Window to the future

A. VINOD

THE World Cup is indeed a stage where the big boys excel with their grace, poise and experience. But, as in 1958 in Sweden when the great Pele, then only 17, announced his arrival to the rest of the world, the 2002 World Cup, too, could be a window to the future. Quite a few youngsters look prepared to parade their talent and launch themselves into the big stage. With age on their side they hope to gain global acclaim if not this year then in 2006 (Germany) or even in 2010 when football's signature event is expected to travel to Africa for the first time.

Significantly, the allure of the World Cup is far too good to resist as the painstaking efforts of these youngsters to remain in focus testify. A good example being the young English striker, Michael Owen, who, at 22, has already been honoured with the European Player of the Year award. And what more, the English captaincy itself coming his way at such a tender age, though by default. Strictly speaking it would be hard to club Owen with the rest of the young brigade who would be hoping to have their place under the sun in Asia.

For, even at this age, he is a battle-hardened veteran having served the English side well for a better part of the last five years. He had represented his country in France '98 and his goal (off a solo run through the defence which culminated in a devastating finish into the top left-hand corner of the net) against Argentina is still very much etched in memory. Blessed with the twin qualities of pace and finish, Owen is undoubtedly one of the top marksmen in the game today. His hat-trick against Germany came a long way in his country's qualification for the World Cup.

Owen's other strengths are his outstanding close control, the timing of his runs, his vision and the deadly goal-scoring instincts which he has displayed time and again after becoming the youngest player in the 20th century to be awarded an English cap. (Aged 18 years and 59 days he was three months younger than the previous record-holder, Duncan Edwards of Manchester United, when he was called for national duty for the first time in February 1998 against Chile.) Added to that is his self-assurance and maturity which has made Owen a considerable threat to the rival defences.

Yet, the Liverpool striker has miles to go before he emerges as one of the greatest forwards that the game has ever seen. In that context, the 2002 World Cup could well be a new experience for Owen, as it is sure to test his character and enterprise in equal measure. Especially, if David Beckham, down with a foot injury, fails to recover in time to lead his country's challenge in Asia where England once again has Argentina on its menu.

Having been the focal point of an Italian side that had remained unbeaten in the qualifiers, Francesco Totti is another player who looks all set to leave behind an indelible impression in Asia. The last two years have been quite incredible for this young AS Roma player who, last year, had led his club to its first Serie A title in 18 years after having emerged as the creative lynchpin for Giovanni Trapattoni's Italian squad. He is hopeful that the World Cup will provide him with the perfect stage to display his vast potential.

Totti is a rare commodity in modern football having the ability to play both as a striker and a resourceful midfielder. However, Trapattoni is likely to use him as a withdrawn forward, placing Totti behind his two key strikers, Christian Vieri and Filippo Inzaghi. A role which the youngster himself prefers, given his proven talent to roam around the midfield and venture deep and wide into the flanks and to stir up defence-splitting passes from away. Closer to the goal he also has the ability to turn sharply and shoot or put through his colleagues upfront with incisive passes.

Added to his tremendous dribbling skills is Totti's clinical finishing which is evident from the tally of 12 goals that he notched up for his club last season. Totti has indeed reached the summit of Mount Cervino but whether he would be able climb Mount Everest is the lingering question as Trapattoni prepares himself to launch the Azzuris in search of a fourth World Cup. Totti's role, undoubtedly, could be crucial in such a quest. For, he is central to the Italian attack as is the peerless Paolo Maldini to the Italian defence.

With Oliver Bierhoff almost over the hill, Germany's expectations of a quarterfinal berth in the World Cup seem to rest on the shoulders of Miroslav Klose, who, within a short period, has pronounced himself as a capable striker. His hat-trick against Israel in a recent friendly match was a good indication of his scoring prowess.

Klose, in fact, could be a solution to all the injury problems of the German coach, Rudi Voller. The youngster seems to be well focussed with the task on hand and more importantly, a quick learner. A trained carpenter, Klose's leap from Germany's fifth division to the national team has already evoked surprise in many quarters but with talent and age on his side, this young striker, standing tall at 1.82m and good at the air, holds a lot of promise.

Senegal's El Hadji Diouf, Africa's latest Footballer of the Year, is another player who would be trying to break into the big-time league in Asia. A very powerful runner, who combines that quality with his deft ball control, it was Diouf's prolific form in front of the goal that proved to be the catalyst for Senegal's surprise qualification at the expense of fancied Morocco from African Group C qualifiers.

