France '98: A League Of Nations

What the World Cup means to us - by a team of players representing different Premiership clubs and different flags
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The Independent Online
Allan Nielsen (Tottenham and Denmark)

DRIVING across from England and then meeting up with the squad on 18 May, I really felt the sense of anticipation. Going to my first World Cup is one of the biggest achievements in anyone's career. I can remember, like so many kids, watching the World Cup on television and then dashing outside on the street to imitate the heroes I'd just seen. It's not just the football, it's the special friendship you build up over such a length of time with the other members of the squad and all the things that go on around a World Cup. I'm determined to enjoy myself, not to look back and say I let it pass me by. I've been waiting for this for a long time. During the worst days at Tottenham last season, there was always the thought of something good to look forward to and to work towards, apart from staying in the Premiership. I really think we could surprise a few people. Peter Schmeichel and Brian Laudrup have seen it all before and give us so much experience; Martin Jorgensen, of Udinese, is a young player to watch. In every World Cup, there is a team who come through unexpectedly and I see no reason why it shouldn't be us. The squad have been together for the past two years, and our coach [Bo Johansson] is very enlightened in his approach - he wants it to be fun - and though France are naturally favourites for our group, South Africa and Saudi Arabia are teams we know we can beat. If things begin badly for France, they will be under enormous pressure. We will not. If we qualify, who knows? It's a great stage for every player.

Slaven Bilic

(Everton and Croatia)

THE fans back home in Croatia are expecting big things of us. Because we reached the quarter-finals in Euro 96, they think we can do something similar in France. The expectation was brought home to me when I went back in April for our warm-up game against Poland. It was only a friendly so the result was not vital but the pressure was on us to perform. It was just as well we won 4-1. What we must not do is get carried away by all the euphoria. People are saying we're a strong side and that we're in with a good-ish chance, but you could say the same about nine or 10 other nations. You have to say that Brazil are the favourites, the clear favourites. As for Croatia, we have to concentrate on our first priority, which is qualifying for the last 16. We could not have really hoped for a better group than the one we've got. With all respect to Argentina, Jamaica and Japan, we should get to the second-round stage. If we do, we will be against a team from England's group. That would be ironic for me: if we had to play England for a place in the quarter-finals.

Dennis Bergkamp

(Arsenal and Holland)

WHEN you have division in a team you do not have a friendly situation. It was like that in the European Championship in 1996 when a lot of the players came into the squad from their clubs bringing all of their problems with them. I knew that some had come to play and others had not. That had been typical of the way things had often been among the Dutch. This time the team will be older and more experienced. We thought we were prepared for the European Championship but there was not enough experience. Sometimes we find that teams like England have a stronger mental approach to their matches and even when we know we have good teamwork and are better technically, we find it difficult to break them down. We will need some luck to do very well in France because we had bad luck in 1994. Everyone needs some luck, but for us it sometimes makes a lot of difference in the way we play as a team. You never know exactly how you will do until you have played your first matches in the competition. We have enough good players to do well but I will not predict how well.

Roberto Di Matteo (Chelsea and Italy)

I WAS born in Switzerland and moved to Italy when I was 23, but my parents are Italian and playing for my country means everything to me. I think we have a really good chance to do well because we have so many good players like Roberto Baggio, Alessandro Del Piero and Antonio Conte. But we know the only thing our supporters regard as success is winning the trophy. I still think Brazil are the team to beat and I would love to play against them having missed the last finals with an elbow injury. We have to get through our group first and although we are favourites we cannot take any of those teams [Cameroon, Chile, Austria] for granted. There are always surprise results in the World Cup and we will be prepared to treat everyone with respect. We got to the final in 1994 without playing very well early on and the fans were frustrated, but we nearly gave them the success they wanted. We can do it, but we will need everything to work for 30 days - skill, determination, goals and luck.

Kasey Keller (Leicester City and USA)

TO take part in a World Cup is the highlight of any professional footballer's career, just as the Olympics is the high point for any athlete. You have your career, your club side, in which you are either successful or not; you earn your living that way. But the World Cup is a whole different level, bringing you into contact with other cultures and putting you up against club colleagues and players from other clubs in your league. And representing your country gives it a whole new dimension. For Americans, it is also about promoting the development of soccer at home in that the better we do the more press coverage we get in the States. We have made major strides since we qualified in 1990 and the side we have now is better than in 1994, with some good players now coming out of Major League Soccer. I would name centre-back Eddie Pope, from Washington DC United, the right- winger Frankie Hejduk, who plays for Tampa Bay, and Brian Maisonneuve, the Columbus Crew midfielder, as three who come into that category. The MLS is growing in importance and will be a major factor by the time of the next World Cup. The target first of all in France is to get through the first round but I think we have a good chance of doing that.

