Stars to watch

Any mega event is bound to inspire those who take part in it. Here, then, are a selection of performers - some really proven, some thirsting to make a mark - who are expected to hold the stage in World Cup 2002.

GROUP A FRANCE

* ZINEDINE ZIDANE. Position: Midfielder. Age: 29. Club: Real Madrid.

The world's most expensive player, Zinedine Zidane has spearheaded the most successful spell in the history of French football. A wonderfully gifted midfielder, he is an irreplaceable presence in the defending champion's line-up, usually given sole responsibility for launching attacks. Beguiling footwork and wonderful balance often enable the Real Madrid star to elude the attentions of the most diligent man-markers. Zidane can be relied upon to conjure up a selection of magical flicks and drag-backs in almost every game, skills which saw him crowned FIFA Footballer of the Year in 2000. His two headed goals in the final of the 1998 World Cup effectively handed France victory against Brazil, cementing 'Zizou's' place as a national treasure.

* FABIEN BARTHEZ. Position: Goalkeeper: Age: 30. Club: Manchester United.

At club level this season Barthez has been responsible for some of the most spectacular goalkeeping gaffes ever seen on a football field. Yet, for many the shaven-headed shot-stopper remains the world's best goalkeeper. He has won virtually every honour there is to win at the highest level during a career spent in France and England, including a European Cup, a European Championship and the World Cup. Has been an ever-present in French ranks for nearly seven years, his agility and athleticism between the sticks making him an automatic choice. Although he has been prone to make horrendous errors for Manchester United, most notably in this season's Champions League competition, he has rarely let France down. During 'Les Bleus' march to the title in 1998 he conceded a mere two goals throughout the tournament and helped France prevail against Italy in a fraught penalty shoot-out at the Stade de France.

* THIERRY HENRY. Position: Forward. Age: 24. Club: Arsenal.

Yet to fully develop when he played for France at the 1998 World Cup, Henry has blossomed in the four years since after finally settling down in England with Arsenal. Starting life as a wide player at Monaco, Henry was successfully converted into a striker by Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger after being signed by the London club from Juventus in August 1999. Has since established himself as one of the English Premiership's most lethal marksmen, searing pace allied with exquisite technique earning admirers around the world. Though often used as a centre-forward with France, he is likely to be given a wide role by Roger Lemerre, supplying the crosses for friend and former Monaco team-mate David Trezeguet and roaming from flank to flank. With a strike rate of roughly one goal in every three games Henry stands every chance of taking away the World Cup's Golden Boot if France mounts a successful challenge in Japan and South Korea.

URUGUAY

* DARIO SILVA. Position: Striker. Age: 29. Club: Malaga.

Strong on the ball and with pace to burn, Dario Silva is a vital component in Uruguay coach Victor Pua's World Cup plans. With Uruguay often keen on playing with only one out-and-out striker, Silva has become a regular fixture in attack thanks to his ability to retain possession and bring others into play. Though never one to shirk his defensive responsibilities, Silva has scored 12 times for Uruguay in nearly 40 appearances and was his team's top-scorer with six goals in the qualifying matches. The key issue is whether Silva has truly settled his differences with Pua, after the two men fell out following Uruguay's victory over Australia in the play-offs. Now plying his trade with unfashionable Malaga in Spain's Primera Liga, Silva moved to Europe after becoming a star at home with Penarol.

GROUP B SPAIN

* RAUL GONZALEZ. Position: Striker. Age: 24 (25 on June 27). Club: Real Madrid.

Was overawed by the experience of France 98, despite his wonderful left-foot volley against Nigeria, and too tired after a long season to make an impact at Euro 2000 but could emerge as one of the stars of the World Cup. Third in the 2001 FIFA World Player of the Year voting and last season's top scorer in the Spanish first division Raul has been an international for nearly six years, having made his debut at the age of 19. Since making his first team debut for Real in 1994, Raul has acquired three Spanish league winner medals and two from the Champions League. The only ever-present player for Spain during its eight qualifying matches, Raul has already passed his 50 international appearances and is on course to become Spain's most prolific goal-scorer ever during the finals.

SLOVENIA

* ZLATKO ZAHOVIC. Position: Midfielder. Age: 31. Club: Benfica (Por).

