Argentina has the best credentials

A. VINOD

SOUTH AMERICA may be a continent beset with poverty and hampered by tempestuous political and economic upheavals. But if it is still noticed constantly by people worldwide it is simply because of the natural flair of its footballers to perform in such a creative and artistic fashion.

There is such passion for the game in this continent that it is virtually impossible to imagine South America without football and vice-versa. The game, an intrinsic part of day-to-day Latin American life and culture, has flowered in different playing styles which have time and again served as models for the rest of the world.

The distinct style of the South American players and their innate expressiveness enliven the international scene, while vying for the upper hand against the systematic approach and sound organisation of the defence-based Europeans.

Home of such greats as Pele, Maradona, Garrincha, Didi, Vava, Stabile and Kempes, to name only a few, South America has a football pedigree par excellence. On the flip side, it should be admitted, that at times the passion shared by almost all South Americans for the game degenerates into fanaticism and over-reaction. The 'Battle of Berne' in the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland is a good example of this.

For a continent which only followed Europe in taking up football, the achievements of South American nations on the world stage are indeed incredible. Three countries - Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay - have between themselves won the World Cup, football's prized event, eight out of the total of 16 times that the tournament has been held so far.

In Asia's first World Cup, this 10 nation continent would be represented by five countries - Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Ecuador. The Ecuadorians, are making their debut in the World Cup. They put up a superb show in the qualifiers where they finished ahead of even Brazil, the only four-time winner of the World Cup.

But for once, it would be Argentina which will be leading the South American challenge rather than Brazil, the eternal favourite among football fans the world over. This is because of the fine run that the Argentines enjoyed in the long drawn qualifiers, and from which they emerged the winners with as many as four rounds to spare.

Winner of the World Cup twice - in 1978 at home and in 1986 in Mexico - the virtuoso performance by Argentina in the qualifiers was marked by the consistency of its players. In fact, the talent at the disposal of the Argentine manager, Marcelo Bielsa, reads like a virtual who's who of contemporary international football: Walter Samuel, Kily Gonzalez, Javier Zanetti, Roberto Ayala, Diego Simeone, Hernan Crespo, Claudio Lopez, Pablo Aimar, Ariel Ortega, Juan Sebastian Veron, Claudio Caniggia and Gabriel Batistuta. All these players are used to competing at the very highest level for their clubs every week, either at home or abroad.

But lady luck could have been more generous on these Argentines. They have been drawn alongside England, Nigeria and Sweden in Group F for the first round. And then again, in the same-half of the draw along with holder France and Brazil. Not certainly a mouth-watering prospect for any Argentine camp follower as one false step in the initial league could lead the South Americans into a direct combat with the French in the second round or in any eventuality at the semifinal stage. Provided the French themselves survive a possible contest with the Brazilians in the quarterfinals.

However, to reword a maxim, the tough should get going when the going gets tough. And Argentina undoubtedly looks proficient to go all the way with its players having acquitted themselves well to the 3-3-2-2 system fashioned by Bielsa through the better part of the last three years; retaining the attacking element - so common among all South American teams - but also bringing in a fresh work ethic with telling effect. Refreshing in the system adopted by Bielsa is the free role that he has given to Veron in the midfield, encouraging the Manchester United player to emerge as an engine working on overdrive to create chances for his colleagues upfront.

With Simeone acting as a cover for Veron and Gonzalez and Zanetti left to create havoc from the wings, Argentina could well have the most effective midfield in the World Cup. And in Gabriel Batistuta, in his third World Cup, an equally brilliant forward whose awesome finishing power is legendary by now. His two hat-tricks in USA 94 and France 98 are stand-out feats in the history of the tournament. It is not as if this side is without a weakness. But the perceived frailty in the defence is mostly because Argentina now uses only three defenders instead of the conventional four.

But with Zanetti and Gonzalez always there to backpedal and come to the aid of the defenders, it is difficult to imagine that this Argentine side could be beaten. And if they mix their known talent with discipline in a consistent fashion once again, the Argentines do stand a good chance to crown themselves with glory.

The year 2001 was a very bad one for Brazil. And in losing six of its 18 matches, Brazil came perilously close to missing the World Cup for the first time ever in history. But then, all that looks to be a bad dream now, with the side looking quite transformed with the return of Ronaldo, back to competitive football after a lapse of almost two years due to a recurring right knee injury.

