Herewith, a selective guide to the favorites, dark horses and rank outsiders of the 2002 World Cup, and a few key first-round matchups for which you should set your alarm clock and/or VCR.
Ready for Their Close-up
Arguably, no bigger bunch of prima-donna superstars has ever been assembled on one team -- and never has a nation so desperately craved the diversion of a sporting championship. Argentina's best players, like strikers Gabriel Batistuta and Hernán Crespo or midfielders Juan Sebastián Verón and Diego Simeone, are millionaires who play for top European teams thousands of miles from the social and economic chaos of their homeland. But if anybody can bring together the government and the people, the suffering working class and the hated bankers, they can. This Argentine squad plays stronger defense and is presumably less prone to needlessly dirty play than their notorious forebears. It's an exciting, high-powered team with no obvious weaknesses. But Argentina is in the World Cup's "Group of Death" alongside England, Nigeria and Sweden, any of which is capable of upsetting the South American glamour boys. That grueling first round, along with the weight of an entire nation's unreasonably high expectations (anything short of the Cup will be a disaster in Buenos Aires), may bring down the favorites.
Nobody's expecting much from the most storied team in world soccer this year -- which might be the tonic the boys in gold and green require. Brazil lost six games in qualifying rounds (having previously lost only one since World War II) and had to beat lowly Venezuela in their last qualifier just to make it here. Hardly any fans showed up at the Rio airport to wish their heroes luck. The Brazilian style in recent years has been unrecognizable, with the flowing attack of il jogo bonito ("the beautiful game") replaced by defensive-minded tactical play. Has forward Ronaldo, once viewed as the world's best player, recovered from his four-year meltdown that began at France '98? With Ronaldo and his 22-year-old namesake Ronaldinho in the attack, Rivaldo (of Spain's Barcelona team) and Emerson (of AS Roma in Italy) in the midfield and Real Madrid's devastating Roberto Carlos surging forward from the back, Brazil still has the talent to win it all. But the team's defensive liabilities and ongoing schizophrenia suggest it probably won't.
If anything, the defending champs are better than they were four years ago, when they triumphed on an unexpectedly fluid attacking style and an ecstatic wave of support from the formerly blasé French public. But everything depends on the injured thigh of midfield general Zinédine Zidane, who may look like a balding accountant but has staked his place among the best attacking midfielders the game has ever seen. Zidane will miss France's first-round games against Senegal and Uruguay, neither of which will be as one-sided as you might think. If he comes back strong, I don't think France can be beaten. With Patrick Vieira alongside Zidane in the middle, Thierry Henry and David Trézéguet up top to score goals and a superior defense anchored by Bixente Lizarazu and Marcel Desailly, this is the deepest and most experienced team in the tournament. Their path to the finals won't be easy -- I see them facing Brazil in the quarterfinals and Argentina in the semis -- but the French have the confidence and composure to go all the way one more time.
As George Vecsey of the New York Times recently observed, the Italians have become world soccer's answer to the Boston Red Sox: a perennial second-place team that always seems to fall short when it counts despite ample talent. It says here that nothing changes in 2002. Strangely, coach Giovanni Trappatoni hasn't phoned me for advice, but I think Italy's two-decade-long reliance on bone-crunching, disciplined defensive play has drained the spirit out of its game and left the team unable to compete with the very best attacking opponents. Sure, Paolo Maldini, Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta are three of the best defenders in the world, capable of reducing almost any game to a frustrating hack-fest. But, you know, that isn't really a good thing. For Italy to win, midfielder Francesco Totti and strikers Christian Vieri and Alessandro Del Piero, rather than the bruising back line, will have to make headlines.
Waiting in the Wings
It pains my Irish-American heart at least a little to say this, but this really could be England's year. No, really. OK, maybe not. Swedish coach Sven-Goran Eriksson was a controversial hire (as the first non-Brit to hold the post), but he's instilled a coherence and spirit that's been missing from the English team for a generation. The problem is twofold: Beyond brilliant Manchester United midfielder David Beckham (that's Mr. Posh Spice to fans of girl-pop, circa 1999) and lightning-fast Liverpool forward Michael Owen (who scored the goal of the '98 tournament against Argentina), the English talent is frankly a bit thin. Secondly, trapped in the Group of Death with Argentina, Nigeria and Sweden, England could be ousted in the first round without even playing poorly. Even finishing second in that group won't be a picnic, and whoever manages that will probably draw France in the second round. Toodle-oo, mateys!
Since last lifting the Cup in 1990, Germany has gradually slipped in the world rankings and is no longer considered one of Europe's most dangerous teams. Past heroes like Lothar Matthaüs and Jürgen Klinsmann are gone, and the new generation of German players hasn't risen to the same standard. There is hope, though; attacking midfielder Michael Ballack has emerged, seemingly from nowhere, as the team's sparkplug, and Dietmar Hamann and Jens Jeremies join him in one of soccer's best midfield units. The German defense is strong, as always, but this experienced team lacks scoring punch. The Germans actually have an easy group and should make it at least to the quarterfinals and possibly the semis, a fine result considering their recent woes.
