Despite problems Argentina hopes to improve its position

ERIC WEIL

ARGENTINA'S political and economic problems almost stopped its team going to the men's World Cup. A fares arrangement (with propaganda exchange) with Malaysian Airlines stopped abruptly when the company decided to suspend its flights to Buenos Aires at the end of January and the Argentine Hockey Confederation, already owed money by the government's sports department, had no funds. But now the government has promised the necessary funds and it was hoped they will comply.

The current 20-player squad is basically the same which won the World Cup qualifying tournament in Edinburgh last July and in which strikers Jorge Lombi, with his penalty corners, and Mario Almada should again be the danger men while two other vital players, defender Carlos Retegui and striker Rodrigo Vila, absent in the Champions Challenge in December - the former was playing in Holland and the latter had exams - will be back. Meanwhile, Santiago Capurro became leading scorer in last year's local closing championship, also with corners, after Club Ciudad de Buenos Aires teammate Lombi left to play in Holland.

Argentina gained valuable experience playing in Kuala Lumpur in December, but unfortunately this was their last international competition. Belgium and Spain were due to visit Argentina for a series of games in January and there were hopes of getting India to come also, but the political unrest and Confederation's lack of cash forced the cancellation of these tours.

Argentina does not feel it can win the World Cup, but hopes to improve its 8th/9th world ranking and finish among the top six. A semifinal place for the first time would be a bonus. The team has steadily improved since the 2000 America's Cup in which its below par performance with much the same players resulted in the resignation of coach Alejandro Verga, who was replaced by Jorge Ruiz. Their play, which mixes European and Asian styles, is becoming more successful world-wide although they cannot emulate the successes of their women. Men make up only 20% of Argentina's players.

Cuba will be taking part in the World Cup for the first time as they were surprise winners of the first America's Cup in 2000 which qualified them directly. Cuba, who beat Canada 2-1 in the final (and earlier won 3-1 against Argentina), have improved with the introduction of more artificial fields on the island, but it must be remembered that apart from Argentina's poor performance, Cuba were on home soil (in Havana) in this tournament. They cannot be expected to go far in their first world competition.