SO STRONG, it is frightening. The world champions did not just take away the trophy four years ago to admire it, they made sure they had an even better team to defend it The class of '98 has Ronaldo, the goofy kid who couldn't find a way off the bench in the US, as the head boy. Stunning goals to match his spiralling salary are the trademarks of the Internazionale idol. Then there is Roberto Carlos, whose tree-trunk legs whip in the most vicious, curling free-kicks since Rivelino. Add the gifted midfielder Denilson, who became the world's costliest player when Real Betis bought him from Sao Paulo for pounds 21m, and it is easy to see why even the absence of Juninho's rare talents will not weaken the side. Some of the winners from USA 94 remain, principally Leonardo, one of the few successes in Milan's miserable season. In addition, Brazil have also brought in a "new" coach, Mario Zagallo, formerly assistant to Carlos Alberto Parreira, to make sure the trophy stays in Rio: Zagallo was the coach behind the 1970 Brazil side, the greatest football team ever.
Likely hero: As if you have to ask - Ronaldo misses only in airport terminals, but in real life everything this boy does is so good. Brazil are cleared for take-off.
Achilles' heel: Cafu - the ball-watching right-back was shredded recently by Argentina, and Napoli, relegated from Serie A, sent him back to Brazil for not coming up to scratch.
Goalkeepers: Taffarel (Atletico Mineiro), Carlos Germano (Vasco da Gama), Dida (Cruzeiro).
Defenders: Cafu (Roma), Ze Carlos (Sao Paulo), Goncalves (Botafogo), Aldair (Roma), Junior Baiano (Flamengo), Ze Roberto (Flamengo), Roberto Carlos (Real Madrid), Andre Cruz (Milan).
Midfielders: Dunga (Jubilo), Doriva (Porto), Rivaldo (Barcelona), Leonardo (Milan), Denilson (Sao Paulo), Cesar Sampaio (Ana Sato Kogyo), Giovanni (Barcelona).
Strikers: Romario (Flamengo), Edmundo (Fiorentina), Bebeto (Botafogo), Ronaldo (Internazionale).
Coach: Mario Zagallo.
A RECENT television show suggested the Scots should enlist Mel Gibson's Braveheart speech or the kilt-flashing scene from Carry on Up the Khyber if they want to keep Brazil out. Craig Brown is no mean patriot, but the coach has ensured that Scotland have come a long way from the over-the-top "get intae them" passion of the past. Brown's team is built on method, organisation and a solid defence. Only three goals were conceded by Colin Hendry and Co in the qualifying ties and Brown's 3-5-2 unit defend in every area of the pitch. In midfield, Paul Lambert has matured into a man-marker of immense ability while John Collins has flourished at Monaco as Manchester United know only too well. Craig Burley and Jackie McNamara were so pivotal to Celtic's season that they took the Scottish Player of the Year awards from the writers and players respectively. Brown's squad may be short on the quality of past World Cups - there is no Dalglish, Law or Souness - but the spirit which owes more to clan than clique could still get the Scots into the second stage for the first time.
Likely hero: Kevin Gallacher, who has overcome more setbacks than Forrest Gump. The World Cup is the perfect stage for the born-again Blackburn striker.
Achilles' heel: Lack of goals. Apart from Gallacher, John Collins (10) is the only Scot to register double figures.
Goalkeepers: Jim Leighton (Aberdeen), Jonathan Gould (Celtic), Neil Sullivan (Wimbledon).
Defenders: Tom Boyd (Celtic), Colin Calderwood (Tottenham Hotspur), Christian Dailly (Derby County), Matt Elliott (Leicester City), Colin Hendry (Blackburn Rovers), Tosh McKinlay (Celtic), David Weir (Hearts), Derek Whyte (Aberdeen).
Midfielders: Craig Burley (Celtic), Scot Gemmill (Nottingham Forest), Jackie McNamara (Celtic), John Collins (Monaco), Paul Lambert (Celtic), Billy McKinlay (Blackburn Rovers).
Forwards: Scott Booth (Borussia Dortmund), Gordon Durie (Rangers), Kevin Gallacher (Blackburn Rovers), Darren Jackson (Celtic), Simon Donnelly (Celtic).
Coach: Craig Brown.
MOROCCO could be the major surprise in the group, but such is their pedigree that it is probably an insult to say so. They are playing in their fourth finals and are a superior team to the one 12 years ago who beat England, Poland and Portugal to finish top of their first-round group in Mexico. In USA 94, they lost all three games to Belgium, Holland and Saudi Arabia, but a strong group of players has emerged since then under their French coach Henri Michel, who took France to fourth spot in 1986. Michel has built his team round a crop of exports to France, Spain and Portugal and several second-generation players born to Moroccan immigrants in Europe. The captain, Noureddine Naybet, currently playing for Deportivo La Coruna, is a classy sweeper whose organisation of the defence is one reason for Morocco's recent record of just four defeats in 30 games, including last month's loss to England. Naybet's club colleague, the striker Salaheddine Bassir, netted four goals in the qualifying round.
Likely hero: Mustafa Hadji, whose playmaking skills enticed Deportivo La Coruna to buy him last December.
Achilles' heel: Henri Michel's refusal to forgive Scotland for costing him his job as French coach in 1989. His yearning for revenge could be self-destructive.
Goalkeepers: Abdelkadar Brazi (Royal Armed Forces), Driss Benzekri (Settat), Mustapha Chadli (Raja Casablanca).
Defenders: Youssef Rossi (Rennes), Smahi Triki (Lausanne), Noureddine Naybet (Deportivo La Coruna), Abdelkrim el Haddrioui (Benfica), Rachid Nekrouz (Bari), Abdelilah Saber (Sporting Lisbon), Lahcen Abrami (Widad Casablanca).
Midfielders: Said Chiba (Compostela), Rachid Azzouzi (Greuther Furth), Youssef Chippo (Porto), Moustafa Hadji (Deportivo La Coruna), Tahar el Khalej (Benfica), Jamal Sellami (Raja Casablanca).
Forwards: Salaheddine Bassir (Deportivo La Coruna), Abdeljalil Hadda (Club Africain), Ali el Khattabi (Heerenveen), Abderahim Ouakili (TSV 1860 Munich), Gharib Amzine (Mulhouse), Rachid Rokki (SCMM Mohammedia).
Coach: Henri Michel.
THE Norwegian coach, Egil Olsen, is the kind of man with no time for frills: training sessions are conducted in his ubiquituous wellingtons and when it came to a winter get-together for his squad last season, Olsen chose England rather than the Mediterranean. He has fashioned a side in his image; rugged, hard-working and straight to the point. Olsen is a devotee of the route-one football which worked so well for Jack Charlton, although his side score a few more goals than the Irish did. Much of that is due to his strikeforce of Tore Andre Flo and Ole Gunnar Solksjaer. Flo was a revelation in his first term at Chelsea while, if Solksjaer's second season at Manchester United could not match his first, when he scored 18 Premiership goals, then that only hints that he has some goals left over in his locker. Olsen's midfield larder is over-stocked too with Liverpool's Oyvind Leonhardsen a crucial ingredient thanks to his ability to pop up in the box when chances crop up. With so many Premiership players to choose from, Olsen can match the Scots for grit but also has the knowledge that his side beat Brazil 4-2 in a friendly less than a year ago.
Likely hero: Tore Andre Flo - he may look a potential NBA star, but the gangling striker's strengths are all on the ground where he has the touch of an angel.
Achilles' heel: A lack of midfield guile.
Goalkeepers: Frode Grodas (Tottenham Hotspur), Thomas Myhre (Everton), Espen Baardsen (Tottenham Hotspur).
Defenders: Henning Berg (Manchester United), Stig Inge Bjornebye (Liverpool), Dan Eggen (Celta Vigo), Gunnar Halle (Leeds), Ronny Johnsen (Manchester United), Vegard Heggem (Rosenborg Trondheim), Erik Hoftun (Rosenborg).
Midfielders: Jahn Ivar Jakobsen (Rosenborg), Oyvind Leonhardsen (Liverpool), Erik Mykland (Panathinaikos), Kjetil Rekdal (Hertha Berlin), Stale Solbakken (Aalborg), Roar Strand (Rosenborg), Havard Flo (Werder Bremen), Vidar Riseth (Linz).
Strikers: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (Manchester United), Egil Ostenstad (Southampton), Tore Andre Flo (Chelsea), Jostein Flo (Stromsgodset).
Coach: Elig Olsen.
