A record 32 nations line up for France 98, but only a handful have a hope of winning. In what promises to be an unusually officious tournament, Germany's superior self-discipline can give them a vital edge over Argentina, Brazil, and Italy, who promise to be their main rivals, along with the host nation. Face it, patriots, England have no chance.
The power of the mighty mark on the foreign exchanges has always ensured the majority of the German squad play their football in the Bundesliga and, frankly, 1997-98 was not a great season for the top German division, whose clubs failed to win any of the three major European competitions.
However, in Oliver Bierhoff - who looks an excellent bet at 12-1 to win the Golden Boot award for top goalscorer in the tournament - they have a man who last season scored the most goals since 1961 in Italy's Serie A, the toughest league in the world, as he carried the otherwise ordinary Udinese to the giddy heights of actually challenging Juventus for the title at one stage.
Germany showed they are near peak form as they comprehensively dismissed Colombia 3-1 recently and, despite the presence of the under-rated Yugoslavia, they are expected to make short work of Iran and the United States to win Group F, after which they are expected to eliminate Belgium, England and France en route to victory over Argentina in the final.
Brazil, winners in 1958, 1962, 1970 and 1994, are favourites and, with the brilliant Ronaldo, Denilson, Roberto Carlos and Rivaldo in their ranks, have a better squad than the one that beat Italy on penalties in 1994. However, the South Americans also promise to receive their fair share of red cards. Although they should beat Scotland and Morocco, they will find Norway no pushovers in Group A.
Even though Brazil should eventually win their group and then dismiss Chile and Spain, they may then run into Argentina in the semi-finals. And that might be as far as the defending champions get.
Argentina, winners in 1978 and 1986 and 1-0 winners over Brazil in an unfriendly friendly in Brazil recently, promise to go close again. The side that boasts Batistuta and Ortega should lay low Japan, Jamaica and injury-hit Croatia to win Group H, after which they are expected to knock out Romania, the Netherlands and Brazil en route to the final. However, like Brazil, Argentina are unlikely to get through the tournament without seeing red. By the final they could be hit by suspensions, and that could be their undoing.
Host nations have a good record and France should be no exception. They will keep their cool better than most and with Deschamps, Zidane, Petit, Vieira and Djorkaeff are spoilt for choice in midfield. France should see off Denmark, South Africa and Saudi Arabia to win Group C, after which they might beat Nigeria and Italy before falling to Germany in the semi- finals.
Despite indifferent qualifying form, Italy should have a fair tournament. With Del Piero and Vieri likely to be paired up front, they can be expected to outclass Chile, Cameroon and Austria to win Group B, after which they should eliminate Norway. However, they might go down to France in the quarter-finals.
Spain, with Morientes and Raul up front, should also have a decent run. They should see off Nigeria, Paraguay and Bulgaria to win Group D but, after perhaps beating Denmark, look likely to meet their match in Brazil in the quarter-finals.
In Bergkamp, Overmars and Kluivert, the Netherlands have the men goals are made of, while in Seedorf and Davids they have two of the toughest midfielders around. However, the latter pair take liberties and, although, the Dutch should outclass Belgium, South Korea and Mexico to win Group E, they too are odds-on to suffer from red cards. After perhaps beating Yugoslavia, the Netherlands are expected to go out to Argentina in the quarter-finals.
With Romania plagued by internal disputes and Colombia and Tunisia moderate, England should win Group G. But, with Shearer subdued, Sheringham in decline and Gazza gone, apart from Owen and Seaman, where's the class? England may perhaps knock out Croatia, but it looks like Germany (and curtains) in the quarter-finals.