Slovenia's most recognisable player, a playmaker and finisher. His country's leading scorer, speedy, an excellent shot from free kicks and a superb dribbler with the ball at his feet. Has a reputation for indiscipline at club level, but Katanec has stamped out any nonsense within the national team setup. Began his career with Yugoslav side Partizan Belgrade before going to Portugal and playing for Vitoria Guimares and Porto for three seasons apiece. Moved to Greek club Olympiakos Pireaus in July 1999 but clashed with fellow players and the club coach and was actually banned for two months by Olympiakos. Transferred to Valencia in the summer of 2000 but failed to find favour with the then coach Hector Cuper and moved back to Portugal, this time to Benfica, last summer.

PARAGUAY

* JOSE LUIS CHILAVERT. Position: Goalkeeper. Age: 36. Club: Strasbourg (Fra).

Agile but volatile goalkeeper who was voted the South American Player of the Year in 1998. Was one of the world's top goalkeepers throughout the 1990s but his ability has declined in recent years. The extensive list of his clashes includes once punching an Argentine journalist who suggested he had put on weight, fighting former Argentine captain Oscar Ruggeri and Colombian striker Faustino Asprilla. Played for Velez Sarsfeld with a snarling bulldog on the front of his jersey and wanted to use it for international matches until FIFA intervened. Started his career with local club Sportivo Luqueno before moving across the border to Argentine side San Lorenzo, then spent four years in Spain with Real Zaragoza. In 1995, returned to Argentina to play for Velez Sarsfeld until early last year, when he returned to Europe to play for French second division club Strasbourg.

* CARLOS GAMARRA. Position: Defender. Age: 31. Club: AEK Athens (Gre).

Much-travelled central defender now in his third stint at a European club. Has previously played in Portugal with Benfica, Spain at Atletico Madrid, in Brazil with Internacional and Corinthians, and also briefly at the Argentine club Independiente. Started his career at Cerro Porteno, with whom he won the 1992 Paraguayan championship. Made his name at the 1998 World Cup finals when he didn't commit a foul in his four games and was widely applauded for his timing and positional sense. Very quick, very solid against the high ball and, because he likes to go forward, prefers to play in a 3-5-2 formation rather than in a side aligned 4-4-2.

GROUP C BRAZIL

* RONALDO. Position: Striker. Age: 25. Club: Inter Milan.

Ronaldo's career has been in the doldrums since Brazil's 1998 World Cup final defeat against France, when he was played in the match just hours after suffering a fit in his hotel room. Recurring knee injuries have decimated his playing career in the past four years, but he has made an encouraging return to action for Inter Milan and Brazil this season. If he can recapture just some of the form shown in his pre-1998 career, the Brazilian striker could well be one of the stars of the World Cup. Superb strength, explosive pace and a wide range of skills made Ronaldo unquestionably the best player on the planet for a spell in the mid to late 1990s.

* RIVALDO. Position: Midfielder. Age: 30. Club: Barcelona.

The man Barcelona turned to when they sought a replacement for Ronaldo, Rivaldo has emerged from his younger compatriot's shadow to become one of the world's finest players in recent years. After enjoying a good World Cup in 1998, Rivaldo went on to blossom in subsequent seasons with Barcelona though recently he has not always been able to produce his best form when wearing the famous yellow shirt of Brazil. FIFA's World Footballer of the Year in 1999, Rivaldo is one of the players most capable of turning a match with a single piece of inspired wizardry. Sublime skill, a devastating turn of speed and a deadly left-foot make him a nightmare for opposition defenders.

* ROBERTO CARLOS. Position: Defender. Age: 29. Club: Real Madrid.

Used as an attacking wing-back on the left side of Brazil's defence and midfield, Roberto Carlos combines all the elements of a great player - speed, technique and a ferocious shot. First emerged when Brazil toured Europe in 1995, when his displays for the world champion helped earn him a move to the bright lights of the San Siro and Inter Milan. Left Inter after only one season however to join Fabio Capello's successful regime at Real Madrid, where he has been based ever since, winning the Spanish League several times as well as two European Cups. Has forged a reputation as a freekick specialist but it is slightly misleading. He scored a remarkable goal in the 1997 Tournoi de France where the ball swerved twice before beating Fabien Barthez - but in fact has not scored from a freekick at international level since that game.

TURKEY

* HAKAN SUKUR. Position: Striker. Age: 30. Club: Parma.