FORTUNATELY, the always stressed Italians should have less difficulty getting through this opening group than they did in qualifying. Thereafter, the enviable depth of skill in the squad could be eroded by nerves. Defensively they ought to be incomparably sound, with Paolo Maldini's outstanding leadership and Alessandro Costacurta's versatility at the heart. In attack, too, it would be difficult to find a more imposing group than Alessandro Del Piero, Christian Vieri and Francesco Moriero, a 29-year-old goalscoring winger of high ability who has only recently been recognised internationally. The qualifying difficulties Italy encountered when playing against England, particularly, could be misleading. The coach, Cesare Maldini, recognised the fact that the team were lacking in midfield organisation and put everyone in a competitive frame of mind by insisting that forgotten players could be brought in and big reputations ignored. As a result Gianfranco Zola was left out of the squad while Roberto Baggio's restored form at Bologna, for whom he scored 22 goals this season, was repaid. The 1994 runners- up are difficult to assess, but they could well reach another final.
Likely hero: Alessandro Del Piero. Matchwinner who could be a World Cup winner as well.
Achilles' heel: Getting the blues after one setback.
Goalkeepers: Gianluca Pagliuca (Internazionale), Gianluigi Buffon (Parma), Francesco Toldo (Fiorentina).
Defenders: Fabio Cannavaro (Parma), Alessandro Costacurta (Milan), Paolo Maldini (Milan), Alessandro Nesta (Lazio), Moreno Torricelli (Juventus), Giuseppe Bergomi (Internazionale), Gianluca Pessotto (Juventus).
Midfielders: Demetrio Albertini (Milan), Dino Baggio (Parma), Luigi Di Biagio (Roma), Angelo Di Livio (Juventus), Roberto Di Matteo (Chelsea), Francesco Moriero (Internazionale), Alessandro Cois (Fiorentina).
Forwards: Alessandro Del Piero (Juventus), Christian Vieri (Atletico Madrid), Filippo Inzaghi (Juventus), Fabrizio Ravanelli (Olympique Marseille), Roberto Baggio (Bologna).
Coach: Cesare Maldini.
MARCELO SALAS, whose performance against England at Wembley showed Glenn Hoddle's team what they would be up against in France, has the potential to become the most exciting player in the tournament. But whether Chile have the resources to provide him with the platform is another matter. They qualified on goal difference and their recent friendly against Colombia, a 2-2 draw, was inconclusive. Salas even missed a penalty. So, bearing in mind that this is Chile's first appearance in the finals for 16 years, nerves are likely to take a hold. Everything depends on the partnership between Salas and Ivan Zamorano, the 31-year-old Internazionale striker who was the leading scorer in the South American qualifying group and outstanding in the Uefa Cup final. The coach, Nelson Acosta, is not holding out unrealistic hope of success, saying only that getting through the first group matches would be an achievement. He is aware that the midfield is lacking in ingenuity and leadership. Chile will need to depend on the fact that, unlike other South American teams, they have a spine of home- based players. Alternatively, that may explain why they seem so uncertain when playing away.
Likely hero: Marcelo Salas. Hot player of the moment.
Achilles' heel: Forgetting to close the door behind Salas and Zamorano.
Goalkeepers: Nelson Tapia (Catholic University), Marcelo Ramirez (Colo Colo), Carlos Tejas (Coquimbo).
Defenders: Javier Margas, Miguel Ramirez (both Catholic University), Ronald Fuentes, Cristian Castaneda, Mauricio Aros (all University of Chile), Pedro Reyes, Francisco Rojas (both Colo Colo), Moises Villarroel (Wanderers).
Midfielders: Nelson Parraguez, Fernando Cornejo (both Catholic University), Luis Musrri, Clarence Acuna (both University of Chile), Fabian Estay (Toluca, Mexico), Marcelo Vega (MetroStars, New York), Jose Luis Sierra (Colo Colo).
Forwards: Ivan Zamorano (Internazionale), Marcelo Salas (River Plate), Manuel Neira (Colo Colo), Rodrigo Barrera (Universidad of Chile).
Coach: Nelson Acosta.
WITH Arsene Wenger so successful this season, French coaches are in vogue. But the former Paris St-Germain man, Claude Le Roy, will have his work cut out to pull Cameroon through this group. Roger Milla, the star of 1990, has been saying that Le Roy was brought in too late to have much influence in France and that there are too many inexperienced players in the squad. But Le Roy has coached the "Indomitable Lions" to much success and Cameroon are likely to be in better shape than on their visit to Wembley in November. The compelling need is to erase the memories of four years ago when the players spent more energy arguing over money than actually playing. Whether that can happen depends on the talents of the newcomers Joseph-Desire Job, French born and outstanding for Lyon, and Patrick Mboma, a natural goalscorer who plays in Japan. As always, a lack of funds has made it difficult to get the widely spread squad members together, but they qualified unbeaten in their African section. However, in the recent African Nations' Cup they only reached the quarter-finals.
Likely hero: Patrick Mboma. Japanese defences have offered him little opposition.
Achilles' heel: Too many financial advisers in the dressing-room.
Goalkeepers: Jacques Songo'o (Deportivo), William Andem (Salvador de Bahia), Alioume Boukar (Vansport).
Defenders: Rigobert Song (Metz), Joseph Elanga (TKC Yaounde), Raymond Kalla Nkongo (Panahaiki), Pierre Wome Nlend (Lucchese), Beaka Djaka (Mvolye), Michel Pensee Billong (Ihlwa Chunma), Serge-Flavian Kwetche (Bafoussam).
Midfielders: Augustine Simo (St Etienne), Joseph-Cyrille Ndo (CS Garoua), Patrick M'Boma (Osaka), Didier Angebeaud Nguidjol (Nice), Samuel Eto'o (Leganes), Salomon Olembe (Nantes).
Attackers: Francois Omam-Biyik (Sampdoria), Laurent Etang (Levante), Samuel Ipoua (Rapid Vienna), Marcel Mahouve (Montpellier), Joseph Desiree Job (Lyon), Alphonse Tchami (Hertha Berlin).
Coach: Claude Le Roy.
OF ALL the European teams, Austria are the least likely to make much impression. Little in the run-up series of friendlies has altered that damning prediction. It seemed that they had reached a low point when they lost 3-2 to Hungary, whose own spirits were deflated after being overwhelmed by Yugoslavia in the World Cup qualifying play-offs. What was worse, in that match their experienced 34-year-old FC Cologne striker, Toni Polster, missed a penalty. More recently, though, they sank deeper into pessimism when losing 3-0 in Vienna to the touring United States side. Being booed off the pitch was not the ideal send-off to France. Their coach, Herbert Prohaska, has been under pressure to bring about defensive stability by involving Alex Manninger, but his theory is that the fine Arsenal goalkeeper is too inexperienced. Austria's arrival in the finals came with only one defeat, by Scotland (2-0 away), but the group was not too demanding. Against better quality opposition, Prohaska will be relying heavily on Polster and the midfield player Andreas Herzog, of Werder Bremen, because little new talent has come through.
Likely hero: Toni Polster. A veteran but still with a sharp eye for goal (91 caps, 41 goals).
Achilles' heel: Inability to get a toe in the door of organised defences.
Goalkeepers: Michael Konsel (Roma), Franz Wohlfahrt (VfB Stuttgart), Wolfgang Knaller (Austria Vienna).
Defenders: Wolfgang Feiersinger (Borussia Dortmund), Martin Hiden (Leeds United), Walter Kogler (Cannes), Anton Pfeffer (Austria Vienna), Peter Schottel (Rapid Vienna).
Midfielders: Andreas Heraf (Rapid Vienna), Andreas Herzog (Werder Bremen), Dietmar Kuhbauer (Real Sociedad), Roman Mahlich (Sturm Graz), Gilbert Prilasnig (Sturm Graz), Hannes Reinmayer (Sturm Graz), Markus Schopp (Sturm Graz) Peter Stoger (LASK Linz), Arnold Wetl (Rapid Vienna), Heimo Pfeifenberger (Werder Bremen).
Forwards: Ivica Vastic (Sturm Graz), Harald Cerny (TSV 1860 Munich), Mario Haas (Sturm Graz), Anton Polster (Cologne).
Coach: Herbert Prohaska.
THE pressure on the hosts is going to be enormous, and not having had to play qualifying matches was a double-edged gift. But this looks to be a fine French side. Whether they can match up to the great 1984 European Championship-winning team of Platini and Tigana only the next few weeks will tell. Their coach, Aime Jacquet, has decided not to use Nicolas Anelka alongside Christophe Dugarry but has brought back the Bayern Munich defender Bixente Lizarazu and Patrick Vieira. The French performance in Euro 96, reaching the semi-finals, was encouraging but the need to find consistent goalscorers is still there. When South Africa visited Lens last October they frustrated the French who secured a 2-1 win only late in the game. The form this season of Zinedine Zidane for Juventus has often been unconvincing, though sometimes sensational, and France will be expecting his link with Youri Djorkaeff, of Internazionale, to provide the core of the side. Equally important, though, will be the ball- winner, Didier Deschamps. As for the all-important use of young players, the obvious one is David Trezeguet who has been impressive for Monaco this season. That Emmanuel Petit may not be able to gain a midfield place in the team and Tottenham's David Ginola has not even been considered indicates the skill in the squad.