Bernard Lama (West Ham and France)

TIME was running short for me before I went to West Ham, but I still had to get into the first team for Aime Jacquet to pick me. I had dreamed of playing in a World Cup since I was a kid and I knew this was my best and probably last chance to play in the finals. It means so much to me in so many ways; I want to play for myself, but also for my family and country. This could also be our best chance of winning it. We have a strong group of players and the will of our nation behind them. We do not want to waste this opportunity and will be able to handle the pressure of being hosts. It doesn't matter what has happened in the build-up or our friendly games. As long as we do well, all of that will be forgotten. The past year has been difficult for me [Lama was banned for taking cannabis at PSG], but, like the World Cup, sometimes life is good and sometimes it is bad. I have tried to remain positive mentally and I think the whole squad is feeling that we have the confidence to do well.

Lucas Radebe (Leeds and South Africa)

PERSONALLY, it is a great honour. And for my family, who have been behind me all the way in my career and will be in France to see me take part. To be playing in Europe for one of the top clubs makes me very proud but the World Cup is the pinnacle of a player's career. For South Africa, our first World Cup since we were admitted to Fifa is a special moment but we deserve to be there. South Africa is a sports-mad country and football is especially important because it is a sport that has genuinely unified black and white people. We are getting stronger with every tournament and our performances in the African Nations' Cup in Burkina Faso showed what progress we have made. The involvement of President Mandela in the build-up to the finals has been an inspiration and we have proved through the qualifiers that we have a right to be there. It is a tough group but if we can get good results against Denmark and Saudi Arabia we can reach the second round.

Ole Solskjaer (Manchester United and Norway)

QUALIFYING so well [unbeaten in their group] and so quickly has gave us a lot of confidence in our preparations for France and the atmosphere in our squad is excellent. The training camps have always been good fun and there is even more rivalry and banter now that so many of us play for different English clubs in the Premiership. I think playing for United has helped me at international level, but we play a lot differently for Norway and it can have a positive and negative effect on different players. I had personally never really thought about playing in the World Cup until I went to Old Trafford but, of course, it is a dream I have had since I was a kid. It has been a difficult season for me compared to the last one, but I understand the competition for places at United and it is getting similar with Norway. I think sides respect us more now because we have players at the best clubs in the Premiership who have proven themselves against the best. We are not saying we will win the World Cup, but we know we have the ability to do well if we play as well as we can and get a bit of luck along the way.

Colin Hendry (Blackburn Rovers and Scotland)

WE ARE not a big country. Getting to the World Cup finals is always a tremendous achievement. We have done ourselves proud this time, and while winning the World Cup is a bit of a pipe-dream for us, I genuinely believe we've got a hell of an opportunity to reach the second round with Brazil. To be part of something that has never happened to our nation before, that would be something a bit special. I have a lot of confidence that, with a bit of luck, we can do it. Winning the championship with Blackburn in 1995 was amazing. It was the first time the club had achieved that in 80 years and I was part of it. Obviously I'd like to be making history again, this time with Scotland. Leading Scotland out against Brazil in the opening match of the tournament in Paris and wearing that captain's armband will be something I will remember for the rest of his life.

Gareth Southgate (Aston Villa and England)

PLAYING in Euro 96 was a massive experience despite my penalty miss, but the World Cup is the ultimate. I'm very patriotic and so it means a lot to me to play for my country. Sometimes it may seem some people take playing for England for granted but, in reality, it is something only a few players can say they have done, particularly in the World Cup finals. I'm happy with the way I have played for England during the last 12 months and I'll be working as hard as I can to make sure I'm in the line-up. But whether I'm in the side or not, and obviously I hope that I am, I believe our prospects are good. I'm aware that people will be ready to throw it back at us if we make too many bold predictions but we are capable of winning our group and, maybe, the tournament. The main thing is to maintain a good team spirit and make sure we hit peak form at the right moment.

Deon Burton

(Derby County and Jamaica)

IT'S so unbelievable, I can't stop thinking about it. I'm playing for a top Premiership side and heading for the World Cup. I was on holiday in Jamaica and Paul Hall and Fitzroy Simpson, my former team-mates at Portsmouth, were already training with the squad. They contacted me and asked if I fancied joining them. Before I knew it I was in the starting XI. I scored a few goals [four in five matches], played in a Rest of the World side against Europe, and was voted as Jamaican Sportsman of the Year. Most teams go into the World Cup thinking they are going to win it but, realistically, I don't think we've learned enough in the short period of time that we've been together.