The most high profile player in Turkish football, Hakan Sukur has established himself as a world class striker in a 10-year international football career. Cutting his teeth in the testing arena of the Champions League with Galatasaray, Sukur's prolific scoring rate at club level saw him earn interest from several leading clubs. He has played at Torino, Inter Milan and now Parma - though his best form has been for Galatasaray and for Turkey. Strong in the air and a reliable finisher, 'The Bull of the Bosphorus' is the man Turkey will turn to for goals at the World Cup.

GROUP D SOUTH KOREA

* HWANG SUN-HONG. Position: Striker. Age: 33. Club: Kashiwa Reysol.

Hwang Sun-Hong is one of a growing band of Korean players to have stamped his authority on Japan's J-League. Now 33 and appearing in his fourth and almost certainly last World Cup final, Hwang's guile and goals in the J-League with Kashiwa Reysol earned an unlikely recall to the national side last year and now he is heading toward 100 caps. Hwang first made his name when he scored eight goals for South Korea against Nepal at the Asian Games in 1994. His international career looked over however when Guus Hiddink took control, as the Dutch coach turned towards youth in the early stages of his reign. However, after trying out various combinations up front, Hwang came back for a four-nation tournament in Cairo in April last year and has since become a regular feature even if he rarely plays a whole match. Top-scorer in the J-League in 1999 with Cerezo Osaka.

PORTUGAL

* LUIS FIGO. Position: Midfielder. Age: 29. Club: Real Madrid (Spa).

The current FIFA World Player of the Year. Luis Figo moved to Real Madrid from bitter rival Barcelona in the summer of 2000 for a reputed 61 million Euros. Has outstanding ball skills, a lightning change of pace and ability to make pinpoint passes as well as being a regular goal-scorer. Can play on either flank although at Real Madrid, and at Barcelona before it, he is used almost exclusively down the right wing. Born in Lisbon, last year he bought his first club Os Pastilhas after it ran into financial difficulties. He was talent-spotted by the Portuguese giant Sporting Lisbon at the age of 13 and joined its youth teams, making his first team debut four years later, before joining Barcelona in 1995. His idols include Diego Maradona and Michel Platini. He plays golf for relaxation and is an avid collector of watches and a favourite pastime is eating in Japanese restaurants.

* FERNANDO COUTO. Position: Defender. Age: 32. Club: Lazio (Ita).

A powerful and competitive central defender who has been in the best form of his life since last summer. Served a four-month suspension last year after testing positive for the banned steroid nandrolone. Consistently declared his innocence after the test. Takes over the captain's arm band for Portugal when Luis Figo relinquishes it. For two years he was a team-mate of his close friend Figo at Barcelona and won a Spanish championship medal in 1998 before moving to Lazio, which he helped to win the 2000 Italian title. Started off his career at Porto before moving to Italian side Parma in 1994 and then to Barcelona two years later. Made his international debut in December 1990 at the age of 21.

POLAND

* EMMANUEL OLISADEBE. Position: Striker. Age: 23. Club: Panathinaikos (Gre).

From the obscurity of club football with Nigerian side Jasper United, Emmanuel Olisadebe now finds himself spearheading Poland's attack at a World Cup finals. A talented goalscorer, Olisadebe's emergence was one of the stories of the World Cup qualifiers, the Nigerian-born striker playing a key role in Poland's successful qualification. Speed, good touch, and an eye for goal are Olisadebe's key attributes. He first came to Poland's attention during a successful spell with Polonia Warsaw, and his application for Polish citizenship was hurried through in July 2000. Scored on his debut for Poland and has not looked back. Finished the qualifiers with nine goals in eight appearances, and was Poland's revelation. Now playing for Greek side Panathinaikos, he is hoping to move to England, Italy or Spain.

* JERZY DUDEK. Position: Goalkeeper. Age: 29. Club: Liverpool (Eng).

A few people questioned Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier's judgement earlier this season when the Frenchman axed 'keeper Sander Westerveld and promptly signed Poland's Jerzy Dudek. Conceding three goals on his Anfield debut as Liverpool was beaten by Aston Villa it was hardly the most auspicious of starts for the goalkeeper touted as one of the finest in Europe. But within a few games Dudek began to demonstrate why both Arsenal and Liverpool had been tracking him for close to a year before he finally plumped for Houllier. Excellent agility and flawless reflexes make Dudek one of the best shot-stoppers around. He is also nerveless at dealing with high balls into the box and never shirks a challenge when the boots are flying. Many believe Dudek is one of the key reasons for Liverpool's improvement defensively this season, his calm authority transmitting confidence to team-mates in front of him. Voted Poland's Player of the Year in 2001.

