World Cup personalities

AS the World Cup finals approach, it is interesting to speculate what new faces will be seen, what new reputations will be made. So it was especially informative, recently, to watch the match which somehow transcended probability. Would you, I mean to say, ever have surmised that Nigeria would play Paraguay on the Queens Park Rangers ground in Shepherd's Bush, West London? But it happened, since it seemed to suit both teams and though tickets were insanely overpriced by the agency which ran, or tried to run, the game, keeping the crowd down to 6,000, nearly all of them Nigerian, though there was even a dispute about which ball should be used, there were things to be learned from the 1-1 draw. A result which, perhaps, flattered a Nigerian team packed with young newcomers and way below full strength.

In that team, there was no doubt which was the outstanding figure, the player who could make the difference for Nigeria in the World Cup, where they find themselves in a very tough group with England, Denmark and Argentina: provided always that he is given better, more experienced support than he got at QPR: Jay Jay Okocha.

To be frank, Okocha is hardly an international newcomer, since he already did well in the 1998 World Cup when the Nigerians, after a sensational start when they beat Spain, seemed to take their foot off the gas and eventually went down heavily: to Denmark.

That evening in West London, Okocha looked to me the complete inside forward - a far more exact description than mere midfielder. In such an inexperienced side, he took on huge responsibility, never stopped running and working, using the ball with steady intelligence and accuracy. Now 28, he cost a vast &pound14 million when Paris Saint Germain bought him from Turkey's Fenerbache, after the '98 World Cup, but he now says he wants to leave them at the end of his contract in the summer and come to England. One assumes the Bosman ruling will apply which would mean that he would come for nothing; at least in terms of transfer fee, though his salary would be vast.

On the Paraguayan team was the much younger striker, 20-year-old Roque Santa Cruz. Making his name as a teenager in the Copa America championship, Roque was promptly snapped up by Bayern Munich where, with such a proliferation of strikers, he has spent much time on the bench. Now, however, he seems to figure, either as a starter or substitute, in most of their games, as he surely should. He is tall, strong, adept in the air, neat on the ground and has pace. Having had his international baptism at 17, he will have no fears of World Cup competition. He'll be his country's chief hope of goals.

Another, more mature, striker who could make an impact is Vincenzo Montella of Roma and Italy. Till late in this season, you would not have given him much chance at all of finding a place in a squad with such a proliferation of strikers available: his club-mate Marco Delvecchio, Filippo Inzaghi, now back from injury, formidable left-footer Bobo Vieri, Alex del Piero. But after spending months out of action through injury, Montella returned in a blaze of goals and glory. A record four in a 5-1 crushing of Lazio in the Roman derby, two when he came on in the second half at Leeds in the friendly against England.

The first was a glorious left-footed drive, the second a coolly taken penalty. He now has a renewed contract at Roma worth &pound3 million a year, though his relations with his manager Fabio Capello continue to be uneasy. Last season he very nearly left the club, dissatisfied at being omitted so often. Lately he has again expressed a wish to be a regular first choice. He'll turn 28 during the World Cup and is at his peak.

Born near Naples, he spent five seasons in C1, third division soccer with the little Tuscan club Empoli, before at last breaking through in Serie B with Genoa; 21 goals in 34 games. There was a bitter outcry when he then joined that city's rivals, Sampdoria, where he stayed for three seasons. Then in 1999 he joined Roma; and went on scoring goals.

That Leeds gave was a contrasting one for little Joe Cole, the very young West Ham United forward; inside-forward, I feel tempted to say, again. Twice he'd lose the ball in his second half appearance, once oddly to his own profit, once disastrously. On the first occasion he somewhat ambitiously tried to beat Alessandro Nesta the ultra-experienced Italy centre-back, only for Nesta, still more presumptuously, having won the ball, decided to back heel. So Cole retrieved it and put through Robbie Flower to score.

Perhaps this went to his head because, before long, now in a far deeper position, he tried to beat his man, lost the ball, and through it went for Montella to score. Criticism was severe, it was declared that Joe was simply not mature enough to play for England, let alone in a World Cup. Three days later, I was at Upton Park, to see Joe start wide on the left but eventually to play an influential, intelligent game all across the line. Glenn Roeder, his manager, defended him saying - just as Sven Goran Eriksson, England's manager, had defended Joe - that criticism was out of place. Cole was learning and it might still be a few years before he reached full maturity.

Perhaps, but who else have England got to do the unexpected? Another youngster, in Owen Hergreaves of Bayern Munich, came on as sub to do a more solid job in midfield than Cole at Leeds and he was impressive in a European Cup semi-final for Bayern versus Real Madrid. He probably deserves his place in the World Cup squad though he seems essentially to be a strong supporting cast and not a match-winner on his own.