The two who have defied the odds

A. VINOD

WITH the appointed hour looming large, David Beckham, his injured leg on the mend, should be thanking his stars. He is now sure to be there at the World Cup, guiding England's fortunes with the hope that some of his luck would rub off on his team as well, in what looks to be a tough and demanding campaign for it.

By that count, the veteran striker Claudio Cannigia should also be a very happy man now that he has been selected to don Argentine colours at the World Cup for a third time, the recurrence of a knee injury notwithstanding. Cannigia, 35, was a key player for his country in 1990 and 1994 but was not picked by Daniel Passarella in 1998.

Beckham and Cannigia could, of course, form an exclusive club in Asia, having defied the odds and earned the right to play for their respective countries in football's signature event. With luck, undoubtedly, playing an important role in their rehabilitation.

But then, in sharp contrast, elsewhere at least two players (four, if we also count Nicolas Anekla, the Liverpool-based French striker and Turkish defender Ogun Temikanoglu) are certain to curse their ill-luck for having missed the World Cup bus for reasons other than their own fitness or form. Romario and Roberto Baggio, still demi-gods in their own right and to their countless fans, but players clearly over the hill in the eyes of Luiz Felipe 'Big Phil' Scolari and Giovanni Trapattoni.

Or how else would one explain this irony on the (rather expected) exclusion of Romario which came just about an hour or two later after the veteran striker and hero of the 1994 Brazilian triumph had overtaken the great Pele in terms of scoring average (0.946 goals per game to the King's average of 0.931 goals per match) with a penalty-converted goal for his club Vasco da Gama in a Rio league match. Or how Baggio, with the media fully on his side, was still left out after having staged a great comeback from a near debilitating injury with dreams of playing in a fourth World Cup.

True, that Scolari and Trapattoni might have had their own reasons to overlook the claims of these veterans which they might explain at a later date. But for now, Romario and Baggio seem to have no other go except to overcome the rude shock over their exclusion and to watch the World Cup as any other spectator. Just like a host of other players destined to do so in preceding weeks, either due to injury or because their countries failed to make it into the final round.

In fact, even a quickly compiled checklist (see accompanying box) of those key players who would be missing Asia's first World Cup itself is revealing. Over 50 of them, all players with proven track record in their own countries and abroad, who would have showcased their skill and talent with such a pleasure at the World Cup, devoted as they have remained over the last several years embodying the cause of this simple game and the spirit of competition.

Shocking, to say the least, is the toll of players who are to spend the summer on the sidelines due to injury: Gary Neville (England), Jens Nowotny and Mehmet Scholl (Germany), Robert Pires (France), Gianluca Pessotto (Italy), Igor Tudor (Croatia) Josep Guardiola and Sergi (Spain) and Nelson Vivas (Argentina), to name only a few. Players who could have otherwise added pep to their country's campaign for glory with their individual brilliance, but now cruelly left behind by their own fate and ill-luck to remain in bed with their dream of playing in the World Cup totally shattered.

"To be considered great, a footballer has to have taken part in at least one World Cup, otherwise his record of achievements will never be truly complete," Ivan Zamorano, for years Chile's exceptional striker, had said once. He had played at France '98 and, according to himself, it was the most sensational feeling that he had ever experienced throughout his outstanding career. Zamorano had badly wanted to experience the same feeling all over once again but sadly Chile's World Cup aspirations were crushed quite early in the South American qualifiers, forcing the great striker into retirement last year.

But Zamarono was not the only one to have had his bubble burst by November last year, when the qualifiers came to an end. Many other famous and classy soloists too have fallen on their faces with highly-rated teams like Holland, Yugoslavia, Colombia, Romania, Scotland, Morocco and Iran having failed to stay on course, in the path to the World Cup. And though their exit is, as such, an apt example that it takes more than a few sure-footed players to build a strong side, it does only mean that the spectators in Asia will not have the chance of seeing in action some of the well-known stars of contemporary football.

Take for example, Holland, which despite a collection of polished individual players in Edgar Davids, Frank de Boer, Patrick Kluivert, Marc Overmars, Dennis Bergkamp, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Phillip Cocu couldn't form a cohesive strike force and was dumped by Ireland on the wayside. Or Colombia, first-time winner of the Copa America last year and boasting of at least half a dozen world class players in Oscar Cordoba, Ivan Cordoba, Juan Pablo Angel and Faustino Asprilla, suffering much like Chile due to the dream run enjoyed by Ecuador in the South American qualifiers.

Indeed, the reasons for the failure of these teams to qualify could be manifold, but in very few cases can the downfall be put down to plain bad luck as the qualification for the World Cup is not won or lost in a single game. The days when a team could scrape through with three of four outstanding players also looks far removed as the secret of success, these days, is a careful blend of teamwork, discipline and organisation. As exemplified by none other than the French themselves, who missed USA 94 yet four years later became the world champion; learning well from their past mistakes with patience, trust and staying power while getting back on the road to success.

The story behind the French renaissance could well be a good example for the Dutch, the Yugoslavs, the Romanians, the Scots and others to follow in the future, but that the coming World Cup would be poorer in the absence of quite a few established stars is something which cannot be simply wished away. Oh! what a pity.

Notable absentees

Australia: Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka, Paul Okon, Tony Vidmar.

Bulgaria: Krassimir Balakov, Georgi Markov, Gueorgiu Ivanov.

Colombia: Oscar Cordoba, Ivan Cordoba, Juan Pablo Angel, Faustino Asprilla.

Chile: Ivan Zamorano, Marcelo Salas, Clarence Acuna, Pablo Contreras.

Egypt: Ibrahim Hassan, Hossam Hassan, Abdel Sabry, Hany Ramzy.

Ghana: Emmanuel Kuffour, Samuel Kuffour, Charles Amoah, Derek Boateng.

Honduras: Milton Reyes, David Suazo, Carlos Pavon.

Holland: Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Marc Overmars, Dennis Bergkamp, Phillip Cocu.

Iran: Mehdi Mahdavikia, Karim Bagheri, Ali Daei.

Jamaica: Ian Goodison, Theodore Whitmore, Deon Burton.

Morocco: Abdeljilil Hadda, Said Chiba, Noureddine Naybet, Rachid Neqrouz.

Norway: Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer, Tore Andre Flo, Ronny Johnsen, Oyvind Leonhardsen.

Romania: Gheorge Popescu, Dorinel Munteanu, Adrian Mutu, Adrian Ilie.

Scotland: Paul Lambert, Don Hutchinson, Neil McCann, Craig Burley.

Yugoslavia: Predrag Mijatovic, Dejan Stankovic, Savo Milosevic, Mateja Kezman.

Note: The list includes only key players from countries which had failed to qualify for the World Cup.