Likely hero: Zinedine Zidane. First-choice, first-class, Italy-hardened midfield man at his peak.
Achilles' heel: Lack of competitive preparation.
Goalkeepers: Fabien Barthez (Monaco), Bernard Lama (West Ham), Lionel Charbonnier (Auxerre).
Defenders: Lilian Thuram (Parma), Laurent Blanc (Olympique Marseille), Marcel Desailly (Milan), Vincent Candela (Roma), Bixente Lizarazu (Bayern Munich), Franck Leboeuf (Chelsea).
Midfielders: Didier Deschamps (Juventus), Alain Boghossian (Sampdoria), Zinedine Zidane (Juventus), Christian Karembeu (Real Madrid), Robert Pires (Metz), Patrick Vieira (Arsenal), Emmanuel Petit (Arsenal), Bernard Diomede (Auxerre).
Strikers: Stephane Guivarc'h (Auxerre), Thierry Henry (Monaco), David Trezeguet (Monaco), Youri Djorkaeff (Internazionale), Christophe Dugarry (Olympique Marseille).
Coach: Aime Jacquet.
IT WAS only six years ago that South Africa played their first full international match. Even qualifying for the finals is an achievement, but one that was heralded two years ago when they won the African Nations' Cup on home ground. They recently finished as runners-up in the same competition. A tour of Europe last year included a match against England before which it had been predicted that they would prove their ability to become the first African country to win the World Cup. The boast seemed premature, but they only lost 2-1 at Old Trafford. Disappointing performances in the Confederations Cup in Saudi Arabia led to the resignation of Clive Barker. The South African FA eventually persuaded Philippe Troussier to sign up. Although he has trawled Europe looking for players who have previously slipped through the net, he insisted that he would only include those who had been playing first-team football. That represents no problem for the Bolton defender Mark Fish and the talented Leeds player Lucas Radebe who are amongst the outstanding members of the squad. The question is whether South Africa will be able to score goals at this highest of levels. Benedict McCarthy scored seven in the last African Nations' finals and Phil Masinga has been successful for Bari.
Likely hero: Benedict McCarthy. Big attacking hope.
Achilles' heel: Inexperience.
Goalkeepers: Hans Vonk (Heerenveen), Brian Baloyi (Kaizer Chiefs), Andre Arendse (Fulham).
Defenders: Themba Mnguni (Mamelodi Sundowns), David Nyathi (St Gallen), Willem Jackson (Orlando Pirates), Mark Fish (Bolton Wanderers), Lucas Radebe (Leeds United), Pierre Issa (Marseille).
Midfielders: Quinton Fortune (Atletico Madrid), Alfred Phiri (Vanspor), John Moshoeu (Fenerbahce), Helman Mkhalele (Kayerispor), Brendan Augustine (LASK Linz), Delron Buckley (VfL Bochum,), Doctor Khumalo (Kaizer Chiefs), Lebogang Morula (Vanspor), Naughty Mokoena (Manning Rangers).
Strikers: Phil Masinga (Bari), Shaun Bartlett (Cape Town Spurs), Jerry Sikhosana (Orlando Pirates), Benedict McCarthy (Ajax).
Coach: Philippe Troussier.
FOR all the experience of their coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, who was in charge of Brazil's 1994 World Cup-winning side, Saudi Arabia will be in France more for experience than rewards. Yet much the same was said of them when they went to the United States four years ago and got to the second round after beating Morocco and Belgium. The sight of Saeed Al-Owairan dribbling past what seemed like the entire Belgian team and scoring an astonishing goal was a highlight. The Saudis have had eight national coaches since then. In spite of that, they hauled themselves through a difficult qualifying section in which they had to overcome Iran, China, Qatar and Kuwait. A German coach, Otto Pfister, guided them through the last tough match against Iran but he was not considered to have a big enough name internationally, and Parreira was taken on. This will be his fourth World Cup finals. Clearly the Saudis will be attempting to play in a Brazilian style and that was evident in their goalless draw with England at Wembley where only their finishing cost them victory. Al-Owairan is back in the squad after an 18-month ban for being caught at a drinks party. If he makes the side he will play alongside Sami Al- Jaber who is good enough to win a place in one of Europe's top teams. Khalid Al-Muwalid, the top scorer in qualifying, should impress in midfield.
Likely hero: Khalid Al-Muwalid. Goalscoring midfield organiser who impressed last time.
Achilles' heel: Oil money can't buy everything.
Goalkeepers: Mohammed Al-Deayea (Al-Tae), Hussein Al-Sadiq (Al- Qadisiyah), Tisir Al-Antaif (Al-Ettifaq).
Defenders: Mohammed Al-Jahani (Al-Ahli), Mohammed Al-Khilaiwi (Al-Ittihad), Abdullah Zubramawi (Al-Ahli), Ahmad Madani (Al-Ittihad), Hussein Sulimani (Al-Ahli), Ahmed Al-Dossari (Al-Hilal), Abdulaziz Al-Janoubi (Al-Nasr).
Midfielders: Fuad Amin (Al-Shabab), Ibrahim Al-Shahrani (Al-Ahli), Khamis Al-Owairan (Al-Hilal), Ibrahim Al-Harbi (Al-Nasr), Khalid Al-Muwalid (Al- Ahli), Hamzah Saleh (Al-Ahli), Nawaf Al-Temiyat (Al-Hilal).
Forwards: Sami Al-Jaber (Al-Hilal), Fahad Al-Mehallel (Al-Shabab), Youssef Al-Thyniyan (Al-Hilal), Saeed Al-Owairan (Al-Shabab), Obeid Al-Dossari (Al-Wehda).
Coach: Carlos Alberto Parreira.
DENMARK have proved in the past that they should never be underestimated, but having one of the world's best goalkeepers, Peter Schmeichel, and the talented Laudrup brothers, Michael and Brian, does not guarantee progress through an awkward group. Brian Laudrup suggested that a recent defeat by Norway was good for Denmark because it took away some of the pressure that the public has put on them. They are a useful, though less exciting side than the European Championship-winning one of six years ago. They have gone back to a 4-4-2 system which seems to suit them and could make them difficult to beat. The midfield, based on Tottenham's Allan Nielsen and Bolton's Per Frandsen, is not particularly creative but provides more scoring opportunities than the forwards seem capable of actually taking. There are hopes that Ebbe Sand, a prolific scorer with Brondby, could come in at the last minute and overcome the striking dilemma. The Swedish-born coach, Bo Johansson, has a good record since he took over from Richard Moller Nielsen following Euro 96 and has brought back a sense of enjoyment. The smiles could be replaced, though, if Denmark progress through to the second round and again find themselves up against their familiar footballing foes, Spain, who beat them in the 1984 and 1988 European Championships and the 1986 and 1994 World Cups.
Likely hero: Brian Laudrup. Still one of the smartest and quickest ball players in the world.
Achilles' heel: Spain.
Goalkeepers: Peter Schmeichel (Manchester United), Mogens Krogh (Brondby), Peter Kjaer (Silkeborg).
Defenders: Jes Hogh (Fenerbahce), Marc Rieper (Celtic), Rene Henriksen (AB Copenhagen), Soren Colding (Brondby), Michael Schjonberg (FC Kaiserslautern), Jan Heintze (Bayer Leverkusen), Jacob Laursen (Derby), Thomas Helveg (Udinese).
Midfielders: Stig Tofting (MSV Duisburg), Per Frandsen (Bolton), Allan Nielsen (Tottenham Hotspur), Morten Wieghorst (Celtic), Bjarne Goldbaek (FC Copenhagen), Michael Laudrup (Ajax), Martin Jorgensen (Udinese).
Forwards: Miklos Molnar (FC Seville), Peter Moller (PSV Eindhoven), Brian Laudrup (Rangers), Ebbe Sand (Brondby).
Coach: Bo Johansson.
THE great underachievers of world football set out with fear of the worst in their hearts once again. Javier Clemente, who was sent to Ipswich to learn his trade under Bobby Robson when he was put on the coaching staff at Athletic Bilbao, has dubbed Group D "the group of death". "It is the highest quality group, the most difficult," Spain's Basque coach maintains. "I always said we would have to watch out for the Africans in France and we have to play Nigeria, the best of them. We have no easy games. Paraguay are almost on a par with Colombia. It would be a mistake to underestimate them." It will hardly inspire his countrymen that Clemente is in such a pessimistic mood. Always one to err on the side of caution, his decision to ignore the youthful verve of Raul for Euro 96 was blamed for Spain's failure to reach the final four. Two years on, and with an unbeaten run of 30 matches behind him, Clemente will be looking to Raul and his Real Madrid team-mate Fernando Morientes to provide a sharper cutting edge in France. He will also have Fernando Hierro, Real's star in the European Cup final and the man whose surname so aptly translates as "iron", blunting opposition threats in a deep-lying midfield anchor role.
