WORLD CUP: GROUP H

ANY country that beats the France 98 favourites has to be taken seriously, and Argentina secured their first success in Brazil for 28 years when they won 1-0 in Rio last month. If luck travels with them, a third World Cup in six tournaments is a possibility.

This is 1AD for the Argentines - the first World Cup since 1978 without Diego Maradona - but the threat that centred on his flawed genius has now spread. Ariel Ortega, Juan Sebastian Veron, Matias Almeyda and Gabriel Batistusta all have it within them to be the outstanding player of the tournament and, ominously for 2002, the first three are 24 or younger.

Only their defence, which lacks height and a truly outstanding goalkeeper, undermines their potential but, on form lines, they will arrive in the second round fresh from a relatively simple group phase. It would take a brave betting man to back either Japan or Jamaica surprising them.

The same applies to Croatia, who arrive in France as the youngest country but, conversely, bring one of the oldest squads. Much will depend on how much an emerging nation's natural urgency to make their mark can compensate for ageing limbs over a potential seven matches in 23 days.

No team can be complacent against Davor Suker, however, and if Slaven Bilic, Goran Juric and Igor Stimac can recreate the red-checkered fortress of times past, a quarter-final place would be the least of their ambitions.

Which is not how you would describe the prospects of Jamaica, whose reputation as Britain's favourite "other" team will not survive close scrutiny if they repeat the dirge of a draw they managed against Manchester City. On that occasion, and in another 0-0 bore against Wales, they looked too prone to surrender possession and vulnerable to high balls. Only a 0-0 draw against Brazil and a reputation for being obdurate offer reason for optimism.

At least the Japanese should not provide too many height problems for the Jamaicans; the question is whether they will pose any problems at all. Like Jamaica, this is their first World Cup and a record of only three wins in eight matches in their second qualifying stage does not suggest this will be a dazzling debut.

Still, the former Iranian coach, Valdeir Vieira, described them as "the fastest team in the world" and a squad that includes a sprinkling of teenagers holds hope for four years' time, when the tournament will be partly played in... Japan.

ARGENTINA

Previous appearances: 11 (1930, 1934, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994)

Best performances: Winners: 1978, 1986. Runners-up: 1930, 1990

Record: P52, W26, D9, L17

1 Carlos Roa Mallorca

2 Roberto Ayala Napoli

3 Jose Chamot Lazio

4 Hector Pineda Udinese

5 Matias Almeyda Lazio

6 Roberto Sensini Parma

7 Claudio Lopez Valencia

8 Diego Simeone Internazionale

9 Gabriel Batistuta Fiorentina

10 Ariel Ortega Valencia

11 Juan Veron Sampdoria

12 German Burgos River Plate

13 Pablo Paz Tenerife

14 Nelson Vivas Lugano

15 Leonardo Astrada River Plate

16 Sergio Berti River Plate

17 Pablo Cavallero Velez Sarsfield

18 Abel Balbo Roma

19 Hernan Crespo Parma

20 Marcelo Gallardo River Plate

21 Marcelo Delgado Racing Club

22 Javier Zanetti Internazionale

Coach: Daniel Passarella

WATCH OUT FOR...

The 29-year-old Fiorentina forward has scored more goals (38) than any other player - including Diego Maradona - for Argentina. He has long been regarded as one of the best strikers plying his trade in the demanding arena of Italy's Serie A. Yet he was by no means a regular for his country during the qualifying campaign. Passarella favoured the young Parma striker, Hernan Crespo. He said that Batistuta and Crespo were too similar to be able to work together, and called up Valencia's Claudio Lopez. So, if Batistuta does win a place in the starting XI in France, he will have a point to prove. Expect fireworks...

CROATIA

Previous appearances: None

1 Drazen Ladic Croatia Zagreb

2 Petar Krpan Osijek

3 Anthony Seric Hajduk Split

4 Igor Stimac Derby County

5 Goran Juric Croatia Zagreb

6 Slaven Bilic Everton

7 Aljosa Asanovic Napoli

8 Robert Prosinecki Croatia Zagreb

9 Davor Suker Real Madrid

10 Zvonimir Boban Milan

11 Silvio Maric Croatia Zagreb

12 Marjan Mrmic Besiktas

13 Mario Stanic Parma

14 Zvonimir Soldo VfB Stuttgart

15 Igor Tudor Hajduk Split

16 Ardian Kozniku Bastia

17 Robert Jarni Real Betis

18 Zoran Mamic VfL Bochum

19 Goran Vlaovic Valencia

20 Dario Simic Croatia Zagreb

21 Krunoslav Jurcic Croatia Zagreb

22 Vladimir Vasilj Hrvatski Dragovoljac

Coach: Miroslav Blazevic

WATCH OUT FOR...

