They are ready to set the world on fire

A. VINOD

THE World Cup, football's showcase event, is living proof of the age-old adage that "from tiny acorns mighty oak trees grow". And just as the popularity of the event has spread to every corner of the earth through the years, so correspondingly has the prestige attached to the winning of the World Cup grown out of all recognition among countries, both big and small. A tremendous progress in itself when you consider that only 13 teams had lined up for the 1930 inaugural affair in Uruguay and that 196 nations did vie for the 32 available spots for this year's tournament.

Historically, it is also an event in which the 'big boys' have always stood out, displaying their awe-inspiring skills and talent to gain respect from a truly global audience. Pele, Maradona, Puskas, Beckenbauer, Cruyff, Garrincha, Vava, Fontaine, Platini, Muller...to name only a few; whose tremendous performances will, for sure, remain etched in memory as long as the game itself is played. And it could be no different in Asia where Japan and South Korea are all geared up to co-host the World Cup for the first time.

Zinedine Zidane is arguably the best player in contemporary football.-AFP

Of course, as we look ahead to an exciting tournament with the attendant frills and thrills, hardly anyone can ignore the pleasing Zinedine Zidane, the world's most expensive and arguably the best player in contemporary football, from topping any checklist that deals with the men who could be guiding not only their country's destiny in the championship but also the new millennium's first World Cup itself. The hero behind the French triumph at home soil, the balding Real Madrid magician remains the same classy player that he was four years ago.

That the French side, despite an array of talent, remains justly formed around Zidane does speak volumes of the genius of this perfect attacking midfielder who has wonderful dribbling skills, a superb passing range, an eye for goal, a sublime touch and aerial ability and is a major threat from set-pieces. Besides, 'Zizou', as he is fondly called by his fans, has also this uncanny ability to pass and score with a seemingly lazy style but with deadly precision, thereby remaining central to the French hopes of defending the World Cup.

For Zidane himself, the coming World Cup is the ultimate challenge. A fact which he admitted during a recent interview: "We having the opportunity to achieve something no team has ever done before. To win back-to-back World Cups, with a European championship and Confederations Cup in between, would be truly exceptional. But we still have this challenge ahead of us and we will have to overcome each and every team we come up against if we are to win the World Cup. Doing so will be a great challenge in itself. However, the positive factor is that there's no need for motivation. You don't need any more motivation to win a second World Cup."

It is also somewhat amazing that Zidane has climbed back so quickly to great form after a definite dip early this year. Evidence of this being the captivating show that he displayed in the demolition of the Scots in a friendly earlier this month. But these friendlies are just the hors d'oeuvre for the man from Marseilles, for whom the plat de resistance remains the coming World Cup. Surely, Zidane will have some gourmet football ready in store for us as he steps into Asian soil.

Not far behind Zidane should be the FIFA Player of the Year, Luis Figo, who until his explosive show in Euro 2000 remained an under-rated player mostly because Portugal - his home country - did not enjoy the same status as Brazil, Argentina, Italy and France. But now it is all a story of the past and the truth is that the matured Figo - from the precocious youngster that he was while helping Portugal to win the world under-16 and under-20 championships - is today one of the most sought after playmakers in world football.

Luis Figo is a brilliant playmaker and is the head and heart of the Portuguese team.-AFP

To Figo's advantage is his ability to play in either wing. But now he plays in the midfield where he can dictate and thereby remain Portugal's creative lynchpin in the company of the equally brilliant Rui Costa. Supremely skillful, what also adds value to this Real Madrid star is his proficiency to take on and beat the best defenders of the game and also make killer passes to his colleagues up front.

In Asia, Figo should be both the head and heart of the Portuguese team that in the reckoning of many should remain one of the outside challengers for the World Cup. The only problem then should be his own fitness as Figo is yet to completely recover from an ankle injury that has been nagging him for some time lately. But should he return fit, Figo and Portugal could be a major threat to the designs of the other fancied teams as proven in Euro 2000. It will be hard to miss out this genial player who is technically so brilliant, quick off the mark and a great dribbler endowed with the heart to score at times.

Gabriel Omar Batistuta or simply known as "Batigol" is an elder statesman in world football today. And should Argentina face its moment of truth in Yokohama on June 30, it could well have this scoring machine firing on all cylinders right up in the front to torment the rival defence. Easily one of the top marksmen of our times, his ability to prise open defensive formations and guide the ball into the back of the net is quite legendary.