Likely hero: Raul, with his pace and sharpness, could be a star in France.
Achilles' heel: Coach Clemente's preoccupation for playing it safe.
Goalkeepers: Andoni Zubizarreta (Valencia), Santiago Canizares (Real Madrid), Jose Molina (Atletico Madrid).
Defenders: Albert Ferrer (Barcelona), Miguel Angel Nadal (Barcelona), Sergi Barjuan (Barcelona), Abelardo Fernandez (Barcelona), Fernando Hierro (Real Madrid), Rafael Alkorta (Athletic Bilbao), Ivan Campo (Mallorca), Carlos Aguilera (Atletico Madrid), Agustin Aranzabal (Real Sociedad).
Midfielders: Luis Enrique Martinez (Barcelona), Guillermo Amor (Barcelona), Albert Celades (Barcelona), Julen Guerrero (Athletic Bilbao).
Strikers: Raul Gonzalez (Real Madrid), Alfonso Perez (Real Betis), Joseba Etxeberria (Athletic Bilbao), Juan Pizzi (Barcelona), Kiko Narvaez (Atletico Madrid), Fernando Morientes (Real Madrid).
Coach: Javier Clemente.
WALTER WINTERBOTTOM prophesied that an African team would win the World Cup by the end of the century. The Super Eagles will determine whether he was a mere Mystic Meg or a seer in the Nostradamus class. Nigeria struck Olympic gold two years ago in Atalanta and their captain and chief inspiration in that competition, Nwankwo Kanu, is happily back in their fold. The Internazionale player is one of several striking assets that the coach Bora Milutinovic has at his disposal. The 1997 African Footballer of the Year Victor Ikpeba, of Monaco, the lightning-quick Tijani Babangida, of Ajax, and the old Evertonian Daniel Amokachi, now of Besiktas, are also in the Yugoslavian coach's squad. Add to that the attacking qualities of defenders like Chelsea's wing-back, Celestine Babayaro, and Inter's Taribo West, and it is clear that they will be one of the competition's most entertaining sides. Milutinovic is likely to be a key figure himself. Appointed in April, he has coached Mexico, Costa Rica and the United States in the World Cup finals, but this time he will have a richer reserve of talent at his disposal. He will also have a happy squad too, having won over his squad by making the players' wives welcome in France. "A month of abstinence would have been bad for them," he reasoned. Scoring, then, is unlikely to be a problem.
Likely hero: Nkwanko Kanu's story-book comeback.
Achilles' heel: Too much scoring, perhaps?
Goalkeepers: Peter Rufai (Deportivo La Coruna), Willy Okpara (Orlando Pirates), Abiodun Baruwa (FC Sion).
Defenders: Celestine Babayaro (Chelsea), Jero Shakpoke (Reggianna), Uche Okechukwu (Fenerbahce), Taribo West (Internazionale), Benedict Iroha (San Jose Clash), Augustine Eguavoen (Torpedo Moscow), Godwin Okpara (Strasbourg), Uche Okafor (Kansas City Wizards).
Midfielders: Nwankwo Kanu (Internazionale), Mutiu Adepoju (Real Sociedad), Austin Okocha (Fenerbahce), Garba Lawal (Roda Kerkrade), Sunday Oliseh (Ajax), Wilson Oruma (Lens).
Forwards: Finidi George (Real Betis), Rashidi Yekini (FC Zurich), Tijani Babangida (Ajax), Daniel Amokachi (Besiktas), Victor Ikpeba (Monaco).
Coach: Bora Milutinovic.
THE surprise qualifiers from South America have a Brazilian coach, Paulo Cesar Carpeggiani, and the potential star of the whole World Cup show - Jose-Luis Chilavert calls himself "the best goalkeeper in the world". He also calls the dead-ball shots for his team. With 32 goals, five this far for his country, Chilavert is the highest-scoring goalkeeper in modern football history and he has one goal for France 98. "I want to write my name in the record books," he says. "No goalkeeper has ever scored in the World Cup finals." Chilavert has never been one to pull punches. Four years ago he was handed a three-month suspended jail sentence for thumping a ball boy in Argentina. And last year he raced from his goal to trade blows with Faustino Asprilla, who was sitting by the dug-out at the time. So he will have to keep his temper in check to stay on the World Cup stage long enough to get his goalscoring chance. Chilavert apart, Carpeggiani would appear to have a dearth of world-class players at his disposal. But the man who guided his Brazilian club Flamengo to a World Club Championship victory against Liverpool in 1981 could spring a surprise or two with his unknown quantities.
Likely hero: Jose-Luis Chilavert, the goalkeeper with the goalscoring power.
Achilles' heel: Chilavert getting caught upfield or in a brawl.
Provisional: Goalkeepers: Jose-Luis Chilavert (Velez Sarsfield), Ruben Ruiz (Monterrey), Danilo Aceval (Union).
Defenders: Francisco Arce (Palmeiras), Celso Ayala (River Plate), Carlos Gamarra (Corinthians), Juan Carlos Villamayor (Atletico Celaya), Catalino Rivarola (Gremio), Juan Ramon Jara (Rosario), Arnaldo Espindola (Internacional), Ricardo Rojas (Estudiantes).
Midfielders: Estanislao Struway (Coritiba), Roberto Acuna (Real Zaragoza), Jorge Alcaraz (Cerro Porteno), Harles Boudier (Union), Hugo Brizuela (Argentinos Juniors), Julio Cesar Romero (Luqueno), Gustavo Sotelo (Guarany).
Strikers: Jose Cardozo (Necaxa), Derlis Soto (Guarany), Arisitides Rojas (Union), Hugo Ovelar (Cerro Porteno), Miguel Benitez (Espanyol).
Coach: Paulo Cesar Carpeggiani.
FRANCE 98 may prove to be a World Cup too far for the surprise stars of USA 94. Hristo Stoichkov is still in the ageing squad, but Yordan Lechkov, the hero of the 3-2 quarter-final victory over Germany four years ago, has finally been dropped by the coach Hristo Bonev. Signs of rust were evident in the European Championship two years ago when the Bulgars failed to survive their group stage. Bonev, appointed in the aftermath of Euro 96, has toyed with changes in recent months. National heroes have been dropped - among them Lechkov, Trifon "Wolfman" Ivanov and Emil Kostadinov - but his hopes of success in France still depend on the old guard rising to the big occasion. At least it will be no hair-raising experience for Boris Mihailov. He may have failed to pull up any trees in his time at Elm Park, but the former Reading goalkeeper has pulled off the not-so-sweet "syrup" that once adorned his polished pate. Stoichkov has to face the bald truth too. In six months, he has slipped down the ladder from Barcelona to the Yokahama Flugels, via CSKA Sofia and Al-Ansar of Saudi Arabia. At 32, this could be his last chance to grasp a top-level rung.
Likely hero: Hristo Stoichkov, if he can emerge as an old master.
Achilles' heel: Time and the tide, if Stoichkov and his fellow veterans fail to turn back the clock.
Goalkeepers: Zdravko Zdravkov (Istanbulspor), Borislav Mihailov (Slavia Sofia).
Defenders: Radostin Kishishev (Bursaspor), Trifon Ivanov (CSKA Sofia), Gosho Ginchev (Antalyaspor), Adalbert Zafirov (Arminia Bielefeld), Milen Petkov (CSKA Sofia), Ivailo Petkov (Litex Lovech), Rosen Kirilov (Litex Lovech).
Midfielders: Zlatko Yankov (Besiktas), Ivailo Yordanov (Sporting Lisbon), Krassimir Balakov (VfB Stuttgart), Anatoli Nankov (Lokomotiv Sofia), Daniel Borimirov (TSV 1860 Munich), Ilian Iliev (Bursaspor), Stoicho Stoilov (Litex Lovech).
Strikers: Hristo Stoichkov (CSKA Sofia), Emil Kostadinov (CSKA Sofia), Luboslav Penev (Compostela), Marian Hristov (Kaiserslautern), Georgi Ivanov (Levski Sofia), Georgi Bachev (Slavia Sofia).
Coach: Hristo Bonev.
