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   June 7, 2002 | 1137 IST



France get the blues

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Flying start to the World Cup

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Even when it came, the first 0-0 draw of the World Cup between world champions France and Uruguay, was full of thrills, drama and excitement.

In fact, typical of the opening 20 matches of what are shaping up to be the most unpredictable World Cup finals ever.

From the opening match when Senegal beat the world champions 1-0, and by way of the United States' 3-2 victory over Portugal, South Korea's 2-0 win over Poland and Ireland's last-gasp 1-1 draw with Germany, the opening week of the World Cup has provided enough excitement to have fans talking for years -- and there are still three more weeks to go.

The 51 goals scored in the 20 matches so far represent 2.55 goals a match -- slightly down on the final 1998 average of 2.67 goals a game and the 2.71 average registered in 1994.

After 20 matches four years ago 47 goals had been scored at an average of 2.35 goals a match -- and there had also been two goalless draws.

Apart from Nigeria's 3-2 win over Spain in Nantes, there had also been no upsets to compare with has happened here beginning with the opening game between Senegal and France in Seoul which has set the tone for one of the most exhilarating weeks in World Cup history.


Ireland coach Mick McCarthy observed: "It has been an unpredictable start which has added to the excitement for everyone, and one of the reasons for that is because its not in South America or Europe.

"None of the big teams have home advantage and I think that is opening it up for everyone. Psychologically that is very important for the underdogs. I think you are going to see more surprises in the remaining first round games at least."

Ireland are among the teams to have already caused an upset. They did not beat Germany in their intense group E match in Ibaraki on Wednesday, but their last minute equaliser gave them a 1-1 draw to throw the group wide open.

Germany, who were just 70 seconds away from victory and an assured place in the second round, will be eliminated if they lose to Cameroon next Tuesday and Ireland beat Saudi Arabia on the same night. That outcome cannot be discounted. Stranger things have happened.


One of those was not just the United States' 3-2 win over Portugal in Suwon on Wednesday, but the manner of their victory.

The odds on the United States leading Portugal 3-0 after 36 minutes would have been astronomical but that is exactly how the match developed, evoking memories of the famous 1966 game between North Korea and Portugal when the North Koreans raced into a 3-0 lead, only to lose eventually 5-3.

On that occasion, Eusebio rattled in four goals for Portugal to save them -- this time Portugal only clawed back two goals and the United States held on for their first World Cup victory over a European side for 52 years.

Donna Hrinak, the US ambassador to Brazil told the Portuguese ambassador Antonio Franco at a reception: "For me, the three goals in the first half were a complete surprise." She can safely assume the rest of the world chorused: "You can say that again."


Apart from the upsets, the opening matches have generally been played in an encouraging sporting spirit, with the focus on the soccer rather than on fouling, shirt-pulling and red cards.

Only one incident has seriously blighted the finals -- Rivaldo's cynical play-acting in the Brazil v Turkey match in Ulsan which resulted in Hakan Unsal being sent off in the 90th minute.

Rivaldo's comments afterwards that he used his experience and his cunning to influence the South Korean referee Kim Young-joo to dismiss the irate Turk further brought the game into disrepute.

The Brazilian multi-millionaire was fined a paltry $8,000 by FIFA.

"No regrets" he said afterwards. "This is going to happen a lot at this World Cup." So far, there is no evidence to back his claim.

In 1998 Croatian Slaven Bilic reacted so dramatically to an imagined slap in the face from French defender Laurent Blanc during the World Cup semifinal that Blanc was dismissed by the unsighted referee and missed out on his place in the World Cup final against Brazil a few days later.

As a result of that blatant mis-carriage of justice, FIFA vowed to stamp out what they politely term "simulation" and the rest of the world calls "cheating" from this World Cup -- and should have made a greater example of a high profile player like Rivaldo. Still perhaps China will punish Brazil in another unlikely upset on Saturday.


So far no new tactical innovations have surfaced in the opening 20 matches with most teams opting for 4-4-2 or 3-5-2 formations -- although perhaps the Americans unwittingly showed the way forward by lining up in a 4-5-1 pattern against Portugal before proceeding to score three in just over half-an-hour.

What has emerged is, that, as ever, the host nation, or in this case nations, are inspired by playing at home.

Japan were only denied victory over Belgium by a crass refereeing error which denied Junichi Inamoto a deserved match-winning goal at Ibaraki on Wednesday, while South Korea, at their 15th attempt in six World Cups, finally recorded their first victory -- a 2-0 win over Poland in Pusan.

Some outstanding goals have already been scored, not least Dario Rodriquez's volley in Uruguay's 2-1 defeat to Denmark, Marc Wilmot's bicycle-kick that put Belgium 1-0 ahead against Japan, Inamoto's own solo effort in the same match, and Robbie Keane's dramatic injury-time equaliser for Ireland against Germany.

The atmosphere in the stadiums has been steadily improving after a somewhat polite and subdued start.

Ticket problems continue to drive fans crazy and the flight of the Fevernova ball is apparently causing problems to some players complaining of "odd flight patterns" induced by its red and gold markings.

Thomas van Schaik a spokesman for manufacturers Adidas, says there has never been a better, more accurate ball and suggests that perhaps some players need to get their eyes tested.

Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon has dismissed it as "a ridiculous kiddie's bouncing ball," but frankly, that's the players' problem. It has helped create a memorable opening week.

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