The Milan midfielder, then the youngest captain in Dynamo Zagreb's history, should have been part of the Yugoslav squad at the 1990 World Cup. He was banned from the team, though, for kicking a policeman to protect a fan from baton-charging police in an infamous aborted League match with Red Star Belgrade earlier that year that heralded the end of the Yugoslav football federation. The incident earned him hero status in Croatia, which won independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, and made him a natural choice for captain of the new-born nation. A consistent and courageous midfielder, he is looking forward to playing in the finals at last.

JAMAICA

Previous appearances: None

1 Warren Barrett Violet Kickers

2 Stephen Malcolm Seba United

3 Christopher Dawes Galaxy Utd

4 Linval Dixon Hazard

5 Ian Goodison Olympic Gardens

6 Fitzroy Simpson Portsmouth

7 Peter Cargill Harbour View

8 Marcus Gayle Wimbledon

9 Andrew Williams Real Mona

10 Walter Boyd Arnett Gardens

11 Theodore Whitmore Seba Utd

12 Dean Sewell Constant Spring

13 Aaron Lawrence Reno

14 Donovan Ricketts Waddadah

15 Ricardo Gardener Harbour View

16 Robbie Earle Wimbledon

17 Onandi Lowe Harbour View

18 Deon Burton Derby County

19 Frank Sinclair Chelsea

20 Darryl Powell Derby County

21 Durrent Brown Waddadah

22 Paul Hall Portsmouth

Coach: Rene Simoes

WATCH OUT FOR...

The talented centre-forward is Jamaica's answer to Paul Gascoigne but, in contrast to the tear-prone Englishman, he is going to France. That looked highly unlikely until the coach, Rene Simoes, had a last-minute change of heart. Notorious for lapses in discipline, Boyd, who has not played for Jamaica since February, paid his own way to New York to support the team in a charity match nine days ago and, after much pleading, managed to persuade Simoes to forgive him. The coach asked the other players to vote on the trip back to Jamaica. Fifteen out of 21 were in favour of Boyd, compared with three out of 22 two weeks earlier. Boyd is, we trust, suitably grateful...

JAPAN

Previous appearances: None

1 Nobuyuki Kojima Bellmare Hiratsuka

2 Akira Narahashi Kashima Antlers

3 Naoki Soma Kashima Antlers

4 Masami Ihara Yokohama Marinos

5 Norio Omura Yokohama Marinos

6 Motohiro Yamaguchi Yokohama Flugels

7 Teruyoshi Ito Shimizu S-Pulse

8 Hidetoshi Nakata Bellmare Hiratsuka

9 Masashi Nakayama Jubilo Iwata

10 Hiroshi Nanami Jubilo Iwata

11 Shinji Ono Urawa Red Diamonds

12 Wagner Lopes Bellmare Hiratsuka

13 Toshihiro Hattori Jubilo Iwata

14 Masayuki Okano Urawa Red Diamonds

15 Hiroaki Morishima Cerezo Osaka

16 Toshihide Saito Shimizu S-Pulse

17 Yutaka Akita Kashima Antlers

18 Shoji Jo Yokohama Marinos

19 Eisuke Nakanishi Jef Utd Ichihara

20 Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi Yokohama M

21 Seigo Narazaki Yokohama Flugels

22 Takashi Hirano Nagoya Grampus Eight

Coach: Takeshi Okada

WATCH OUT FOR...

In 1991 Masashi Nakayama scored a hat-trick at Glanford Park, Scunthorpe, against Great Britain in the World Student Games. That feat probably went virtually un-noticed back home. That was certainly not the case this year, when he hit an astonishing four successive hat-tricks for his club, Jubilo Iwata, a feat believed to be unprecedented in the history of the game. He is a hard-working striker, capable of scoring from any position. Hero- worshipped at Jubilo, where he has a cult following, he was the club's leading scorer last season with 18 goals, which helped his team win the J-League for the first time.

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