DUTCH World Cup preparations are usually characterised by shaky form on the field and damaging rows off it, but this time it has been different. All is harmony within Guus Hiddink's camp and their qualification campaign has been consistently impressive, a 1-0 defeat in Turkey the only real blip. Even Edgar Davids, sent home during Euro 96 after accusing Hiddink of racism, has been recalled, following an outstanding season with Juventus although he may struggle to break into a settled team. The fact that the likes of Overmars, Davids and Pierre van Hooijdonk are regarded primarily as back-up indicates the strength of a team with a genuine chance of winning the tournament. The de Boer twins remain key elements of defence and midfield, Frank partnering Manchester United's new recruit Jaap Stam at the heart of the back four. A midfield of Ronald de Boer, Clarence Seedorf, Wim Jonk and Phillip Cocu looks hard to match, a remark that could equally be applied to the forward pairing of Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Kluivert. The Dutch have qualified four times since World War Two and each time have been eliminated by the eventual champions - twice as losing finalists but also by Germany in 1990 and Brazil in 1994. Winning Group E, which they should, would have the added benefit of enabling them to avoid the Germans in round two.
Likely hero: Dennis Bergkamp, fitness permitting.
Achilles' heel: Inclined to fall out among themselves.
Goalkeepers: Edwin van der Sar (Ajax), Ed de Goey (Chelsea), Ruud Hesp (Barcelona).
Defenders: Frank de Boer (Ajax), Winston Bogarde (Barcelona), Arthur Numan (PSV Eindhoven), Michael Reiziger (Barcelona), Jaap Stam (PSV Eindhoven), Ferdi Vierklau (Tenerife).
Midfielders: Ronald de Boer (Ajax), Giovanni van Bronckhorst (Feyenoord), Phillip Cocu (PSV), Edgar Davids (Juventus), Wim Jonk (PSV Eindhoven), Clarence Seedorf (Real Madrid), Aron Winter (Internazionale).
Forwards: Dennis Bergkamp (Arsenal), Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink (Leeds United), Pierre van Hooijdonk (Nottingham Forest), Patrick Kluivert (Milan), Marc Overmars (Arsenal), Boudewijn Zenden (PSV Eindhoven).
Coach: Guus Hiddink.
HAVING been well beaten twice by Holland in qualifying, it can be assumed that the Dutch will be too good again, in which case Belgium will probably have to overcome Mexico in order to reach the second round, which they have done four times before. The omens for them doing so, however, are not good given that they lost to the Mexicans in 1970 and 1986. Their coach, George Leekens, in charge for only a year, has been hard-pressed to find players of quality, which probably accounts for the controversial recall of the 37-year-old midfielder Franky Van der Elst, who had not played for his country since announcing his international retirement in 1994. Van der Elst will be appearing in his fourth finals. Leekens has also been required to mend fences with the playmaker, Enzo Scifo, who threatened not to play for Leekens again after being left out of a friendly against the USA. After their experience in USA 94, they have special reason for wanting to take on Germany in the second round, which they probably will if they finish second. A goal in the 65th minute by the Newcastle defender, Philippe Albert, earned a famous victory over the Dutch four years ago but after losing their next match to Saudi Arabia they were required to meet Germany after having only two days' rest and were unlucky to lose the game 3-2.
Likely hero: Luc Nilis whose two goals eliminated the Republic of Ireland in a play-off.
Achilles' heel: An ageing squad.
Goalkeepers: Filip de Wilde (Anderlecht), Dany Verlinden (Club Bruges), Philippe Vande Walle (Eendracht Aalst).
Defenders: Vital Borkelmans, Eric Deflandre (Club Bruges), Bertrand Crasson (Napoli), Gordan Vidovic (Excelsior Mouscron), Eric Van Meir (Lierse), Glen De Boeck (Anderlecht), Philippe Clement (Racing Genk), Mike Verstraeten (Germinal Ekeren).
Midfielders: Danny Boffin (FC Metz), Nico Van Kerckhoven (Lierse), Franky Van der Elst, Lorenzo Staelens, Gert Verheyen (Club Bruges), Enzo Scifo (Anderlecht).
Forwards: Emile Mpenza, Mbo Mpenza (Standard Liege), Luc Nilis (PSV Eindhoven), Marc Wilmots (Schalke 04), Luis Oliveira (Fiorentina).
Coach: Georges Leekens.
THIS is South Korea's fourth appearance in the finals but they have yet to win a match. Indeed, the sensational victory over Italy pulled off by their northern neighbours in 1966 remains the only success by a Korean side. It is a good thing, therefore, that expectations are modest - indeed, back home in Seoul, a better performance than Japan, with whom they will co-host the 2002 finals, will be enough to spark celebrations. "Our aim in France is to win a game," said their coach, Cha Bum-Kun. "Because we are hosting the next World Cup it will be better for our reputation if we can just do that." In 1994, there were signs of improvement. After holding Spain and Bolivia to draws, they gave Germany a scare, fighting back gallantly to lose 3-2 after being 3-0 down. Their sweeper, Hong Myung- Bo, who plays with J-League club Bellmare Hiratsuka and was one of the scorers against the Germans, returns in pursuit of his 100th cap. Preparation has been mixed. They topped their qualifying group with Japan finishing behind them, but subsequently lost to Japan in the four-nation Dynasty Cup. Bum-Kun, who scored 98 goals in a 10-year career in the Bundesliga and played in the 1986 finals, is regarded as South Korea's finest player.
Likely hero: Hong Myung-Bo, the best South Korean player of his generation.
Achilles' heel: Lack of winning experience.
Goalkeepers: Kim Byung-Ji (Ulsan Hyundai), Seo Dong-Myung (Sangmoo).
Defenders: Choi Young-Il (Pusan Daewoo), Hong Myung-Bo (Bellmare Hiratsuka), Kim Tae-Young (Chunnam Dragons), Lee Min-Sung (Pusan Daewoo), Jang Dae- Il (Ilhwa Chunma), Lee Sang-Hun (Anyang LG), Jang Hyung-Seok (Ulsan Hyundai), Lee Im-Saeng (Puchon SK).
Midfielders: Ha Seok-Ju (Creza Osaka), Yoo Sang-Chul (Ulsan Hyundai), Kim Doh-Keun (Chunnam Dragons), Choi Sung-Yong (Sangmoo), Seo Jung-Won (Strasbourg), Ko Jong-Soo (Suwon Bluewings), Lee Sang-Yoon (Ilhwa Chunma), Noh Jung-Yoon (Breda).
Forwards: Kim Do-Hoon (Kobe Vissel), Hwang Sun-Hong (Pohang Steelers), Choi Yong-Soo (Sangmoo), Lee Dong-Kook (Pohang Steelers).
Coach: Cha Bum-Kun.
ONLY Brazil, Germany, Italy and Argentina have played in more finals but Mexico have never progressed beyond the last eight, suffering through geographical location as much as anything, with a paucity of quality opposition in Central and North America. Traditionally, Mexican teams have not travelled well - they have not won any of the nine World Cup matches they have played in Europe. Their quarter-final appearances both came on home soil, in 1970 and 1986. However, it is 32 years since they last appeared in the final stages in Europe and failure to beat South Korea, which would nevertheless be a major shock, would probably precipitate another change of coach given the Mexican federation's recent record. Even though Mexico finished top of their group in the Concacaf final round, coach Bora Milutinovic was dismissed on the grounds of unimpressive form, being replaced by Manuel Lapuente. Lapuente has picked only 13 of the 40 players used by Milutinovic but won the Concacaf Gold Cup in America, when a goal from the Claudio Caniggia-lookalike, Luis Hernandez, secured a 1-0 win over USA in the final. Hernandez finished ahead of Ronaldo in the scoring charts for last year's Copa America.
Likely hero: Luis Hernandez, the Hugo Sanchez of the modern era.
Achilles' heel: Three coaches in four and a half years.
Provisional: Goalkeepers: Jorge Campos (UNAM Pumas), Oswaldo Sanchez (America), Oscar Perez (Cruz Azul).
Defenders: Pavel Pardo (Atlas), Salvador Carmona (Toluca), Isaac Terrazas (America), Claudio Suarez (Guadalajara), Duilio Davino (America), David Oteo (UNAM Pumas), Joel Sanchez (Guadalajara).
Midfielders: German Villa (America), Ramon Ramirez (Guadalajara), Jaime Ordiales (Toluca), Marcelino Bernal (Monterrey), Braulio Luna (UNAM Pumas), Alberto Garcia Aspe (America), Paulo Cesar Chavez (Guadalajara).
Strikers: Luis Garcia (Atlante), Luis Hernandez (Necaxa), Ricardo Pelaez (America), Cuauhtemoc Blanco (Necaxa), Francisco Palencia (Cruz Azul).
Coach: Manuel Lapuente.