Or else, simply ask the Greeks or the Jamaicans who came directly under the firing line of Batistuta, who has this unique record of having scored hat-tricks in successive World Cups. Asia, however, represents his best chance to collar the so-far elusive World Cup medal with Argentina being one of the firm favourites for the title. A player equipped with excellent allround skills, he might have slowed down a bit through the last four years. But nonetheless the third-time World Cupper's thirst for goals remains insatiable as is proven by his own scoring record with AS Roma this season.

Batistuta would well be the pivotal force for Argentina in its search for a third World Cup. Though not in the same league of Maradona, his biggest asset is his temperament and the never-say-die spirit. A cool customer he rarely messes up the chances that come his way and his powerful finishing is something which custodians, the world over, have come to dread by now. For someone who began playing the game - Batistuta was past 17 when he switched from basketball to football - late, this 32-year-old may not be good in shaping up chances for his team-mates but that he least of all misses only a few is telling proof of why he is idolised by millions in this country and elsewhere.

A spectacular, effective and decisive striker who has often been compared with King Pele himself, Ronaldo represents the Brazilian quest for a record fifth title. Though sidelined by injury for the better part of the last two-and-a-half years, his recent return to competitive mode could well mark a change in tide for Brazilian football, which as such had a horrid time before, ensures its all-time record of being present in every World Cup intact.

It is indeed a mystery as to what happened to him, hours before Brazil took on France in the final of France '98. He looked dazed and was not his usual self as France rode to victory on the strength of a motivating display from Zinedine Zidane. Small wonder then that Ronaldo himself wants yet another France-Brazil final in Asia to exorcise the ghost of that fateful night in Saint Dennis. Should he regain the same composure and form which had earned for Ronaldo the FIFA World Player of the Year twice, Brazil could well be unstoppable as its most famed forward since Pele at the coming World Cup.

That all of Brazil is keenly awaiting Ronaldo's return to form will be an understatement. For with his enthusiasm, exceptional skills and delight in the game, Ronaldo is somebody who can lift the spirit of Brazilian football and take it to the level of its dream teams of the 1960s and 1980s. At his peak and in possession anything can happen. On the pitch, before getting injured, Ronaldo has proved that he can indeed do things that no other player can even dream of: drafting moves combining skills, balance, power and speed and scoring with his majestic touch. The biggest question haunting his fans today is whether they would be able to see the Ronaldo of old in Asia. In the typical Brazilian way.

Gabriel Batistuta (left) is easily one of the top marksmen in world football.-AFP

Yet another striker who should be aiming at an unforgettable outing in Asia will be Raul Gonzalez Blanco, the Spanish forward who like Zidane and Figo plies his trade at the club-level with Real Madrid. Relatively young, Raul, 24, can already look back to a glorious career having earned many laurels with his club. He is very mobile and light on his feet and likes to switch positions or go wide while in attack. He also has this proven aptitude to put his team-mates through into striking positions and create chances for himself even against the toughest of markers. Originally an out-and-out striker, he through the last few seasons has developed excellent link-up play, allowing him to remain behind the front men.

However, given Spain's record of being the perennial under-achievers of world football, it remains to be seen on how far Raul by himself can take his country ahead in Asia. Although present at France '98, the tournament itself was a great disappointment to Raul. But still his goal against Nigeria off a fantastic volley remains proof of the silken talents in this striker and from whom the whole of Spain is expecting bigger things in the coming World Cup.

Like Batistuta, Paolo Maldini will also be retiring from big-time football after the World Cup. It will be his fourth odyssey into the tournament having represented his country earlier in Italia '90, USA '94 and France '98. Arguably one of the finest defenders ever, Maldini, also Italy's most capped player, has a well-developed positional sense, is strong in the tackle and breaks forward effectively. He is equally home at left-back or in the centre of the defence and represents a pedigree far removed from the rest of his ilk.

Raul Gonzalez (left in pic) is a striker with a silken touch on whom the Spanish fortunes depend.-AFP

Fair play, in fact, is second nature to this 33-year-old who normally outwits marauding strikers not neccessarily with aggression but with his sense of timing. One of the most consistent performers for Italy over the last ten years, his displays for club (AC Milan) and country has shown that he is a class apart, combining tactical awareness with skill and pace. That the defence led by him allowed just three goals in eight matches before Italy earned direct qualification only means that his resolve is strong as ever. Given his maturity, flair and vision and his ability to occasionaly venture into attack down the left flank, Maldini should remain a key ingredient in Italy's hopes for the World Cup.

So, Zidane, Figo, Batistuta, Ronaldo, Raul and Maldini. Each capable of setting newer standards and accomplished enough to set the world on fire. They could be the ones shaping the destiny of the first World Cup on Asian soil. Come hell or high water!