* TOMASZ KLOS. Position: Defender. Age: 29. Club: Kaiserslautern.

A talented right-back, Tomasz Klos is one of those rare players who is as good going forward as he is at handling the gritty defensive essentials of his job. A successful career saw him earn a Polish league winners medal with Lodz in 1998 before he headed to France to join Auxerre. After three seasons with the French club he moved to Kaiserslautern where he is currently playing. One of coach Jerzy Engel's personal favourites, Klos played in all bar one of Poland's qualifiers and will be one of the first names on the team-sheet at the World Cup. Has developed well since making his debut for Poland, when he was a member of a shoddy defence run ragged in a 0-4 defeat at the hands of Paraguay.

GROUP E GERMANY

* DIETMAR HAMANN. Position: Midfielder. Age: 28. Club: Liverpool.

Has shown remarkable resolve to come back from a nervous breakdown in 1997 to become one of the most admired defensive midfielders in the Premiership being instrumental in Liverpool's treble of UEFA Cup, FA Cup and League Cup triumphs in the 2000-2001 season. Known affectionately as 'Didi' he can also score goals just as he did when Germany beat England 1-0 at Wembley in the World Cup qualifiers and hasten Kevin Keegan's departure. One of the few Germans to come out of the 1998 finals with their reputations enhanced it earned him a 5.25 million pounds move to Newcastle United from Bayern Munich and then to Liverpool. His tackling ability and defensive moves will be even more in demand now that the reassuring figure of sweeper Jens Nowotny will be absent because of a cruciate ligament injury.

* OLIVER KAHN. Position: Goalkeeper. Age: 32. Club: Bayern Munich.

Inspirational 'keeper for his club and country over the past four years which made it all the more remarkable that England managed to put five past him during the World Cup qualifier. Proudest moment came when he defied Valencia in the 2001 Champions League final penalty shootout - saving three of them - to banish the memories of Manchester United's come from behind 2-1 defeat in the 1999 final. While he has a safe pair of hands there is little he can do with a generous defence in front. But his ability to hold his nerve when one on one with opposing players and dominance at set pieces has often saved his team-mates from their embarrassing blunders. Slammed Mehmet Scholl's retirement from international football, because of persistent injuries, weeks before finals saying while he respected his decision he would not accept it. Earned respect rather than adoration of fans outside Bayern Munich and had to undergo taunting noises from the opposing fans making monkey noises at him for his physical similarity to a chimpanzee - while he certainly has long arms they have been more than effective in the last four years saving his club and country from more than one defeat. After being a non-playing member of the last two World Cup squads he will finally make his debut on the greatest stage and will hope to frank the image of being one of the greatest in the game.

IRELAND

* DAMIEN DUFF. Position: Striker. Age: 22. Club: Blackburn Rovers (Eng).

Ireland's most likely player to come out of the finals as a major star. Pacey and creative, while he is used as a wide player by his club the Republic's manager Mick McCarthy prefers to use him up front and he could well prosper against the team's Group opponents Germany, Cameroon and Saudi Arabia who have ponderous looking defences. First gave an indication of his talent for the Irish Under-17 side that made a huge impression in the world championships in Malaysia in 1987 and has continued to progress signing for Rovers for nothing as a trainee and quickly breaking into first team. Played a leading role in the team's return to the Premiership and kept his form despite Rovers' shaky patch midway through last season when ith was in danger of relegation while turning in an outstanding performance in the League Cup final win over Spurs. Ireland will be looking to him to add significantly to his tally of one goal in 25 caps if it has to overcome one of its perennial handicaps of failing to score enough goals.

CAMEROON

* PATRICK MBOMA. Position: Striker. Age: 31. Club: Sunderland (Eng).