COULD this be the World Cup in which the Germans at last turn out to be fallible after all? Given their history of three wins and six appearances in the final they can never be discounted but the current German team have many more question marks against them than have accompanied most of their successful predecessors. He may be bluffing, of course, but their coach, Berti Vogts, believes his ageing squad have been riding their luck since Euro 96. Even though they won their qualifying group with an unbeaten record, Vogts was unimpressed. He has little confidence in doing better than 1994 when defeat in the quarter-finals was regarded as a catastrophe. The successful campaign extended Germany's astonishing record to 54 World Cup qualification matches with only one defeat, but Vogts frets when he recalls coming from behind in half of their 10 games and owing two victories to hat-tricks by players who had started on the bench. However, German spirit, self-confidence and sense of timing should never be underestimated and while the inclusion of 37-year-old, Lothar Matthaus and continued reliance on the recently erratic Jurgen Klinsmann smacks of limited options, the potency of Oliver Bierhoff and commanding generalship of Andreas Moller demand the utmost respect.
Likely hero: Oliver Bierhoff, 27 goals in Italy in the season just ended and six in qualification.
Achilles' heel: Too many thirtysomethings.
Goalkeepers: Oliver Kahn (Bayern Munich), Andreas Kopke (Olympique Marseille), Jens Lehmann (Schalke 04).
Defenders: Markus Babbel (Bayern Munich), Thomas Helmer (Bayern Munich), Jurgen Kohler (Borussia Dortmund), Lothar Matthaus (Bayern Munich), Stefan Reuter (Borussia Dortmund), Olaf Thon (Schalke 04), Christian Worns (Bayer Leverkusen).
Midfielders: Steffen Freund (Borussia Dortmund), Thomas Hassler (Karlsruhe SC), Dietmar Hamann (Bayern Munich), Jorg Heinrich (Borussia Dortmund), Jens Jeremies (TSV 1860 Munich), Andreas Moller (Borussia Dortmund), Michael Tarnat (Bayern Munich), Christian Ziege (Milan).
Strikers: Oliver Bierhoff (Udinese), Ulf Kirsten (Bayer Leverkusen), Jurgen Klinsmann (Tottenham Hotspur), Olaf Marschall (Kaiserslautern).
Coach: Berti Vogts.
FAMILIAR names abound in coach Steve Sampson's roster and the continuing presence of veterans Eric Wynalda, Marcelo Balboa, Cobi Jones, Roy Wegerle and Alexi Lalas might be taken as an indication that new talent is thin on the ground in the United States despite the growing popularity of Major League Soccer. But Sampson will also unveil a crop of young players that includes defenders Eddie Pope and Frankie Hejduk and midfielders Chad Deering and Brian Maisonneuve, bringing the average age down to 28 and, Sampson believes, creating a balance of youth and experience that could carry his side through to the second round, perhaps even the third. That may be wishful thinking, given a group that sets before them not only the tough hurdles of Germany and Yugoslavia but a politically-charged meeting with Iran. However, after losing all three first-stage games in 1990 they confounded sceptics by reaching the second round four years ago. USA made heavy weather of qualifying, winning only half of their 16-match programme and remaining unsure of success until a 3-0 win in Canada in the penultimate match. Nonetheless, they defeated Brazil 1-0 in the semi-final of the Concacaf Gold Cup in February and can draw encouragement from that despite losing to Mexico in the final.
Likely hero: Kasey Keller, outstanding last line of defence.
Achilles' heel: Probably too tough a group.
Provisional: Goalkeepers: Kasey Keller (Leicester City), Brad Friedel (Liverpool), Jurgen Sommer (Columbus Crew).
Defenders: Alexi Lalas (NY/New Jersey MetroStars), Marcelo Balboa (Colorado Rapids), Mike Burns (New England Revolution), Eddie Pope (Washington DC United), Jeff Agoos (Washington DC United), Dave Regis (Karlsrhue).
Midfielders: Thomas Dooley (Columbus Crew), Claudio Reyna (VfL Wolfsburg), Cobi Jones (Los Angeles Galaxy), Chad Deering (VfL Wolfsburg), Preki Radosavljevic (Kansas City Wizards), Brian Maisonneuve (Columbus Crew), Frankie Hejduk (Tampa Bay Mutiny), Tab Ramos (NY/New Jersey MetroStars).
Strikers: Eric Wynalda (San Jose Clash), Roy Wegerle (Tampa Bay Mutiny), Brian McBride (Columbus Crew), Joe-Max Moore (New England Revolution), Ernie Stewart (NAC Breda).
Coach: Steve Sampson.
THIS is Yugoslavia's first appearance in a major tournament since Italia 90 because of the war in the Balkans, which led to their exclusion from the 1992 European championship finals and from the qualifying competitions for both USA 94 and Euro 96. Even so, the new team of Serbs and Montenegrins - Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia and Slovenia all have their own teams now - is not short of talent and appears to be running into form at the right time, having crushed Hungary by a spectacular 12-1 aggregate in a qualification play-off. Slobodan Santrac's squad includes established stars such as the Italy-based Vladimir Jugovic and Dejan Savicevic as well as the burgeoning talents of the young midfielder Dejan Stankovic, who will leave Red Star for Lazio after scoring twice on his debut against South Korea. Much attention will focus on the striker Predrag Mijatovic after his goal in Amsterdam won the European Cup for Real Madrid. Santrac says that if his team cannot defeat USA and Iran they do not deserve to be in the finals, mindful perhaps of a record of four World Cup defeats in five matches against Germany. After England, Yugoslavia were the team most seeded nations wished to avoid. However, history shows they arrived at the finals of 1974 and 1982 with high expectations only to fall well short.
Likely hero: Predrag Mijatovic, feted in Madrid after his goal against Juventus rekindled European glory for Real.
Achilles' heel: Historical tendency towards stage fright.
Goalkeepers: Ivica Kralj (Partizan Belgrade), Dragoje Lekovic (Sporting Gijon).
Defenders: Zoran Mirkovic (Juventus), Goran Djorovic (Celta Vigo), Miroslav Djukic (Valencia), Sinisa Mihajlovic (Sampdoria), Nisa Saveljic (Bordeaux), Slobodan Komljenovic (MSV Duisburg), Zeljko Petrovic (Urava).
Midfielders: Dragan Stojkovic (Grampus Eight), Dejan Savicevic (Milan), Slavisa Jokanovic (Tenerife), Dejan Govedarica (Lecce), Vladimir Jugovic (Lazio), Branko Brnovic (Espanyol), Dejan Stankovic (Red Star Belgrade), Ljubinko Drulovic (Porto), Miroslav Stevic (TSV 1860 Munich).
Forwards: Predrag Mijatovic (Real Madrid), Savo Milosevic (Real Zaragoza), Darko Kovacevic (Real Socieded), Perica Ognjenovic (Red Star Belgrade).
Coach: Slobodan Santrac.
THE team least popular with Terry Venables after ending Australia's qualification dream in Melbourne. Scotland, whom they held to a 1-1 draw in Argentina in 1978, do not remember them with particular fondness either. Their away-goals victory in the Asia-Oceania play-off awarded Iran the last of the 32 places in the finals, much to the amazement of a six-million television audience at home, who felt their chance had been thrown away when Venables' team secured a 1-1 draw from the first leg in front of 130,000 fans in the Iranian capital Tehran. Many predict they will be the first to be eliminated in France although Iranians will not care too much so long as one result goes their way. For political overtones, no first-round match comes close to their clash with the United States, in which victory would be expected to spark wild celebrations in Tehran. It might also improve coach Jahal Talebi's chances of keeping what is quite possibly the most precarious job in world football. Talebi, Iran's fourth coach in just seven months, has only been in charge since 22 May, when a 7-1 defeat against Roma in Italy ended the tenure of the previous coaching incarnation, Tomislav Ivic, who himself had been with the team only since January.
Likely hero: The German-based midfielder, Karim Bagheri, who scored a staggering 17 goals in the qualifying stage.
Achilles' heel: Four coaches in seven months is hardly the foundations for any World Cup success.
Goalkeepers: Ahmadreza Abedzadeh (Pirouzi), Parviz Boroumand, Nima Nakisa (Pirouzi)
Defenders: Mohammad Khakpour (Bahman), Javad Zarincheh (Esteghlal), Mohammad Ali Peyrovani (Pirouzi), Ali Ostad Asadi (Zobe Ahan), Nader Mohammadkhani, Mehdi Pashazadeh (Esteghlal), Na'eem Saadavi (Pirouzi), Reza Shahroudi (Altay).
Midfielders: Hamid Reza Estili (Bahman), Alireza Mansourian (Esteghlal), Mehdi Mahdavikia (Pirouzi), Sirous Din-Mohammadi (Shahrdahri Tabriz), Sattar Hamedani (Bahman), Mehrdad Minavand (Pirouzi), Karim Bagheri (Arminia Bielefeld).
