Two of the leading candidates meet in Paris tonight: Ronaldo, of Brazil, widely accepted as the game's best striker, and England's Alan Shearer, arguably his leading rival.
While neither player is likely to follow Maradona in 1986 and virtually win the World Cup on their own both will be key figures if Brazil or England are to triumph. More than ever goalscorers are a pre- requisite of success at the top level.
"You need that cutting edge to win the World Cup in the modern game," Glenn Hoddle said as England prepared in Versailles yesterday. "Any team can build a side with good organisation and technique but it is not enough."
France's performances in the Tournoi de France prove this. Technically adept and well-structured, they have a clutch of outstanding players but no goalscorer. In attack they are choosing from Nicolas Ouedec, Christophe Dugarry, Patrice Loko and Florian Maurice, strikers who have 10 goals in 54 matches between them. Alan Shearer alone has surpassed that in his last 11 internationals.
Ronaldo, meanwhile, is coming back to his best after being distracted by contract and transfer negotiations. His goal in Sunday night's spectacular in Lyon was quite brilliant, as was his pass in a claustrophobic penalty area to set up Romario's equaliser.
Franck Leboeuf, who has watched both Shearer and Ronaldo from the French bench in this tournament, said: "They are both outstanding players in different ways. Shearer is more intelligent, he is always in the right place. Ronaldo has more power, pace and skill."
The pair met this year at the World Player of the Year Awards in Lisbon (Ronaldo was first, Shearer third). "We chatted through his interpreter for a couple of hours," Shearer said. "He was very level-headed, very down to earth. He is so young and he has already played for possibly the biggest club in the world.
"He is very strong, very pacy. He has a good first touch and he can go past three or four players from the half-way line and put it in the net. Romario is more deceptive: he has a few flicks and the arrogance of a great player. He has been around and is very street-wise."
Shearer would not compare himself with the Brazilian as he is "not happy taking about myself", but Hoddle was only too glad to praise his striker. "He has got everything, even the right temperament," the England coach said. "Until he does it at the highest level [a World Cup] you have to reserve judgement, but he is up there with the best.
"Both he and Ronaldo are very single-minded. They just want to put the ball in the net. If you look through the history of football the great strikers like Muller and Lineker had that. They can score all types of goals, with the head, left foot, right foot, close in, from outside the box. And they are still young enough to improve."
Hoddle appeared to overlook Ronaldo and Shearer's ability to provide goals as well but he has a lot on his mind. Italy were torn apart in Lyon and Hoddle said: "It is interesting for me as a coach to see if we can defend properly against the best offensive side in the world."
Not that England, their confidence high, will be over-defensive. They recognise that to have any chance of winning they will have to attack as they are unlikely to keep Brazil out. "Brazil have an Achilles' heel," Hoddle said. "They have a reluctance to defend."
Ankle problems kept Shearer and David Seaman out of training yesterday but both are expected to play. The only selection doubt is who replaces the suspended David Beckham: Rob Lee, who is still suffering from a toe injury, David Batty, whose tackling could be a liability and who has a groin strain, or the promising but inexperienced Paul Scholes.
After Sunday's effort Brazil will see who is fully fit, but given the little-known Denilson's brilliance they will be strong whoever plays. Mauro Silva is suspended.
"If we had lost the first two matches the world champions would have been the last team you wanted to play," Hoddle said, "but we are now wondering if we can match them. The belief is growing, we have respect. I sometimes think people give Brazil too much respect, as if they are from another planet."
For 30 minutes on Sunday night out of this world was the only description of their football. With England on cloud nine someone has to come down to earth tonight.
The beautiful team, page 26
Southampton: 158 games, 43 goals
Blackburn: 171 games, 142 goals
Newcastle: 40 games, 28 goals
Honours: 1995 (Blackburn): Premiership champions. 1997 (Newcastle): Premiership runners-up
34 appearances, 16 goals
Southampton to Blackburn pounds 3.3m
Blackburn to Newcastle pounds 15m
1994: Footballer of the Year
1995: PFA Player of the Year
RONALDO LUIZ NAZARIO DE LIMA
Height: 1.83m. Weight: 77kg. Age: 20
Social Ramos: 12 games, 8 goals
Sao Cristovao: 54 games, 36 goals
Cruzeiro: 60 games, 58 goals
PSV Eindhoven: 56 games, 55 goals
Barcelona: 38 games, 33 goals
Honours: 1995 (PSV): Dutch championship runners-up; 1996 (PSV): Dutch Cup winners; 1997 (Barcelona): European Cup-Winners' Cup winners
17 appearances, 10 goals
Honours: 1994: Member of World Cup winning squad (but did not play); 1995: Runner-up in Copa America; 1996: Olympic bronze medal
Cruzeiro to PSV pounds 5m
PSV to Barcelona pounds 13m
1997: FIFA World Player of the Year
ENGLAND V BRAZIL: 10 OF THE BEST
May 9, 1956 (Wembley): England 4 Brazil 2
Tommy Taylor and Colin Grainger both score twice in first meeting with Brazil, but the visitors score through a Roger Byrne own goal and Didi. Nerves are stretched further when John Ateyo and Byrne both miss penalties for England.
June 11, 1958 (Gothenburg) World Cup finals: England 0 Brazil 0
England reach the quarter-finals of the World Cup in Sweden but return home with the knowledge that they held the eventual champions to a draw.
June 10, 1962 (Vina del Mar) World Cup finals: England 1 Brazil 3
Garrincha scores twice and Vava once as Brazil progress towards another World Cup triumph in Chile.
May 30, 1964 (Rio): Brazil 5 England 1
The last time England conceded five goals in an international, just two years before Sir Alf Ramsey's men succeed Brazil as world champions.
June 7, 1970 (Guadalajara) World Cup finals: England 0 Brazil 1
Gordon Banks makes arguably the best save ever to deny Pele. England are unlucky to lose to Jairzinho's strike as Jeff Astle misses an open goal.
June 8, 1977 (Rio): Brazil 0 England 0
England ensure they leave Rio unbeaten for the first time in four attempts.
June 10, 1984 (Rio): Brazil 0 England 2
John Barnes scores a spectacular goal to send England on the way to their only victory on Brazilian soil. Mark Hateley nets the second.
March 28, 1990 (Wembley): England 1 Brazil 0
Gary Lineker's strike gives England their last victory over Brazil.
May 17, 1992: (Wembley): England 1 Brazil 1
Gary Lineker's penalty miss wrecks his chance of equalling Sir Bobby Charlton's all-time England goalscoring record of 49. David Platt secures a draw after Bebeto puts Brazil ahead.
June 11, 1995 (Wembley) Umbro Cup: England 1 Brazil 3
Graeme Le Saux scores a fine goal, but Juninho sparkles with a spectacular free-kick while Ronaldo and Edmundo are also on the mark.
England v Brazil: played 18, won 3, drawn 7, lost 8, for 16, against 25.Reuse content