And as Senegal makes its appearance in the World Cup for the first time, it is only to be expected that Diouf would seek to explore his future in international football with a keener approach than what has helped him to become the darling of the crowds back home. Dubbed as the 'Serial Killer', the French-based striker, who plies his trade with Lens since June 2000, has an uncanny ability to work up his pace and finish off with a blistering shot without giving the rival goalkeepers much chance to save.

However, Diouf needs to work a little at becoming a team player. Instead of passing the ball to an unmarked team-mate, he sometimes prefers to go it alone. This has often cost Senegal much especially against tougher opposition but to coach Bruno Metsu, the 21-year-old still remains a worthy winner. "According to me he has been fantastic. He has all the qualities you want in a striker, he is very quick and he doesn't hesitate at all in front of the goal. When he gets a chance he takes it."

Poland, making its return to the World Cup after a gap of 16 years, has a sensible young striker in Emmanuel Olisadebe, who should be dreaming of enjoying a good outing in Asia. The last season, in particular, had been quite amazing for this 22-year-old Nigeria-born as he helped his adopted country to gain a spot in the World Cup besides helping his club, Polonia Warsaw, win the Polish championship title.

Now on loan to Greek club, Panathinaikos, Olisadebe is a forward whose craft and agility can push rival defences back into the wall. He is quick off his feet and an artful dodger who can also work hard to push his way forward with possession. Added to these abilities should be his major asset, finishing off in style with deadly precision from away and like lightning thunderbolts from close to goal. The success story of Olisadebe, while overcoming racial taunts early in his career, is also seen as a good sign of his mature temperament and determination to excel.

Cameroon will definitely be looking forward to a sound performance from its veteran skipper Patrick Mboma to take it back to the great heights that it scaled in 1990. But in Eto' O Fils, the side has a young player who has already been hailed back home as the new Roger Milla. An outstanding midfielder who has the talent to punish his shadow with searing runs, keep the ball in possession and create that expected opening from either flank for his striking colleagues up front, Fils will be approaching his second World Cup with enthusiasm knowing fully well that he would not be left behind in the bench as during France '98. Emerging from the 1996 Cameroon Cup as one of Africa's brightest prospects, the 22-year-old is a footballer of rare quality as he also possesses a superb ability to destroy rival defences with ease and score at will. That Spanish giant Real Madrid signed him as a teenager without any second thoughts is apt proof of Fils' goalscoring feats and creative ability. Now with Real Mallorca, after he failed to break through into the first eleven of the star-studded Real side, his 11 goals last season helped the Palma club to the third place in the Primera Liga.

It is unlikely that Ronaldinho will make it to the first eleven of the Brazilian side during the World Cup with Ronaldo and Rivaldo back in action. But that, in no way, should let anyone underestimate the true virtues of this young striker who, at 22, is already a nightmare for even the most seasoned of defenders. Ronaldinho had shown in the recent friendlies against Yugoslavia and Portugal, that he may not stay in Ronaldo's shadow for long.

He is already the toast at Paris Saint-Germain with his deft dribbling and artistry with the ball, not to leave out his striking abilities. Ever since his arrival at the French capital, the young Brazilian has stamped his mark, injecting guile into the PSG attack that had earlier been struggling to keep pace in the French championship. However, Ronaldinho's dream is to team up with Rivaldo and Ronaldo, his two idols, as he hopes that such an opening could provide him with the opportunity to lay on great balls and score goals alongside the duo.

Another player sharing the same fate of Ronaldinho and who is still not sure of a place in his country's World Cup squad is Argentina's Javier Saviola. With Gabriel Batistuta, Hernan Crespo and Claudio Lopez all sure to be in Marcelo Bielsa's squad, Saviola is still fighting against Julio Cruz and Claudio Caniggia for one of the remaining slots up front.

It is too early, for sure, to say anything positive about Saviola's chances of making the final squad as Caniggia, at least as of now, seems to hold a slight edge. But, given a chance, the young striker who was signed by Barcelona for $28 million last July, has the necessary qualities to make a world class striker. The pint-sized 20-year-old had an outstanding run in the last World youth championship where he almost single-handedly helped Argentina to the title and top-scored in the tournament with a tally of 11 goals.

He has been in the same productive vein this season as well and it is no wonder then that Saviola is already dreaming to add a World Cup medal to his rich collection. But then, Bielsa will have the last say.

However, it is when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Watch out, then, for this young brigade who will be out there in strength to capture your heart and that of the rest of the world.