Forwards: Khodadad Azizi (Cologne), Behnam Seraj, Ali Latifi, Ali Daei (Arminia Bielefeld).
Coach: Jalal Talebi.
THE first to qualify for France 98, Romania would appear to be dangerous outsiders as the impressive evidence of USA 94 illustrated. Then, they took part in the tournament's outstanding game, beating Argentina 3-2 to reach the quarter-finals, only to fall disappointingly to a functional Swedish team. Despite their splendid qualification record, which included winning their first nine games, the Romanians are not quite the force of old. Their's was a sub-standard group and many of their senior players could appear spent forces as the heat of both summer and competition intensifies. Gheorghe Hagi is still around but, at 33, not so central to their game these days. Gica Popescu, formerly of Tottenham, Dan Petrescu and Viorel Moldovan make it a side well-known to English fans. Moldovan may not have impressed initially with Coventry City but with an average of a goal every other game for his country, he will be a threat. In many ways, Romania resemble Colombia with their collection of ageing talents, and they too have the capacity to beat more fancied nations. They may be a team, though, who have reached the end of the road before rebuilding, as the departure of their coach, Anghel Iordanescu, to take charge of Greece after the competition would indicate.
Likely hero: Wing-back, Dan Petrescu, is brimming with confidence after winning two cups with Chelsea.
Achilles' heel: Cavalier attitude. They can't hope again this time to score three if they concede two.
Goalkeepers: Bogdan Stelea (Salamanca), Florin Prunea (Universitatea Cluj), Dumitru Stingaciu (Kocaelispor).
Defenders: Dan Petrescu (Chelsea), Gheorghe Popescu (Galatasaray), Cristian Dulca (Rapid Bucharest), Liviu Ciobotariu (Dinamo Bucharest), Tibor Selymes (Anderlecht), Anton Dobos (AEK Athens), Iulian Filipescu (Galatasaray).
Midfielders: Gheorghe Hagi (Galatasaray), Dorinel Munteanu (FC Cologne), Ovidiu Stanga (PSV Eindhoven), Gabriel Popescu (Valencia), Ilie Dumitrescu (Atlante), Constantin Galca (Espanyol), Lucian Marinescu (Rapid Bucharest).
Forwards: Gheorghe Craioveanu (Real Sociedad), Viorel Moldovan (Coventry), Adrian Ilie (Valencia), Marius Lacatus (Steaua Bucharest), Horia Radu Niculescu (National Bucharest).
Coach: Anghel Iordanescu.
THE Colombians went to the United States four years ago strongly fancied to win the tournament but proved a major disappointment, losing to the host nation and making an unexpected exit at the group stage. A week or so after that humiliation came the tragic assassination of the defender Andres Escobar. One hopes that this time the experience is altogether less painful for them, but their football continues to be linked with drug money and gambling syndicates. With so much going on in the background, how can the national team possibly prosper? Perhaps now the burden of expectation is removed from them, they will perform more freely. Under Hernan Gomez's coaching, Colombia have become a more organised team than they appeared to be in 1994, less reliant on individualism. None the less, they still possess a number of players with outstanding flair and creativity: the dreadlocked Carlos Valderrama, now 36, Faustino Asprilla and Freddy Rincon. Indeed, it remains much the same squad as the one which performed in the USA. However, they are now four years older and they may tire as the competition progresses. Initially, though, as England will be aware, they will retain a dangerous surprise element and shock value.
Likely hero: Hamilton Ricard - Middlesbrough must have paid all that money with good reason, mustn't they?
Achilles' heel: Death threats.
Goalkeepers: Oscar Cordoba (Boca Juniors), Miguel Calero (Atletico Nacional), Farid Mondragon (Independiente).
Defenders: Antonio Moreno (Deportes Tolima), Wilmer Cabrera (Millonarios), Jose Fernando Santa (Atletico Nacional), Jorge Bermudez (Boca Juniors), Ivan Cordoba (San Lorenzo), Everth Palacio (Atletico Nacional).
Midfielders: John Wilmer Perez (America), Jorge Bolano (Atletico Junior), Harold Lozano (Valladolid), Freddy Rincon (Corinthians), Victor Aristizabal (Sao Paulo), Carlos Valderrama (Miami Fusion), Mauricio Serna (Boca Juniors), Andres Estrada (Deportivo Cali).
Strikers: Faustino Asprilla (Parma), Anthony de Avila (Barcelona-Ecuador), Adolfo Valencia (Independiente), Leider Preciado (Santa Fe), Hamilton Ricard (Middlesbrough).
Coach: Hernan Gomez.
BACK IN November, after drawing with Italy in Rome to qualify, England were being touted as among the favourites to win the World Cup. Now, recent results and laboured performances against Chile, Portugal, Saudi Arabia and Morocco have led to doubts about whether they will even make it through the group stage. The reality lies in between and always has done. With one of the best goalkeepers in the competition in David Seaman and one of the most envied strikers, Alan Shearer, in a backbone which also includes the dependable and potentially inspirational Tony Adams and Paul Ince, England should not be disgraced. Whether they then have the quality to go beyond the last 16 is the key question. The Paul Gascoigne of eight years ago would have done the trick, but he has now gone in more senses than one. Perhaps some young gun - David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Michael Owen - will now seize the moment and take a leading role. It is precisely the mix of experience and youth which Hoddle hopes will gel more convincingly once the tournament begins. England will be keen to win the group, otherwise the powerful Argentinians rather than the bickering Croatians could await in the second round. After that a quarter-final with Germany beckons. Here we go again...
Likely hero: Rising star, Michael Owen, has the world at his fleet feet.
Achilles' heel: Possible lack of quality in depth.
Goalkeepers: David Seaman (Arsenal), Tim Flowers (Blackburn), Nigel Martyn (Leeds).
Defenders: Sol Campbell (Tottenham Hotspur), Tony Adams (Arsenal), Martin Keown (Arsenal), Rio Ferdinand (West Ham), Gareth Southgate (Aston Villa), Gary Neville (Manchester United), Graeme Le Saux (Chelsea).
Midfielders: Darren Anderton (Tottenham Hotspur), David Beckham (Manchester United), Robert Lee (Newcastle United), Steve McManaman (Liverpool), Paul Ince (Liverpool), David Batty (Newcastle United), Paul Merson (Middlesbrough), Paul Scholes (Manchester United).
Forwards: Alan Shearer (Newcastle United), Les Ferdinand (Tottenham Hotspur), Teddy Sheringham (Manchester United), Michael Owen (Liverpool).
Coach: Glenn Hoddle.
TUNISIA'S qualification is testament to their Polish coach, Henry Kasperczak, who took over in 1994 after a dismal showing at the African Nations' Cup they hosted. Two years later, they finished runners-up in South Africa and they have reached France with seven wins from eight games, including the defeats of Egypt and Liberia. That said, they are considered to be the weakest of the five African qualifiers and are expected to be the whipping boys of the group. In 1978, they became the first African country to win a game at a World Cup finals when they beat Mexico. They also drew with West Germany but such a record this time would be a major achievement. Among those likely to catch the eye are Zoubeir Beya and Mehdi Ben Slimane, who both play for Freiburg in Germany. Beya is the central midfield figure, though he was dropped for petulance before the quarter-finals of this year's African Nations, when they lost on penalties to the hosts Burkina Faso. Ben Slimane does not live up to his name, being a weighty, though tricky, winger. Enthusiasm is likely to serve the Tunisians well initially but lack of expertise, for all Kasperczak's organisational skills, should eventually tell against them.
Likely hero: Adel Sellimi, scorer of four goals in the qualifying stage.
Achilles' heel: Goalkeeper - Ali Boumnijel has been the man in possession, but the fact that he failed a trial with West Ham does not inspire confidence.
Goalkeepers: Chokri Ouaer (Esperance), Ali Boumnijel (Bastia), Radhouane Essalhi (Etoile Sportive du Sahel).
Defenders: Tarek Thabet, Khaled Badra (Esperance), Farid Chouchane, Jose Clayton, Mounir Boukadida (Etoile Sportive du Sahel), Hatem Trabelsi, Sami Trabelsi (Club Sportif Sfaxien), Sabri Aballah (Club Africain).
Midfielders: Kaies Ghodbani, Riadh Ouazizi (Etoile Sportive du Sahel), Faycal Ben Hmid, Siraj Eddine Chihi (Esperance), Zoubeir Beya (Freiburg), Skander Souayah (Club Sportif Sfaxien).
Strikers: Imed Ben Younes, Riadh Jlassi (Etoile Sportive du Sahel), Mehdi Ben Slimane (Freiburg), Mourad Malki (Olympique), Adel Sellimi (Jaen).
Coach: Henri Kasperczak.