Can one of Western Europe's smallest nations, long a fringe player in world soccer, really hope to claim the grand prize? That probably isn't realistic, but an unusually talented generation of Portuguese stars, led by Real Madrid's Luis Figo and AC Milan's Rui Costa, are poised to take their team much deeper into the tournament than it has ever ventured before. Portugal's defense is arguably not up to the standard of their exciting attack (which also features forwards Pauleta and Sergio Conceiçao), but as the U.S. team is likely to discover on June 5, you can't exploit a weak defense when you're packing 11 players in front of your own net.
Yes, I have picked the Spanish team to go as far as the final and yes, that seems foolhardy in the extreme. Despite breeding some of the best players in the world (and hosting perhaps the world's best professional league), Spain has never placed better than fourth in the World Cup. And that was in 1950. Moody star forwards Raúl and Fernando Morientes, both of Real Madrid, have been down this road before; both virtually disappeared during France '98. Still, it appears that coach José Camacho has allowed his team to play a relaxed, fluid style better suited to its abilities, and the side is certainly brimming with first-class talent, even without suspended midfield star Josep Guardiola. Ivan Helguera, Gaizka Mendieta and Juan Carlos Valeron lend a midfield depth Spain has never previously possessed; they'll have to protect the defense, an unstable blend of green, untested players and older, slower ones.
Hoping for an Audition
This marks the fourth straight World Cup appearance for the Indomitable Lions, the only African team ever to reach the quarterfinals (in 1990). As ever, they offer a potent mix of talent from professional leagues in England, Spain and France: defender Rigobert Song, midfielder Marc-Vivien Foë, forward Patrick Mboma, perhaps Africa's best attacking player. Cameroon plays an engaging style and should survive the group phase (especially considering the Irish team's recent implosion; see below), but that's about it.
The surprise of France '98 -- where this team from the former Yugoslav republic beat Germany and finished third -- remains a sentimental favorite. The Croatians are a collection of crafty vets who still have ample scoring talent in forwards Alen Boksic and Davor Suker. But "crafty vets" is also synonymous with "old and slow," and while Croatia ought to make the round of 16, their bracket puts them in the path of Portugal and Spain.
As teams from Northern Europe go, the Danes aren't all that boring. Really, I mean it. Furthermore, they could be one of the Cup's real surprises if they can survive a group that includes France and Senegal. This is a confident, well-organized club of top-level European pros -- led by midfielder Thomas Helveg of AC Milan and striker Ebbe Sand of Germany's Schalke -- whom everyone seems to have forgotten amid all the glamour-puss teams. If you want to lay a few bucks on a long shot, see what odds you can get on Denmark taking down an overconfident Argentina in the second round. You read it here first.
I was all set to deliver a beery soliloquy on the thrilling new generation of players from my father's homeland, and how they were prepared to take Ireland to its most glorious sporting result in history. The second round beckoned; the quarters were there for the taking; a semifinal berth was possible. Then Manchester United midfielder Roy Keane, the team's heart and soul, indulged in a bout of nasty name-calling with coach Mick McCarthy and caught the next plane home. Sure, there's some veteran leadership left, like goal-poaching forward Niall Quinn and defenders Ian Harte and Steve Staunton, to accompany young studs Mark Kinsella, Damien Duff and Robbie Keane (no relation). But without Captain Roy, the boys in green are out of their depth. A nation mourns. (And don't think I'm kidding about that, either.)
No, they shouldn't be good enough to make much noise in this tournament, not really, despite terrific midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata, who plays for Parma in Italy. But Japan has improved steadily under French coach Philippe Troussier, and playing before 50,000 hysterical home fans in every match won't hurt. Japan has two other fine European-based midfielders in Junichi Inamoto and Shinji Ono, and drew perhaps the tournament's weakest group (with Belgium, Russia and Tunisia). If they can find a way to score goals, don't be shocked if they make it to the second round. Once there, however, they will probably face Brazil.
As usual, there's talent to burn on Africa's deepest team. But the Nigerians also have a reputation as international soccer's biggest chokers, and this year they have the misfortune of joining Argentina, England and Sweden in the Group of Death. Everywhere you look on this roster, there's a star: defender Celestine Babayaro of London's Chelsea, forward Kanu of London's Arsenal, midfielder Jay Jay Okocha of Paris-St. Germain. But given Nigeria's propensity for infighting and grievous defensive lapses, they might not win a game.
This Russian team is experienced, competent across the field and rather dull. Given their placement in the relatively easy Group of Sloth (with Belgium, Japan and Tunisia), the Russians could easily find themselves in the quarterfinals before anybody notices them. Russia can 0-0 and 1-1 you to death with solid defense, ball control and the balanced attack of midfielders Valery Karpin and Alexander Mostovoi and star striker Vladimir Beschastnykh.