If Cameroon is to get anywhere near its performance of reaching the last eight in 1990 it will have to hope Mboma is fit to play for it. Struggling with a nagging heel injury which has plagued him since the middle of the African Nations Cup finals there are doubts over whether he will be fit or not. However having scored three times in the four opening matches for Cameroon as it successfully defended its title showed how important he is to a side that finds it hard to score goals at the rarefied level of World Cup finals. Voted African Player of the Year in 2000 following his performances in the African Nations Cup finals and then the Olympics winning sides he has failed to shine at club level since eventually being loaned by Parma to Sunderland this season where he has played just one full match. A bohemian career which has taken him from France to Japan then to Italy and now England he has retained his humble attitude to the success he has enjoyed by refusing to wear the number nine shirt at national level by legend Roger Milla - what Cameroon would do for a fully-fit Mboma to repeat Milla's heroics of the 1990 finals in Japan this time round.

GROUP F ARGENTINA

* GABRIEL BATISTUTA. Position: Striker. Age: 33. Club: AS Roma.

Even far from his native Argentinean shores, Gabriel Omar Batistuta - or 'Batigol' for short - is recognised as one of the world's greatest strikers. And yet his career began surprisingly late in life. Born on February 1, 1969, it wasn't until he reached the age of 17 that he switched from basketball to football. Yet only two years later, aged 19, he won the South American club championship - the Copa Libertadores - in his very first season at Argentinean club Newell's Old Boys. A year later he moved to Buenos Aires and River Plate, with whom he won his first Argentinean championship in 1990. But his time there proved short, and he abandoned it for local rival Boca Juniors after just one season. At Boca Juniors he quickly earned himself a reputation as a goal-hungry striker, and won his first international cap in 1991. He finished top-scorer at the 1991 Copa America, notching up no less than six goals in the competition, which Argentina won for the first time in 32 years. Soon after the 1991 Copa Libertadores, Batistuta moved to Italy, joining Serie A side Fiorentina. Although he took time settling in during his first season at his new club, he was back to his best again in 1992, scoring 27 goals in 13 games. When Fiorentina was relegated in the 1992-93 season, Batistuta's contract tied him to the club as it languished in the Italian second division. But in the very first year after the side was promoted again, Batistuta became the Serie A's top scorer, with 26 goals to his name. Batistuta was a pivotal force in the Argentinean national squad at the 1994 and 1998 FIFA World Cups, scoring five goals at France 98 alone. But although he was showered by offers from top clubs across Europe, he remained in Florence for another two years. It was only in May 2000, after nine years in Tuscany, that AS Roma was able to prise Batistuta away for the princely sum of �22 million, the second-largest transfer fee in football history at the time. Just a year after the move, his new club won the Serie A for the first time since 1983, with Batistuta notching up 20 goals.

* JUAN SEBASTIAN VERON. Position: Midfielder. Age: 26. Club: Manchester United (Eng).

A revelation at France 98, where, despite his youth, he outshone his peers, Veron should be at the peak of his powers in Japan this summer. His first season in the English Premiership with Manchester United has not quite matched his 28.1 million pounds price tag, but despite his unwillingness to track back and defend, his technical skills going forward are a joy to watch. He has more responsibility for Argentina than is generally asked of him at United, and a large percentage of the team's attacking play is prompted by his quick footwork and searching passes. Dangerous at free-kicks, Veron, nicknamed the 'Little Witch' can weave his magic when there is a chance of a direct strike at goal. Former clubs include Boca Juniors, Sampdoria, Parma and Lazio.

NIGERIA

* NWANKWO KANU. Position: Striker. Age: 25. Club: Arsenal.

Two months after he captained Nigeria to win a historic Olympic gold in Atlanta in 1996, Nwankwo Kanu was diagnosed with a career-threatening heart problem. He has since bounced back to become one of Nigeria's most celebrated football exports. The 2002 World Cup will be only his second appearance on the centre stage of world football. At France '98, he only played a bit part role as he struggled to overcome a niggling knee injury. Twice African Footballer of the Year, Kanu was first capped in May, 1994, against Sweden. The bean-pole striker makes up for his seeming lack of pace with vision and lovely ball control.

ENGLAND

* DAVID BECKHAM. Position: Midfielder. Age: 27. Club: Manchester United.

