By Jay Mwamba
After a tumultuous build-up marked by injuries to several top players, the 11th-hour banishment of a possible tournament star, ticket snafus and a nasty power struggle for the FIFA leadership, the 17th World Cup finals kick off in Seoul this Friday.
Cup holders France begin the defense of the crown they lifted in Paris four years ago against Senegal in the opening match of the 32-nation finals, at the 64,000 capacity Seoul World Cup Stadium in the Korean capital.
Sixty-three games and four weeks later, the tournament’s two best teams meet in the final at the Yokohama Stadium in Japan on June 30, in front of 70,000 spectators and a likely global television audience of nearly 2 billion fans.
The drama and anxiety leading into the tournament has been unprecedented in the World Cup’s 70-year history.
Injuries to several top players, including David Beckham, who remains
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doubtful for England, and French m’stro Zinedine Zidane, who will miss the
defending champs’ first two matches, have grabbed headlines.
The incredible dismissal of the incomparable Roy Keane from the Irish squad last week sent shockwaves around the globe and was the biggest Irish World Cup story since the Republic reached the quarterfinals at Italia ’90.
There’s also been the chaotic delay in delivering match tickets to international fans which has dented confidence in Japanese efficiency, and the power struggle in crisis-torn FIFA, which comes to a head in Seoul today with embattled President Sepp Blatter fighting to hold on to power at the federation’s congress.
The action on the field could be just as gripping. Japan/Korea ’02, the first World Cup of the millennium and the first to be co-hosted by two nations appears to be the most open in recent memory.
Traditional powers Brazil and Germany have both struggled mightily since France ’98, Italy are untested after choking against France in the final of Euro 2000, and the notion of the host nation(s) going all the way can be discarded this time.
That leaves Marcelo Bielsa’s Argentine technicians who breezed through the South American qualifiers, and the deep and talented French as the betting favorites ahead of the usual suspects.
What little consideration was given to Ireland’s chances presumably dissipated last week along with Roy Keane’s international reputation, while the United States are viewed along with the likes of Saudi Arabia and Senegal as being there just to make up the numbers.
But what is a World Cup without a surprise team or a string of upsets?
The surprises could start in Group E, where goal difference could be key after the anticipated dogfight between Ireland, Cameroon, Germany and the Saudis for group supremacy.
As significant as Keane’s absence should be, a new Irish star may be born in striker Damien Duff, whose partnership with Robbie Keane more than anything else could determine how far the Republic go.
Five points should be the magic number in the first round and, realistically, Ireland are still strong enough to pick up as much from two draws and a win to advance to the second round.
But with Germany expected to beat Saudi Arabia in their opener, it’s imperative that Ireland avoid defeat against Cameroon or else they’ll be left chasing the frontrunners.
In Group A, France should still be the team to beat even with the loss of playmaker Zidane for the Senegal and Uruguay games. France’s depth is the envy of many coaches. Even with Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet on call, look out for 20-year-old Auxurre striker Djibril Cisse to make a stunning appearance at some point.
Denmark’s experience in high-pressure situations, plus the scoring abilities of Ebbe Sand, could see them accompany the French out of the group.
Spain’s Raul and Co. have their work cut out for them in Group B with Jose Luis Chilavert’s Paraguay and South Africa stirring back to life in recent friendlies. And that is not to mention Slovenia.
Brazil’s quest for a fifth World Cup may hinge on the form of Rivaldo and Ronaldo, who have just come back from knee injuries. The Brazilians are still untested under the outspoken Luiz Felipe Scolari and should thank their lucky stars for the modest challenge posed by Turkey, China and Costa Rico in Group C.
The Bad news for the United States in a Group D expected to be won by Luis Figo’s Portugal is the sudden resurgence of co-hosts Korea, who may not become the first host nation to go out in the first round after all.
Impressive performances against Scotland (4-1), England (1-1), and a 3-2 losing effort against France last weekend have the Koreans on cloud nine going into the finals.
Team USA open against Portugal, and unless Bruce Arena’s men pull a rabbit out of the hat, game two against the Guus Hiddink coached Koreans could boil into a make-or-break affair.
Poland, despite the best efforts of Liverpool goalie Jerzy Dudek and goal
poacher Emmanuel Olisadebe, have had a surprisingly poor run-in and unless they turn it around, could have a short tournament.
And the formbook could be at risk in the much-ballyhooed “Group of Death,” where the Argentines, England, Sweden and Nigeria’s “Super Eagles” collide.
Two weeks ago in Dublin, Ireland got a taste of the capricious nature of the Eagles, whose midfield wizard Austin “Jay Jay” Okocha is making his third finals appearance at age 28.
Even against an old rival laden with quality and class, Nigeria have a good shot at playing spoilers. They’ve met three times before: the Argies stealing a 2-1 victory at USA ’94; a 0-0 tie at the Confederations Cup in 1995, and Nigeria’s 3-2 triumph in the gold medal match at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
Ariel Ortega, Hernan Crespo, Javier Zanetti and Diego Simeone are some of the current Argentine squad members that were in Atlanta.
For Sven Goran Erikkson the best result against Sweden for his fragile English side on Sunday is an injury-free outing. England haven’t beaten Sweden in over 30 years and unless they can find a way to stop the hot
Fredrik Ljungberg and Celtic goal machine Henrik Larsson, Eriksson’s problems will continue to mount.
To their credit, England have a deep pool of strikers with Michael Owen, Darius Vassel, Robbie Fowler, Emile Heskey and Teddy Sheringham all capable of making their fanatical fans forget the doubtful David Beckham once the action starts.
Group G is for Italy to lose. Coach Giovanni Trappatoni may have lost forward Filippo Inzaghi for Monday’s start against Ecuador and a question mark hangs over highly rated Francesco Totti. But in the rugged Australian-bred Christian Vieri, Alessandro del Piero, and Vincenzo Montella
he has an ample supply of attacking talent, while Alessandro Nesta should shore up the backline.
Mexico, led by CuauhtTmoc Blanco and Alberto Garcia Aspe, appear to have the legs and know-how to pip Croatia, their first day foes on Monday, for second place, with Ecuador there for the experience only.
Japan, the other co-hosts, don’t kick off until next Tuesday against a weakened Belgium side in what is a relatively weak, albeit, close Group H.
It’s a good bet that Japan’s meticulous four-year build up under Frenchman Philippe Troussier and the skills of Shinji Ono and Hidetoshi Nakata should suffice to see them through to the Round of 16 with either Russia or Belgium along for the ride, and Tunisia left in the cold.