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   June 5, 2002 | 2035 IST



France get the blues

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No easy games at World Cup

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It has become a familiar sight in world soccer over the past decade.

A major footballing nation is embarrassed by unfancied opponents and the losing coach trudges reluctantly to the post-match news conference to explain his side's defeat.

"It's only to be expected," he says. "After all, there are no easy games in international football these days."

It always sounds like a tired excuse, but the 2002 World Cup finals have suggested it is increasingly true.

Senegal, South Korea, Japan and the United States have shown that the traditional powers of the game can no longer have things their own way, while Cameroon and Nigeria have also played well.

Only Saudi Arabia have looked hopelessly out of their depth.

As recently as 1982, not a single team from outside Europe and Latin America made it to the second round of the World Cup.

Who would bet on that happening this time?

16 DOWN, 48 TO GO

Wednesday saw the teams complete one quarter of the matches in the month-long tournament. All 32 countries in South Korea and Japan have now played, and the entertainment level has been high.

The first 16 matches served up 46 goals -- nine more than at this stage in France four years ago. Unlike then, there has not been a single goalless draw.

The first and last of those 16 matches provided the two biggest shocks of the tournament -- France's 1-0 defeat by Senegal and Portugal's 3-2 loss to the United States.

Germany hammered the Saudis 8-0 but, other than that, the World Cup superpowers, particularly Argentina and Brazil, have had to work hard for their points.


Senegal's victory over France on the opening night confirmed the growing strength of African football, while the U.S. showed how far they have come since 1998, when they lost all three of their group matches.

A few years ago, the Japanese would have happily settled for a draw against Belgium, but not now.

At 2-2 in Saitama on Tuesday, they poured forward in search of a winner and would have got it had their outstanding midfielder Junichi Inamoto not fouled his opponent seconds before he found the back of the Belgian net.

In France in 1998, the South Koreans shipped nine goals in three matches, extending their dire World Cup finals record to 14 matches and 48 years without a win.

It is hard to reconcile those statistics with their fluid, confident 2-0 defeat of Poland on Tuesday.

The Asian sides have looked as well prepared, organised and fit as their European and South American rivals and, refreshingly, no longer seem in awe of them.

China have been the exception, tamely surrendering 2-0 to Costa Rica in their first ever finals appearance.

But it is surely only a matter of time before they too realise their enormous footballing potential.

When they do, life will become harder still for the likes of Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, Italy and England.

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