Arguably the best crosser of a ball in the world, Beckham is a tireless worker and a dead-ball specialist. Born in east London, he joined Manchester United as a trainee in 1993 and made his debut in the 1994-95 season. He became a regular in the United team the following season, playing 33 games as it won a league and FA Cup double. He made his England debut in a World Cup qualifier against Moldova in 1997 before establishing himself as an international. But his popularity vanished overnight after he was sent off in a quarter-final during the 1998 World Cup in France for kicking out at Argentenian midfielder Diego Simeone. Since then has benefited enormously from being given the captaincy, and set a fine example to his colleagues with a string of superb performances in England's qualifying campaign. Married to former 'Spice Girl' Victoria, Beckham shows amazing dexterity in juggling his career as a professional footballer with a showbiz lifestyle that means he is rarely out of the media.

* MICHAEL OWEN. Position: Striker. Age: 22. Club: Liverpool.

The 22-year-old Michael Owen has already written his name in the football history books. In February 1998, he became the youngest player in the 20th Century to receive an England cap. Aged just 18 years and 59 days, he was three months younger than the previous record-holder, Duncan Edwards of Manchester United. He showed exceptional promise from a very early age. By the age of 10, he had set a new schoolboy goalscoring record of 92 goals in a season. At 14, he joined the Football Association's School of Excellence at Lilleshall. In 1996, Owen led the Liverpool juniors to FA Youth Cup victory, hitting a hat-trick in the final against Manchester United. He signed his first professional contract shortly after his 17th birthday, having already made his league debut in May 1997. Nine months later, this three-year contract was prematurely extended by another five years - with considerably better conditions. In February 1998, Owen pulled on the England jersey for the first time in the game against Chile and walked away with the Man-of-the-Match award. Three months later, he scored his first goal for England, helping his side to a 1-0 victory over Morocco. He forced his way into Glenn Hoddle's England squad for the FIFA World Cup in France 98, where he dazzled the entire football world with his maturity. And in England's second round encounter with Argentina, he scored one of the competition's finest ever goals. In the wake of his sensational France 98 showing, top European clubs were falling over themselves to procure his services. AC Milan was rumoured to have offered �30 million for the young prodigy, although he has never expressed any interest in leaving Liverpool. Owen's strengths are his outstanding close control, the timing of his runs, his vision, and of course the deadly goal-scoring instinct the young superstar displays time after time. Add to that his self-assurance and maturity and you have a player who strikes fear into opponents' hearts.

SWEDEN

* HENRIK LARSSON. Position: Forward. Age: 30. Club: Celtic (Sco).

Born in 1971, Larsson began his professional career with Hogabog before joining hometown team, Helsingborgs. At the age of 21 he was signed by Wim Jansen, coach of Dutch giant Feyenoord, and his early performances earned him a call-up for Sweden. He followed Jansen to Celtic early in 1998 and recovered from a slow start to net 16 goals in 35 league outings as the Scottish club's main striker. Things got even better the following season (1998-99) when he was named Scottish Player of the Year for the first time and scored 29 times in 35 appearances. But disaster struck during the following campaign when he broke his leg in two places after 19 minutes of a UEFA Cup match against French club Lyon. Although the break was bad enough to keep Larsson out of action for the rest of the domestic season, he was back to represent Sweden at Euro 2000. It was Larsson's goals that fired Celtic to its trophy treble in the 2000-01 campaign and although not as consistent, he was a key figure in the team retain the Scottish championship this year.

GROUP G ITALY

* ALESSANDRO NESTA. Position: Defender. Age: 26. Club: Lazio.

Alessandro Nesta is the rock on which the Italian World Cup defence will be built. He was a revelation during Euro 2000 with a series of limpet-like man-marking jobs, notably on Holland's Patrick Kluivert in the semi-final which Italy won on penalties after a goalless draw at the Amsterdam Arena. A product of the Lazio youth system he has risen through the ranks to become club skipper, his career path emulating that of Francesco Totti who has made similar progress at AS Roma. Both men have played against each other at all levels in the Roma-Lazio derbies since the age of 12 but are now firm friends. His standing with Lazio is such that he now attends board meetings as a representative of the playing side of the club and as club captain often has to smooth over relationships with the club's volatile supporters. But Nesta's love affair with Lazio, with whom he has won a host of prizes culminating with the 1999-2000 Scudetto, seems to be on the wane and rumours persist he may move on this summer. If he did move it would probably be for a world record for a defender with Real Madrid, Manchester United and Barcelona all reportedly interested.

* GIANLUCA ZAMBROTTA. Position: Midfielder. Age: 25. Club: Juventus.

