb was one of only two the Croats conceded in eight unbeaten qualifying matches. With a heavy accent on defence though the injured Igor Tudor will prove to be a big loss they may not be among the teams to climb out of bed to watch, except for supporters of English clubs keen to see some familiar faces; or, in the case of Aston Villa fans, unfamiliar ones, since Bosko Balaban has hardly been a regular sight in the West Midlands. He may or may not be chosen to support Middlesbrough's Alen Boksic in attack, while Mario Stanic of Chelsea could ease out Liverpool's Igor Biscan from midfield. Robert Prosinecki will be hoping to impress club scouts after the expiry of his contract with Portsmouth. It will be a last hurrah for the core of the 1989 World Youth Championship-winning team (playing under Jozic as Yugoslavia). Players such as Prosinecki, Igor Stimac and Robert Jarni deserve a good send-off.
It normally takes all the advantages of being the host country for Mexico to progress beyond the group stage, which they did in 1970 and 1986, and they are unlikely to manage it here unless the Spanish-based attacking players Cuahutemoc Blanco and Francisco Palencia can break down Croatia's formidable defence. Finishing six points behind Costa Rica in the Football Confederation (Concacaf) group does not look hugely impressive, though it reflected something of an improvement after Mexico became one of numerous countries to change coaches in mid-stream. The excitable Javier Aguirre, a player back in 1986, took over and led a revival from fifth place up to second.
Traditionally difficult to beat at 3,000 metres above sea level in Quito, Ecuador managed for once to grind out a couple of away victories and take advantage of a weaker-than-usual South American section to finish ahead of Brazil in second place.
Scoring few goals, but conceding even fewer, worked well as their Colombian coach, Hernan Dario Gomez, tightened up the defence. It was an attacker who really caught the eye, however, Agustin Delgado's nine goals making him joint top scorer with Argentina's Hernan Crespo and earning a transfer to Southampton with the midfielder Kleber Chala, where neither has yet prospered as much as they andGordon Strachan had hoped.
Steady progress under Philippe Troussier, added to all the advantages of playing at home which normally outweigh the pressures have made Japan optimistic about coming through a group that could have been much harder. Troussier's successes began with a place in the World Youth Cup final of 1999, and continued with victory in the Asian Cup of 2000 and then a run to the final of the Confederations' Cup last year, beating Cameroon and drawing with Brazil before losing to France 1-0. At the last World Cup, under his predecessor, Takeshi Okada, the Japanese had shown up well in narrow defeats by Argentina and Croatia. Now they need to be rather more positive, capitalising on the midfield talents of Hidetoshi Nakata, who has played for Perugia, Roma and now Parma in Serie A, Feyenoord's Shinji Ono and Arsenal's Junichi Inamoto, who has not yet proved physically strong enough for the Premiership. Akinori Nishizawa was another who failed to make an impression in England, but, like the goalkeeper and captain, Portsmouth's Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, he is a huge national hero at home. If those players can inspire an opening victory over Belgium, the second round would thenbe well within reach.
It is a long time since the Russians made much of an impression at a World Cup. Not since 1982 have they reached the quarter-finals, and hammering Cameroon twice has produced their only victories at the finals since 1986, while failing on each occasion to get them through the group section. Prospects are better this time, mainly because of a favourable draw, with one of the hosts as the seeded country, Tunisia as a comfortable opening match and Belgium beatable in the final game. The apparently impressive statistics from qualifying seven wins from 10 games, one defeat and only five goals conceded need to be balanced by the modest opposition and some embarrassingly close results even then: a 1-0 home win over the Faroe Islands and a late winning goal away to Luxembourg. Neither Slovenia nor Yugoslavia were beaten in Moscow, but diving headers by Vladimir Beschastnykh won both away games. Losing 2-0 against Ireland in Dublin recently, they looked vulnerable in defence, but dangerous when Beschastnykh was given better support in a negative 4-5-1 formation. Winning the group should mean a winnable second-round tie.
After a feeble performance on home ground at Euro 2000, where they were undermined by goalkeeping errors and failed even to come through their group, the Belgians stuck by manager Robert Waseige and were rewarded with qualification for their sixth successive World Cup, beating the Czech Republic twice in the play-offs. With the exception of a semi-final appearance 16 years ago, they have rarely done anything once at the finals and look very limited again. The disadvantage in what seems at first sight a favourable group is having to play an opening game against one of the hosts, Japan, who will be raring to go. A favourable result there will be required to have any real hope of reaching the second round.
Tunisia can have no great expectations after failing to score in three group matches at the African Nations' Cup. The former France, Cameroon and Morocco coach Henri Michel resigned when his assistant was sacked and a new man, Amman Souayah, forced upon him. Michel "We have weaknesses everywhere: tactically, technically, mentally and physically" was clearly not living in hope. Souayah has adopted a less defeatist attitude, but the first African country to win a match at the finals will do well to win one this time now their goalkeeper, Chokri El Ouaer, is injured, leaving two inexperienced replacements.Reuse content