CAN Argentina really be going into a World Cup without the Hand of God on their shoulder for the first time since 1978? That was when a teenage Diego Mardona watched on from the sidelines. At 37, he could possibly have been in France bar his fondness for recreational activities. In spite or because of Maradona's absence, Argentina are rated by many as favourites to win the Cup for the first time since 1986. And their coach, Daniel Passarella, should know how to do it having lifted the world's most famous trophy as captain in 1978. In the class of 1998 there will be Ariel Ortega, their new No 10, who is a creative goalscorer of extraordinary ability as he showed against Ireland earlier this year. Gabriel Batistuta, Argentina's all-time top scorer, goes to France on the back of another good season with his Italian side Fiorentina. Argentina beat Brazil in April and Pasarella's love of discipline should keep their minds from swelling too much. He has banned long hair, earrings and homosexuality in his squad - the former being the reason for the Real Madrid midfielder Redondo's continued absence from the side. The 1994 finals were a disaster when they collapsed after Maradona failed a drugs test - they could make the rest of the world look like dopes this time.
Likely hero: Gabriel Batistuta - full of goals and a temperament to rise to the greatest occasion.
Achilles' heel: Egos and haircuts could still block their vision.
Goalkeepers: Carlos Roa (Mallorca), German Adrian Burgos (River Plate), Pablo Cavallero (Velez Sarsfield).
Defenders: Nestor Sensini (Parma), Roberto Ayala (Napoli), Javier Zanetti (Internazionale), Jose Chamot (Lazio), Pablo Paz (Tenerife), Nelson Vivas (Lugano), Hector Pineda (Udinese).
Midfielders: Diego Simeone (Internazionale), Matias Almeyda (Lazio), Juan Sebastian Veron (Sampdoria), Leonardo Astrada (River Plate), Marcelo Gallardo (River Plate), Sergio Berti (River Plate), Ariel Ortega (Valencia).
Strikers: Gabriel Batistuta (Fiorentina), Claudio Lopez (Valencia), Marcelo Delgado (Racing Club), Hernan Crespo (Parma), Abel Balbo (Roma).
Coach: Daniel Passarella.
THE co-hosts of the next finals are four years ahead of schedule having now qualified for their first World Cup and can expect a massive travelling support in France. Their domestic J-League has produced a number of promising young players and their coach, Takeshi Okada, will go to France with one eye on developing experience for the 2002 finals. That does not explain Japan's recent top-10 Fifa ranking though as they are not expected to go beyond the opening group stage. They do, however, have their own version of Maradona, according to their press, in the midfielder Shinji Ono. There is also the more proven midfield talent of Hidetoshi "Hide" Nakata, a playmaking matchwinner, and the goal power of Masashi Nakayama. The young forward scored four consecutive hat-tricks in the league last season. In his quest for a more youthful approach, Okada was unafraid to ruffle some football feathers, particularly in his decision to leave out the 100-plus cap experience of his captain, Kazuyoshi Miura, who scored 15 qualifying goals, and also had useful European experience having played for the Italian club side Genoa. And the team dubbed the fastest in football do not want to disappoint this summer having reached France by a tortuous route involving three sections of qualifying games and a golden-goal play-off win over Iran to finally get them through.
Likely hero: Teamwork, team spirit, pace and stubborn refusal to accept defeat.
Achilles' heel: Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi - dodgy keeper.
Goalkeepers: Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi (Marinos), Seigo Narazaki (Flugels), Nobuyuki Kojima (Bellmare).
Defenders: Masami Ihara (Marinos), Norio Omura (Marinos), Yutaka Akita (Kashima), Naoki Soma (Kashima), Akira Narahashi (Kashima), Toshihide Saito (Shimizu), Eisuke Nakanishi (JEF United).
Midfielders: Motohiro Yamaguchi (Flugels), Hiroaki Morishima (Cerezu), Hiroshi Nanami (Jubilo), Takashi Hirano (Grampus 8), Hidetoshi Nakata (Bellmare), Toshihiro Hattori (Jubilo), Shinji Ono (Urawa RD), Teruyoshi Ito (Shimizu).
Forwards: Shoji Jo (Marinos), Masayuki Okano (Urawa RD), Wagner Lopes (Bellmare), Masashi Nakayama (Jubilo).
Coach: Takeshi Okada.
SUPPORTERS of the Reggae Boyz intend be the first ever to rival Brazil's samba squad for noise, colour and fun on the terraces. Their manager, Reni Simoes, thinks they will play like the South Americans too. That is probably because he is a Brazilian himself, and he makes his prediction even though his 250-1 team is rated above only Iran to win the Cup by the bookies. Simoes said: "We play the Brazilian way in that we like to pass the ball and be confident in our approach. The harder stuff is more likely to come from our England-based players." Simoes does have a few English-based players to choose from including Derby's Deon Burton - a goalscoring star from the qualifiers - and Daryl Powell, Portsmouth duo Paul Hall and Fitzroy Simpson, Frank Sinclair of Chelsea fame, Wimbledon midfielder Robbie Earle and his team-mate Marcus Gayle. His homegrown stars include names such as Theo Whitmore, a silky midfielder, and defender Gregory Messam. Jamaica are the first English-language Caribbean side to qualify for the finals and the government declared a national holiday when they earned their place with a draw against Mexico. The island will never recover if they get through their group, but that is improbable.
Likely hero: "Neon" Deon Burton scored four crucial qualifying goals and will be expected to get more.
Achilles' heel: A lack of experience at this level.
Provisional: Goalkeepers: Warren Barrett (Violet Kickers), Aaron Lawrence (Reno), Donovan Ricketts (Harbour View).
Defenders: Frank Sinclair (Chelsea), Dean Sewell (Constant Spring), Ian Goodison (Olympic Gardens), Clifton Waugh (Black Star), Durrant Brown (Waddadah), Steve Malcolm (Seba), Donald Stewart (Real Mona), Linval Dixon (Hazard), Ricardo Gardner (Harbour View), Gregory Messam (Harbour View).
Midfielders: Chris Dawes (LA Galaxy), Theo Whitmore (Seba), Robbie Earle (Wimbledon), Fitzroy Simpson (Portsmouth), Daryl Powell (Derby), Peter Cargill (Harbour View), Winston Griffiths (Hazard).
Strikers: Onandi Lowe (Impact Montreal), Paul Hall (Portsmouth), Andrew Williams (Real Mona), Deon Burton (Derby County), Marcus Gayle (Wimbledon), Steve Green (Tivoli Gardens).
Coach: Rene Simoes.
ANOTHER nation about to lose their World Cup virginity and they expect to do it in style with their manager, Miroslav Blazevic, already boasting about their chances of reaching the final. But only the country is new; they have an experienced group of proven international stars ranging from the captain, Zvonimir Boban, and fellow midfielder Robert Prosinecki to the forward Davor Suker. Add Robert Jarni, Slaven Bilic and Igor Stimac and you have an impressive spine to the side. Before the civil war, most of them played for Yugoslavia's winning team in the 1987 World Youth Cup, and little has changed in terms of expectations, which remain high. Quarter- finalists in Euro 96, Croatia needed a play-off against Ukraine to get to France and stories of discontent among the leading players have been heard loud and clear from their camp - especially after they lost a "friendly" against the Croatian reserve side. Blazevic has attempted to gee-up his stars from Real Madrid, Parma, Juventus and Milan by placing an emphasis on Croatian-based players in recent warm-ups, but he can be expected to turn to his established men when the heat is really on. According to him, that will be in the final against France.
Likely hero: Zvonimir Boban - a playmaker with vision to see Croatia through their group.
Achilles' heel: An arrogance born of individual strengths could cause a lack of team unity.
Provisional: Goalkeepers: Drazen Ladic (Croatia Zagreb), Marijan Mrmic (Besiktas), Vladimir Vasilj (Hrvatski Dragovoljac).
Defenders: Goran Juric (Croatia Zagreb), Zvonimir Soldo (VfB Stuttgart), Slaven Bilic (Everton), Igor Stimac (Derby County), Dario Simic (Croatia Zagreb), Zoran Mamic (Bochum), Igor Tudor (Hajduk Split), Stjepan Tomas (Croatia Zagreb), Robert Jarni (Real Betis).
Midfielders: Zvonimir Boban (Milan), Robert Prosinecki (Croatia Zagreb), Mario Stanic (Parma), Aljosa Asanovic (Napoli), Silvio Maric (Croatia Zagreb), Krunoslav Jurcic (Croatia Zagreb), Ante Seric (Hajduk Split).
Strikers: Davor Suker (Real Madrid), Alen Boksic (Lazio), Goran Vlaovic (Valencia), Ardian Kozniku (Bastia), Petar Krpan (Osijek).
Coach: Miroslav Blazevic.Reuse content