History is against the continent


HISTORY provides an interesting tale on the World Cup winners. Since 1962 the winner of the glittering trophy has alternately been from Europe and South America. If it was England in '66 then Brazil's third triumph to keep the Jules Rimet Trophy permanently came in '70. Germany won next at home, followed by Argentina again at home. Italy won in Spain, Argentina again in Mexico, West Germany in Italy, while Brazil won it for a record fourth time in USA and France tasted home triumph in 1998. Going by this sequence, the next winner should emerge from South America! A pointer to this is perhaps the hoopla surrounding Argentina in what is the first World Cup of the new millennium.

But then this historical happening can at best be only a remarkable coincidence. For no championship, and that too, a World Cup can come without blood and sweat, laced of course, with a little luck. As the Swedish coach Lars Lagerback says, "in the game of football anything can happen. Everything depends on the day's play". He should, know, for Sweden is in what is popularly referred to as the Group of Death, clubbed as it is along with Argentina, England and Nigeria.

"It could be Argentina or France", is what most managers say about the winner of the Japan-Korea edition. There is also a section which has thrown in the names of England and Brazil to add a pinch of objectivity and maybe allude to the unpredictability which lends this biggest sporting event all the thrills and frills.

There are 15 contenders from Europe, the most from a single continent. Among this lot, Sweden, which had finished third at USA '94, finds itself in the most difficult setting. But then the Scandinavians are known for their hard work and tough defence. Besides, in Henrik Larsson, the side possesses a dangerous striker as well. Larsson is a survivor of that third-placed team in USA and the Celtic striker's prowess can be judged from his show in the last four matches of Sweden's World Cup qualifying rounds. He scored seven goals including a hat trick in the 6-0 demolition of Moldova in the final match.

What certainly lightens the worry of the two Swedish coaches, Lagerback and Tommy Soderberg, is the strength of the team overall - sharp in attack with Larsson and possibly Marcus Allback and solid in defence. There is also the reassuring fact that Sweden had remained unbeaten in their 10 Group fixtures and let in just three goals in all. Besides, its record against England is inspiring, not having lost since 1968 in a run of nine matches. Then again, a part of the Swedish team was made in England. The midfield, in fact, will probably have all the four places in the diamond-shaped setting filled by English Premiership players - Everton's Niclas Alexandersson and Tobias Linderoth, Arsenal's Freddie Ljungberg and Southampton's Anders Svensson. England's Swedish Coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, has good reason then to fear his native side! Sweden may not survive the Group, but the strong discipline and nothing to lose attitude could help it cause an upset or two.

Be that as it may, there is no denying England's stature, notwithstanding the doubts surrounding star player David Beckham's fitness. The 4-0 win over Paraguay in a recent friendly showed that stand-in captain Michael Owen can keep English hopes alive. The Owen-inspired win over Paraguay, a World Cup finalist, pushed Beckham's discomfiture to the background for a while. Coach Eriksson believes England's chances of progressing from the Group revolve around the abilities of Beckham, Owen and the sensational Joe Cole.

Beckham and Owen had plotted Germany's stunning 5-1 downfall in what was a must-win match in the qualification phase. Beckham had also singlehandedly resurrected England from a hopeless situation against Greece in the last qualifying match. So should Beckham fail in his battle to recover fully from the broken bone in his left foot, England will sorely miss him. But former England hero, Paul Gascoigne, feels there is no need to despair and tips Kieron Dyer, the likely substitute for Beckham, as one who could take the World Cup by storm. "I can see a lot of similarities to me when I first made an impression", said Gascoigne on Dyer.

Whoever finally makes the team, Eriksson knows England can ill-afford a slow start-in a Group where caution is the watchword - be it Argentina, its nemesis in the past, Nigeria, unpredictable always and the determined Sweden. Then again, the battle for the top spot in the Group will be heightened by the fact that the second-placed team faces the prospects of meeting France in the second round.

For the reigning champion, European title-holder and number one in FIFA ranking, France, only complacency can be an obstacle. Over the last five or six years France has steadily developed depth in its soccer and currently around 75 players are actively involved in various European leagues. What coach Roger Lemerre is attempting is a right blend of the past and the present crop of talent with the stress on the old guard to ensure his country's campaign in Japan and Korea remains happy one. The spearhead, of course, will be Zinedine Zidane. Supporting him could be Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit and Youri Djorkaeff. In defence Lilian Thuram and Frank Leboeuf will be alongside skipper Marcel Desailly and Bixente Lizarazu with Fabien Barthez as the undisputed number one choice for goalkeeer. Chances are that Djibril Cisse and Mikail Silvestre could become new names in the French squad.

France has to contend with Denmark, Senegal and Uruguay in the Group stage, but manager Lemerre's concern realistically will be only from the second round. Interest in this Group (A) will be on whether the second European team, Denmark, would go through. A quarter-finalist in France four years ago, Denmark is without the famous Laudrup brothers, Brian and Michael. Still its show in the qualifying round has been impressive, its best being a 6-0 win over Iceland. Most of its players play outside the country. The key players are: Everton's Thomas Gravesen, Sunderland goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen, Chelsea's Jesper Gronkjaer, Thomas Helveg of AC Milan, Udinese's Martin Jorgensen as also the top European marksman Ebbe Sand. With former player Morten Olsen as manager, Denmark will be an active performer.