The recent showing against Portugal is a clear indicator of not only the change in fortunes, but also the fact that Brazil has put the hard time that it faced last year - while succumbing to teams such as Honduras, South Korea, Ecuador and Uruguay - behind it quite successfully. The key to Brazilian hopes, however, will be the fitness of Rivaldo, who could be magical when inspired but who seems to be still dogged by a persistent knee problem.

All the same, the Brazilians have been lucky with at least the first part of the draw being paired with China, Costa Rica and Turkey in Group 'C'. Thus a real cake-walk is expected for them here. In the second round the Brazilians are slated to meet the runner-up of Group 'H' comprising Japan, Russia, Belgium and Tunisia. It is thereafter that Brazil would have to remain on guard as it should be well in with a chance to avenge that humiliating defeat it suffered against France four years ago.

A notable advantage for Brazil would be the versatility and power of Cafu and Roberto Carlos to move into the attack from defence leaving Lucio and Edmilson behind in the company of Marcos at goal. This will provide an added thrust to the midfield, manned by Emerson, Vampeta, Juninho Paulista and the young Ronaldinho Gaucho. It is also a possibility that Rivaldo would be played as a withdrawn forward by coach Felipe Scolari so as to let Ronaldinho play alongside Ronaldo upfront.

Uruguay was the last team to qualify for this World Cup, emerging victorious in the play-offs against Australia after having edged out Colombia on goal-difference to gain the fifth place in the qualifiers. It is back after a 12-year hiatus but with a very young and inexperienced side under Victor Pua. However, if the Uruguayans show the same resilience that they displayed to get back into the elite group, they should be in the reckoning for a place in the second round.

Drawn in Group 'A' along with France, Senegal and Denmark, the most crucial game for Uruguay should be the opening tie against the Danes. It is sure to be a make or break situation though the Uruguayans would do well not to underestimate the Senegalese. On the field, Uruguay plays the 3-4-1-2 system, the stress being more on the defence which goes to show why this two-time World Cup winner conceded a lesser number of goals than most of its opponents in the qualifiers.

Since the great Enzo Francescoli left the scene in 1995, Uruguay has at long last found a player of similar calibre in Alvaro Recoba who is blessed with pace, a remarkable touch and sound finishing skills. The other key players are Paolo Montero, a strong and tough defender, midfielder Gianni Guigou and striker Dario Silva. Uruguay might not have an outstanding team as such, but it will be hard to beat.

Having come close to defeating the eventual champion, France, four years ago, Paraguay should be having hopes of a solid run in Asia. The only team to avoid defeat at the hands of Argentina in the qualifiers, Paraguay's main problem could be the inconsistency of its players which saw it slip from second to fourth spot after suffering an inexcusable two defeats in-a-row in the final stages of the same tournament. This led to the summary dismissal of Sergio Makarian and the appointment of Cesare Maldini as the new manager.

Paraguay has an industrious midfield where Carlos Paredes, Roberto Acuna and Denis Caniza are quite capable of battling for every ball and distribute it to Roque Santa Cruz, a striker who is fast, skilful and good in the air, or his colleague, Jose Cardozo. And in Francisco Arce, Celso Ayala and Carlos Gamarra, Paraguay has one of the best defences in the world. But, the head and the heart of the team is the one and only Jose Luis Chilavert, who, however will be missing the opening match against South Africa, being suspended for spitting at Brazil's Roberto Carlos in the qualifiers.

Spain and Slovenia are the other teams in Group 'B' and Paraguay does seem to have the potential to clear the first round with ease. Should the Paraguayans remain consistent thereafter, they could well surpass their own record and make it to the quarterfinals for the first time. In the second round, Paraguay, if it finishes behind Spain as expected, is scheduled to meet the winner of Group 'E' comprising Germany, Cameroon, Ireland and Saudi Arabia.

Ecuador's success story may have been one of the fairy tales of the entire qualifying campaign. But reality could hit it hard in its first World Cup, though the side has in Hernan Dario Gomez, who took Colombia to France '98, a good tactician and a great motivator. Certain individual players also stand out in the collective strength of the squad: Alex Aguinaga, a quality midfielder with the uncanny knack of scoring and Ivan Kaviedes and Agustin Delgado, a top-drawer striking pair.

Paired with fancied Italy, Croatia and Mexico in Group 'G', the Ecuadorians having exceeded even the wildest dreams of their supporters will be on a steep learning curve in Asia. And a surprise win or draw against any of the other three teams could well be a bonus for the side, which is unlikely to get past the first round.

Yet, they too are capable of playing attacking football all along. In the real South American way.