Zambrotta, who plays on the right side of midfield but can switch to the left, established himself in the Italian national side during Euro 2000 but missed the final with France after being sent off in the semi-final with Holland at the Amsterdam Arena. Began his career with Como, the small club on the shore of the famous Lake that bears the same name but really found his feet when he joined southern outfit Bari, then in the Italian first division. While still at Bari he made his Italy debut in 1999 in the 0-0 draw with Norway at Pisa. Juventus beat off competition from Italy's other top clubs to get Zambrotta's signature and it is with the 'old lady' that the rough diamond has been polished into the finished article.

* GIANLUIGI BUFFON. Position: Goalkeeper. Age: 24. Club: Juventus.

Joined Juve from Parma for $37 million last summer, smashing the previous world record for a goalkeeper. After a couple of early blunders he has settled in well at Juve and has been a key member of the Juve team that has just won the Scudetto. When Giovanni Trapattoni became Italy coach he immediately reinstated Buffon as number one although many expected him to persist with Francesco Toldo who had produced some brilliant displays in Euro 2000 in the absence of Buffon, forced to withdraw through injury before that tournament. Has the knack of making the wrong headlines. Was involved in a motorway fracas with police last year, was in hot water for presenting bogus academic qualifications for an evening course and angered some by choosing the number 88 for his Parma jersey, a number associated with the extreme right. Has a charitable side and is renowned for his frequent visits to sick children - with former Parma colleague Lilian Thuram he led a Juventus delegation to visit a children's cancer ward the day after the Scudetto had been won.

ECUADOR

* AGUSTIN DELGADO. Position: Forward. Age: 27. Club: Southampton (Eng).

Delgado was the spearhead of the Ecuador team that propelled the Andean nation to the World Cup finals for the first time, his nine goals matched only by Hernan Crespo of Argentina in the Latin American qualifying round. Has electric pace and a keen eye for goal which makes him a tough assignment for opposing defenders. Delgado, known as 'Tin', has failed to settle with his new team Southampton since moving to England - he recently said he wanted to leave after the World Cup - but showed he has not lost his eye for goal by netting in Ecuador's 1-0 friendly victory over Yugoslavia recently. More goals in Japan would certainly raise his price tag should Southampton decide to part company with Delgado. He first grabbed world attention when he starred for Mexican club Necaxa in FIFA's inaugural World Club Championship in 1999 in the team that drew with Manchester United at Rio de Janeiro's famous Maracana Stadium before beating Real Madrid of Spain in the third-place play-off. Delgado also has a philanthropic side and has founded a school to help impoverished children in his homeland.

* IVAN KAVIEDES. Position: Forward. Age: 25. Club: Barcelona Guayaquil.

Kaviedes, whose full name is Jaime Ivan Kaviedes, has already widely travelled at the age of 25 and has played in Italy, Spain, Portugal and Mexico as well as his homeland. He became the first man from Ecuador to play in Italy's Serie A when he joined Perugia but after failing to establish himself in Spain with Celta Vigo he has been farmed out on several loan spells. He had a brief spell with Portugal's FC Porto but most recently was sent back to Ecuador to play for Guayaquil-based outfit Barcelona, the country's best supported club based in the Pacific Coast port. First hit the headlines with another Ecuadorean club Emelec for which he scored 43 goals in one season before embarking on his long round-the-world tour. Was the architect of Ecuador's qualifying victory over Brazil, setting up the winning goal for Delgado and winning the Man-of-the-Match award.

CROATIA

* DAVOR SUKER. Position: Striker. Age: 34. Club: 1860 Munich (Ger).

Whatever happens in Asia this summer Davor Suker's page in the World Cup history books is already written. Suker, with 45 goals in 67 matches for his country, made eventual winner France tremble in the last World Cup when he put Croatia 1-0 ahead in the second-half of the semi-final only for France to come back and win 2-1. He scored again in the third-place play-off against Holland to finish with six goals and end the tournament with the Golden Boot awarded to the top-scorer. One of the members of the Yugoslav under-21 team that won the 1987 World Cup for that age group in Chile this is probably the last outing on a major stage for Suker who now plays for German outfit 1860 Munich in the Bundesliga. Had a glittering spell with Real Madrid but was less successful in the English Premiership with London outfits Arsenal and West Ham. With Real he bagged more than 100 goals and won the Champions League in 1998 when Real beat Juventus in the final although he only appeared as a late substitute in that final. In recent matches he has been used behind the front two instead of as an out-and-out striker.

