Stage is set for the finest to flourish

Glenn Moore, Football Correspondent, believes this World Cup has the potential to be one of the greatest tournaments
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The Independent Online
FRANCE is obsessed with strikers as it opens the World Cup this week. The national team does not appear to have one but there could be thousands among the national workforce.

Should this situation continue, France 98, already troubled by ticket distribution, could prove even more chaotic and unloved than the Atlanta Olympics. Yet if the transport strikes can be resolved the balance could quickly shift and this could be a great World Cup, both for the lucky few attending in the flesh and the millions watching on television.

Those present need France to play well and work well. Outside Marseilles and Lens, football in France is a pastime, not a passion. Yet a measure of success for Les Bleus and la patrie could be transformed into a Gallic version of England during Euro 96. Add in the many reasons why France is the most visited country in the world and it should be a pleasure being across the Channel this summer.

This, though, is dependent on the tournament not being marred by terrorism, hooliganism or activism. The first two are genuine concerns but there have been immense resources, across Europe, devoted to preventing them. The third threat is not a violent one but, in a World Cup programme ludicrously designed to keep everyone on the move, could be very aggravating. To keep the peace the French government, having already spent pounds 650m on stadiums and infrastructure, are likely to cough up a few francs more to resolve the strike problem.

Those restricted to television viewing have less to worry about, aside from domestic arguments over the remote control. Many kick-off times are good for British audiences: there are plenty of matches at weekends and the tournament, instead of being "live and exclusive" on Sky, is live and free on terrestrial television. This may be the last World Cup to be available for nothing more than the licence fee and both BBC and ITV are making the most of it.

ITV have the heavyweight panellists but they also have advertisements. The BBC have tradition and Des Lynam. However, they may also have rather too much World Cup realism, with technicians threatening to hold their own strike and black out World Cup programmes.

Although the expansion to 32 teams will inevitably result in a lowering of quality, the presence of a gifted Brazilian team, with a genuine superstar in Ronaldo, gives the competition a real chance. Fifa's new ruling could see a number of games reduced to farce by red cards and a few injustices inflicted by poor referees, but it should also allow the many exciting players to flourish.

Along with Ronaldo, Edmundo, Denilson and Roberto Carlos, this is a stage for Gabriel Batistuta, Faustino Asprilla, Alessandro Del Piero, Marc Overmars, Marcelo Salas, Zinedine Zidane and many others. Paul Gascoigne, Gianfranco Zola, Romario and Juninho may be missing but there is no shortage of players to watch.

A few of these are British and Paul Scholes, Michael Owen or Kevin Gallacher could find themselves among those footballers, like Toto Schillaci and Roger Milla, who come to international prominence in the World Cup. Both England and Scotland do have cause for optimism, although the best performance would probably be achieved with English players and Scottish coaching.

Craig Brown's thoughtful, pragmatic management has created a decent team from predominantly ordinary players. Gallacher and John Collins will not look out of place in the highest company, the central defence is solid and Jim Leighton apparently ageless. The problem, as ever, is scoring goals.

This is one of England's strengths, as is stopping them. This ought to be the basis for a good team and, as the friendly with Portugal showed, it is better to be good in the two areas than to shine from box-to-box but not inside them.

However, midfield is a problem. Having centred his team on Paul Gascoigne, Glenn Hoddle was left in limbo when his talisman self-destructed and he has very little time left to formulate a new strategy. The brief reversion to 4-4-2, in his final warm-up match, underlined the uncertainty in an England camp which cannot have benefited from the spotlight put on the involvement of the faith healer Eileen Drewery and the coach's constant promotion of her.

Previous campaigns have illustrated that winning teams often evolve through tournaments rather than start them. In 1966, England tried John Connolly, Terry Paine and Ian Callaghan in successive matches before dispensing with the idea of wingers. Geoff Hurst, meanwhile, did not come into the team until the quarter-finals.

In 1974 West Germany lost to East Germany early on. Four years later Argentina lost to Italy. Both finished winners, as did Italy, in 1982, after scrambling through the first round with three draws. Only then did Paolo Rossi set the team alight.

This time around the winning team may be, as Paul Durkin suggested, the ones who top the Fair Play League. It will also be a team with stamina. France is a big country and, unlike in Euro 96, most of the venues are on the periphery. England will travel more than 2,500 miles in the group stages alone. This is partly because they have based themselves on the Atlantic coast and opted to fly in and out of each venue, though several teams will do the same. For bad fliers like Paul Merson, progress will have its drawbacks. Dennis Bergkamp, meanwhile, will be praying there is not a truck drivers' blockade.

The number of foreign players who, like Bergkamp, play in the Premiership is a bonus. The many familiar names will add interest and knowledge to games. Watch France v Denmark and see how often Franck Leboeuf is caught out of position. Or see how Denmark's defenders react to Peter Schmeichel's "encouragement." Croatia v Yugoslavia: Will Slaven Bilic be sent off? Which advertising board will Savo Milosevic hit?

That match, which would be even more politically fraught than Iran v US, is a possible quarter-final pairing. If it happens it will mean England are probably out because they would have had to beat either Germany or Argentina to stay in. The feeling persists that, as so often, England will lose to the first really good team they meet. With Scotland unlikely to go past a possible second-round tie with Italy, the winners are likely to come from the usual suspects - Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy - plus France and Spain.

However, England do have an asset only Brazil and Argentina, of that sextet, can match, a proven international goalscorer at the peak of his game. In a World Cup of red cards and golden goals the strikers should be the key.

Our team for the World Cup

Glenn Moore

Our Football Correspondent will be following England and covering all the major games

Jack Charlton

The 1966 World Cup winner and former Ireland manager begins a series of articles today

Ken Jones

will be covering his ninth World Cup and will comment on all the major issues

Ray Wilkins

played 84 times for England and is an acknowledged expert on international football

Eamon Dunphy

is one of football's most respected writers. He begins a series of articles tomorrow

Pat Nevin

The former Scotland winger is one of British football's most perceptive players

Phil Shaw

will follow Scotland as they try to progress beyond the first round for the first time

Andy Martin

is an experienced observer of France and will watch as the host nation welcomes the world

Andrew Longmore

will report from matches

and the team camps across the whole of France

Stan Hey

will follow the tournament on television and observe the battle of the pundits

John Lichfield

Our Paris Correspondent will watch as France stages the world's greatest sporting event

David Ashdown

Our award-winning Chief Sports Photographer will follow England and all the major teams

Glenn Moore's predictions

Winners: Brazil

Last eight: Brazil v Spain, Italy v France, Netherlands v Argentina, Germany v England

Dark horses: Chile, Nigeria

Scotland: First round

England: Quarter-finals

Top scorer: Ronaldo

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