With an inspired Spain, the redoubtable Italy and the stubborn Germany, not to forget the renaissance attempt of Portugal there is much in store from Europe. The Spaniards believe this World Cup could well ring in a new era for their football, which is better known through their top-class league and famous clubs such as Real Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Deportivo La Coruna. New coach Jose Camacho is bent on changing history and for that he would expect much from the country's star player Raul Gonzalez. Football legend Pele himself believes that Spain's destiny is linked to striker Raul's capabilities. Aside from Raul, Camacho looks to Fernando Moriantes and Juan Carlos Valeron to realise his aim. Spain did not lose even one match in its run-up to the final round. So can South Africa, Paraguay and another European team, Slovenia, which jumped over 100 places in FIFA ranking by the end of the qualifying phase, stop the Spanish Armada.

In terms of historical achievement, Germany is second only to Brazil, but ever since its 1990 triumph the national side is yearning for the spark to regain the old glory. A recent statement by the legend Franz Beckenbauer that he would be content if Germany reached the quarter-finals, mirrors the down-trend of the country's fortunes. The loss to Argentina (1-0) at home in a friendly hastened his conclusion, though, for manager Rudi Voller, a top performer in his days, the worries are a lot more. That match produced such corrosive play that Rudi had at least 12 certainties on the injury list close to the World Cup. Germany is drawn with another European team Ireland, Cameroon and Saudi Arabia.

Germany will be inspired by the World's best goalkeeper Oliver Kahn, who is leading the side. His club mate Jens Jeremies also stand out with him. Another player of whom much is expected is Michael Ballack, who surprised one and all with his abilities in the qualifying phase. It is in attack that Germany's worry is the most, what with men like Rudi himself and Jurgen Klinsmann gone. Oliver Bierhoff, the man who inspired Germany's 1996 European Championship success, may have a limited role. May be this World Cup will make stars of the likes of Miroslav Klose, Carsten Jancker and Oliver Neuville. But one thing is for sure, Germany is not among the favourites in the list of the various team Managers. That alone should wake up this European giant for the contests ahead.

Unlike Germany, Italy has been placed among the strong contenders by many. This despite the Azzurri's forgettable performance in the qualifying phase. Like Spain, the Italian league is the breeding ground for several talents and the country is replete with stars. And manager Giovanni Trapattoni's squad will revolve around the striking ability of Francesco Totti with Christian Vieri and Alessandro del Piero around. The experience of Roberto Baggio, just back from injury, will be missed, the people's choice not having any impression on Trapattoni.

As always, defence is the key to Italy's plans. The 33-year old Paolo Maldini, Italy's most capped and in recent times the most consistent player, is there to personify the Italian resolve. His skill and pace will be ably matched by the aspiring young men, Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta. In the Group of Croatia, Mexico and Ecuador, the Azzurris should not encounter much problems, though none can forget Croatia's stupendous run in France 98 for its third place finish.

The hero of that Croatian show, Davor Suker, is there once again along with Robert Prosinecki, Zvonimir Soldo, and Dario Simic. What should worry coach Mirko Jozic is the absence of first choice defender Igor Tudor, owing to ankle injury. What Croatia is looking forward to is striking the right blend of these experienced stars with the current crop where much has been said of Alen Boksic. A team that went through the qualification phase unbeaten, Croatia deserves the tag of a dark horse.

One of the teams that Italy or Croatia will face in the second round should be Portugal, acknowledged as the Brazil of Europe for the array of talents it has, led by that hugely gifted Luis Figo, European footballer of the year in 2000. In the 60s it was Eusebio who made Portugal famous and now it is the turn of Figo, who spearheaded his country into the Euro 2000 semi-final. With big names like Rui Costa, Joao Pinto and Jorge Costa around, not to mention Pedro Pauleta and Nuno Gomes Portugal is brimming with talent.

One of its famous matches in recent times was the 1-1 draw with four-time world champion Brazil. Portugal is coming to the final round for the third time and with high hopes of reaching new heights. Portugal could be the team to watch. Poland is another European challenger in Portugal's Group apart from host South Korea and the U.S. Way back in 1974, Poland had beaten Brazil for the third place. But thereafter came the slide until the Nigerian-born Emmanuel Olisadebe got the goals to give the Polish campaign a fresh perspective. How far this resurrection will go only time can tell.

That leaves Belgium, Russia, Ireland and Turkey as the rest of the European challenge. Belgium did well for its sixth straight entry into the final round. Not surprisingly this is the country which gave the world such a top-flight footballer as Enzo Scifo. Even though most of its current players perform in various European clubs, inexperience at the top level is what is marked in the side. In fact, Belgium expects to see the 23-year-old Emile Mpenza to make a splash.

Drawn with Russia, another inexperienced side (Viktor Onopko is the key player) looking for fresh identity after the split of the Soviet Union, host Japan and Tunisia, Belgium can expect to cross the first hurdle.

Ireland is re-emerging from the shadows, the signs of it coming in the qualifying round where it competed in the company of Portugal and the Netherlands, the last-named a stunning casuality. However, the last minute exit of key man Roy Keane after differences with manager Mick M'Carthy could dilute Ireland's chances that bit. Keane had masterminded Netherlands' exit in the qualifying event.

Can France pull it off? Can Italy or Germany give a twist? Will Portugal come up with a stunner? Questions that cannot have easy answers, but these are times when the winds of change are sweeping across Europe. Proof of it comes in the way Arsenal outshone Manchester United in the FA league, the victory of the Dutch club Feyernood in the UEFA final and the strides German club Bayer Leverkusen made in the champions league.