Doubtful starters

S. R. SURYANARAYAN

AS the World Cup approaches, there is a rise in the pre-Championship tension in each team. Even as each player gears himself up to get the nod from the coach there are also hidden in the bunch a few who would become stars of the World Cup. Each edition leaves behind memories of superlative performances by some players with the rare occasion of one individual stealing the thunder from everyone. Like the genius by name Diego Armando Maradona in 1986. Since his fall from the high pedestal for reasons that had nothing to do with his unbelievable football skills, no one has quite reached the status of a demi-God.

On the other hand are the kind of players who are billed to take the World Cup by storm but end up with heaps of sympathies with their wonted skills lying in tatters. Who else but the Brazilian sensation Ronaldo comes to mind in this category. More than the debate on his unmistakable skills at the France '98 World Cup there were any number of theories on what went wrong with him in the final. Four years after that infamous final, as far as Ronaldo was concerned, the star player continues to remain a mystery with regard to his fitness-level. An icon in his country, a dreaded player once in Europe, Ronaldo may well touch his true best in Japan-Korea but there is no denying that his has been a chapter from the saga of stars who did not shine or could not shine for various reasons.

Every World Cup then has that quota of 'stars' who, for all the hoopla surrounding their huge talent and fame, sometimes miss the bus when it counts the most or have a huge question mark to their participation. A prime example is David Beckham, the handsome Englishman and a household name in world football today. A nasty injury (a broken bone in his left foot) while playing for his club, Manchester United in the FA league, makes his chance of appearing for England in the forthcoming competition a bleak one. If that should happen then the talented Beckham would be one player who would be denied his rightful place in the stars of Japan-Korea. His absence would also be a big setback for England, which many observers believe is genuinely in the race for honours this time.

But former England manager, Glen Hoddle does not believe that should Beckham be ruled out, it would be the end of the world for England. While he agrees that "England will have a better chance of World Cup success with him than without him, we must not fall into the trap of pinning all of our hopes and dreams on one player." Hoddle feels that there are options like Steven Gerrard and Joe Cole. Even former England skipper, Alan Shearer should be tempted out of retirement. "England needs Shearer," is Hoddle's plea.

The predicament of the Italian hero Roberto Baggio is on a different scale. Down with knee injury after his club Brescia's loss to Parma in the Italian Cup in January, this popular 35-year-old player had been effectively ruled out of the World Cup squad by Coach Giovanni Trapattoni when he named seven other attacking players to choose from. Baggio returned to action for his club and scored twice as substitute in Brescia's 3-0 win over Fiorentina. Doctors, who had ruled Baggio out for the season, were themselves astonished by his recovery. Does this mean Baggio stands a chance for a look in? At least his current performance is bound to fuel media campaign and that is going to be a huge embarrassment for Trapattoni. But Baggio was cool when he said "the important thing is that I am fine." Will this star get a re-run?

Another worry for coach Trapattoni is the knee injury that Juventus utility man Gianluca Pesotto suffered in the friendly against Uruguay. The injury is so bad that the 31-year-old is not likely to be in action for the next six months and that means he has virtually ruled himself out of the World Cup. Pesotto was a late addition to Trapattoni's scheme of things after Francis Coco sustained a knock in training and raised a note of worry.

Defending champion France too has its worries what with ace midfielder, Robert Pires, voted the Player of the Year by the football writers in England, very much on the verge of missing the berth. Pires needs to undergo surgery to repair his cruciate knee ligaments and the 29-year-old Arsenal star feels that he has no choice but operation after fearing that he would fail to be in the reckoning for a place in France's squad for the World Cup. A French specialist has advised him that surgery will make his chances of recovery faster. It is unlikely though that he would be ready for the great moment to play a key role in his national side's campaign to retain the Cup.

As D-day gets closer for the various teams to name their 23 players, things have hotted up for the coaches, who find themselves hard-pressed for replacements more so when the injured happens to be a star in the making. For those lucky to be finally there in the actual competition it is their way of approach on the world stage that is going to leave them either stars or plain commoners. Only time will tell.