New kids on the block always make for fashionable underdogs, and the entertaining Senegalese side upset a series of favored African teams on the way to its first World Cup appearance. The fact is, Senegal may be a great story but the team is weak defensively and has to play France and Denmark in the opening round. Getting here was a terrific accomplishment and for young strikers El Hadji Diouf and Khalilou Fadida -- as for Senegalese soccer as a whole -- the future looks bright.
This is the sleeper squad in the Group of Death that also includes Argentina, England and Nigeria. Sweden plays a defensive, ball-control style based around goalkeeper Magnus Hedman and defensive stopper Patrik Andersson. It's not much fun to watch, but the Swedes allowed only three goals in a 10-game qualifying run. If they can frustrate and shut down the potent offenses of their group opponents -- and Glasgow Celtic striker Henrik Larsson can steal a goal somehow -- Sweden (which has made it to the semifinals three times, after all) could go further than anybody expects.
First-Round Games Not to Miss
ESPN, ESPN2 or ABC will broadcast every World Cup match. But given the 13- to 16-hour difference between Korea/Japan and North America -- which puts most game times somewhere between martini hour and donut time -- some games will be tape-delayed for English-language U.S. broadcast. (As purists already know, Univision will show all games live in Spanish, so in most of the country you can watch the Cup even if you don't have cable.) Check your local listings for further clarification. All times noted are Eastern Daylight time.
France vs. Senegal Friday, May 31, 7:30 a.m.
In the tournament's opening game, the defending champs face their first test, an entertaining underdog team that just happens to be a former French colony. (Leave the Frantz Fanon racial politics out of it; around half the French team is of African descent.)
Ireland vs. Cameroon Saturday, June 1, 2:30 a.m.
An early showdown between two charismatic teams with high hopes. Whoever wins is probably through to the second round. Unhappily, in world soccer that's the perfect prescription for a 0-0 draw.
Argentina vs. Nigeria Sunday, June 2, 1:30 a.m.
These two teams could score 10 goals between them. Argentina will score more.
England vs. Sweden Sunday, June 2, 5:30 a.m. On the other hand, this one's for purists. Likely to be a tactical nail-biter decided by a bad call in the penalty box.
Croatia vs. Mexico Monday, June 3, 2:30 a.m.
Two teams that play attractive, attacking soccer and really have nothing to lose. Ought to be a barn burner.
USA vs. Portugal Wednesday, June 5, 5 a.m.
Showtime for Bruce Arena's young U.S. squad, against a star-studded team with tremendous expectations (that might be looking past this game just a little).
Argentina vs. England Friday, June 7, 7:30 a.m.
The match of the first round and maybe of the entire tournament. The plot is rich and deep: the Falklands war, Argentina's tainted victories in '86 and '98, the two countries' general dislike of each other. (And the fact that the two opposing star midfielders, David Beckham and Juan Sebastián Verón, are teammates at Manchester United.) Even if nobody scores, the atmosphere, the level of play and the fouling will be intense.
Italy vs. Croatia Saturday, June 8, 5 a.m.
The world will want Croatia's squad of crafty but stylish scorers to break down the stifling defense of the Azzurri. Sadly, it won't happen. This also has the smell of a 0-0 draw, but with two teams this theatrical on the field, somebody's likely to get red-carded for faking an injury.
Brazil vs. China Saturday, June 8, 7:30 a.m.
Nobody knows what to expect from the physically imposing, grindingly defensive Chinese team, which is making its first Cup appearance. Nor from the melodrama-plagued Brazilians either, for that matter. Could be deadly dull, could be a classic.
Japan vs. Russia Sunday, June 9, 7:30 a.m.
Well, it's an important and unpredictable game, anyway, involving two nations who don't historically get along. But it's likely to be tedious. Forget I said anything.
South Korea vs. USA Monday, June 10, 2:30 a.m.
The Americans probably have to win this one to advance. In front of a maniacal home crowd in Daegu, that might be asking too much.
Denmark vs. France Tuesday, June 11, 2:30 a.m.
An intriguing matchup that ought to decide the group championship. Zidane should return to the French lineup here, and even if les Bleus have already booked a spot in the second round, there's plenty of incentive to win: The loser probably gets Argentina or England next.
Cameroon vs. Germany Tuesday, June 11, 7:30 a.m.
One of these teams -- and possibly both -- is for real. Cameroon will surely settle for a draw, but the Germans will want to make a statement here.
Nigeria vs. England Wednesday, June 12, 2:30 a.m.
Two tireless, talented sides with big dreams, in a match that ought to mean one goes home and one advances. Of course it could end up being a stinker -- that's the nature of the sport -- but after Argentina-England this is the game to catch.
Mexico vs. Italy Thursday, June 13, 7:30 a.m.
If Italy still needs points and Mexico still has a chance, don't miss this one. This year's Mexican team is a shadow of its high-style former self, but still might be capable of playing the best soccer in the world for 15 minutes at a stretch.
Poland vs. USA Friday, June 14, 7:30 a.m.
OK, by this point this tough, evenly matched game might not matter much (except to the Poles, who have a decent shot at advancing). But in all likelihood it's the Yanks' last chance to go home with good memories.