* ALEN BOKSIC. Position: Striker. Age: 32. Club: Middlesbrough (Eng).

Has replaced Suker as his country's top-rated striker and has played for some of Europe's top clubs. He made a name for himself with Marseille of France, featuring in the side that won the European Cup. Then tried his luck in Italy where he had two spells with Lazio as well as a stint with Juventus. His most recent club has been the less glamorous Middlesbrough but while his club remains competitive he was still named player of the year by fans of the northern English club in his first season where he topped the goalscoring charts.

MEXICO

* CUAUHTEMOC BLANCO. Position: Striker. Age: 29. Club: Valladolid (Spa).

Made a name for himself in France 98 with the 'cauteminha', a trick where he jumps over tackles with the ball trapped between his own feet. But Blanco is not just a show pony but his country's most dangerous striker when he puts his mind to it. He fell out with coach Javier Aguirre and the Mexican Federation earlier this year when he had a row over travel expenses. When he was welcomed back into the squad reports said that the player was overweight. Has a tendency to shoot from all angles and has one of the most powerful shots in the game. Scored in France 98 against Belgium and struck up a fine understanding with Luis Hernandez who bagged four goals in that tournament. Spent last season with Spain's Valladolid but will be moving in the summer although his destination remains unknown.

GROUP H BELGIUM

* MARC WILMOTS. Position: midfielder. Age: 33. Club: Schalke 04.

Belgium's captain and most experienced player, veteran midfielder Wilmots has proved time and again that he is a man for the big occasion. Since making his debut in 1990, Wilmots has scored a series of vital goals for his country, among them the all-important penalty which helped sink the Czech Republic in last year's play-offs. Physically strong, Wilmots' is a steely presence in the heart of the Belgium side but is best known as a goalscoring attacking midfielder, netting eight times during the qualifiers. Injuries have frequently interrupted his international career yet time and again he has returned to his best impressively. His form and fitness are likely to be vital to Belgium's World Cup chances.

* WESLEY SONCK. Age: 23. Position: Striker. Club: Genk.

Regarded as one of the hottest properties in Belgian football. Crowned Belgium's Footballer of the Year this season after a sparkling campaign for Genk which saw him top the goalscoring charts. Initially expected to partner or replace Emile Mpenza in attack, Sonck will now be expected to share the burden of Belgium's goalscoring responsibilities with Gert Verheyen following Mpenza's withdrawal from the squad through injury. Though slight in stature, Sonck has shown himself to be more than capable of leading the line, scoring 68 goals in five seasons with Genk. Has a knack of making clever angled runs into space which have created several goals this season, and is also good in the air. Believed to be keen on a move abroad, Sonck has already attracted the attention of several clubs across Europe, and a decent World Cup will intensify the race for his signature.

RUSSIA

* ALEXANDER MOSTOVOI. Position: Midfielder. Age: 33. Club: Celta Vigo (Spa).

A classy midfielder, Mostovoi is considered to be the most creative player in the Russian squad. Accurate freekicks and corners have become a hallmark of his playing style. A popular figure as captain of his club in Spain, Celta Vigo's fans even raised money to build a monument in honour of Mostovoi. Was discovered by Russian manager Oleg Romantsev when he was coaching a third division Moscow-based side. After Romantsev joined Spartak Moscow he invited the midfielder to join the club. Won a Soviet league title with Spartak in 1989, and moved to Portuguese champion Benfica following the collapse of the Berlin Wall. An unhappy spell in Lisbon was followed by stints in France with Cannes and Strasbourg before he settled at Celta.

* YEGOR TITOV. Position: Midfielder. Age: 26. Club: Spartak Moscow.

Captain of Russian champion Spartak Moscow, Titov is an integral part of his country's midfield alongside Alexander Mostovoi, Valery Karpin, Dmitry Khohlov and Dmitry Alenichev. Titov enjoys a fine understanding with Mostovoi, both players combining to share the creative responsibilities. A firm favourite at Spartak, where he has won five league championships, he has also been twice named Russia's Player of the Year. Main weakness is defence. He has been repeatedly criticised for an apparent unwillingness to do his share of defending.