World Cup fever will be in the air today as most of the 32 finalists face testing preparatory matches across Europe and the Americas.
For tri-state fans, the action doesn’t get any closer than Giants Stadium at the Meadowlands in New Jersey, where Ecuador, headed for Group G with Italy, Mexico and Croatia, tackle Bulgaria tonight.
The United States, sans injury-plagued skipper Claudio Reyna, are in Rostock for their first match in the unified Germany, while in Dublin another courageous captain, Roy Keane, will be conspicuous by his absence against Denmark at Lansdowne Road.
Keane, the heart and soul of Mick McCarthy’s Irish warriors, is nursing a hip injury. Mark Kennedy has also been ruled out and Lee Carsley, Andy O’Brien and Gary Breen were all forced to withdraw.
Equally, there was more disappointment for McCarthy when it was revealed that promising young striker Richard Sadlier will miss the World Cup because of a hip problem, while full-back Stephen Carr’s participation is also in doubt.
Claiming top billing among today’s friendlies is the England-Italy clash at Leeds United’s Elland Road ground. Both countries are considered outside favorites to lift the championship.
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Northern Ireland versus Liechtenstein in Vaduz is the only match between non-World Cup qualifiers today.
The rest of the midweek friendlies are (home team first): Brazil vs. Yugoslavia, Croatia vs. Slovenia, Portugal vs. Finland, France vs. Scotland, Holland vs. Spain, Greece vs. Belgium, England vs. Italy, and Turkey vs. South Korea.
Saudi Arabia ended a run of poor results in their World Cup build up by edging fellow finalists South Africa 1-0 in the Italian town of Pistoia last Wednesday. Former Asian Player of the Year Nawaf al-Temyat scored in the 62nd minute for the Arabs, who still have a lot more work to do before discarding the tag of potential whipping boys in Ireland’s Group E.
South Africa were playing their first match under new coach Jomo Sono, who replaced Carlos Queiroz two weeks ago.
Bafana Bafana, who are drawn in Group B with Paraguay, Slovenia and Spain, return to the drawing board today against Georgia in Tbilisi.
Midfielder Kazuyuki Toda earned Japan a remarkable win over credible opposition with the only goal of the match against Ukraine in Osaka.
He flicked the ball into the net in the 28th minute to give Japan’s French coach, Philippe Troussier, a pleasant 47th birthday gift at the Nagai Stadium.
The friendly also marked the international debut of Japan’s Brazilian-born Alessandro “Alex” Santos.
Japan’s next game is against Poland today.
For the first time in the finals, FIFA will conduct blood tests on players to detect drugs that enable muscles to work harder. This follows incidents at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, where five athletes tested positive for banned substances.
“Salt Lake City demonstrated that traditional doping products such as anabolic steroids and amphetamines are on the decline,” said Michel D’Hooghe, chairman of FIFA’s medical commission.