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   27 May, 2002 | 1500 IST


Brazil get cracking

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Most open Cup set for kick-off

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Mike Collett

France may be the world champions, Argentina the favourites and South Korea and Japan the co-hosts, but there are very few clues as to who will win the most open World Cup in history.

The 17th World Cup kicks off on Friday when France play Senegal in Seoul, six years to the day after former FIFA president Joao Havelange announced that the two Asian neighbours would share the honour of staging the tournament.

Since then the Koreans and Japanese have had to put aside a thousand years of rivalry to produce a setting worthy of the greatest event in world sport.

If the dramas that unfold on the field matches the breath-taking beauty of the 20 stadiums being used to stage the games, the World Cup will be one to remember.

For the first time since the tournament began in 1930, it is not being held in Europe or the Americas and that fact alone is likely have an impact on the outcome. Only once, in 1958 when Brazil won in Sweden, has any team triumphed outside their own continent, an achievement that will almost certainly be repeated on June 30.

The Koreans and the Japanese do not expect to win the World Cup and with fellow Asians China and Saudi Arabia unlikely to survive the opening round, the first co-hosted World Cup, the first to be held in Asia and the first of the 21st century is most likely to be won by a European or South American team.

The only threat could come from Africa. Pele predicted an African nation would win the World Cup by 2000 and he might yet be proved wrong by only two years, with African champions Cameroon potentially one of the surprises of the tournament.

First, however, France will have to stumble.

Four years ago as hosts, inspired by a series of superb performances by Zinedine Zidane, France memorably beat Brazil 3-0 in the final to win the World Cup for the first time. They will defend their crown with something they did not have then -- a potent strike force. They won the tournament through midfielders getting forward to score and a rock solid defence. Now they have players like Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet and Sylvain Wiltord in attack and look even better than in 1998. They have lost only three competitive matches in the last nine years and could become the first nation since Brazil (1958 and 1962) to win successive World Cups.


Argentina will have other ideas. They romped to victory in the South American qualifying competition and are blistering in attack, with 42 goals in 18 qualifiers. With Hernan Crespo or Gabriel Batistuta leading the attack, supported by Kily Gonzalez, and Ariel Ortega, Juan Sebastian Veron and Diego Simeone in midfield, Argentina have few weaknesses.

Coach Marcelo Bielsa has worked hard at curbing the short tempers that have undermined their progress in the past and although there are questions marks over the defence, Argentina will be too strong for most teams.

Much depends on their first round meeting with England in Sapporo on June 7. England might not have the all-round strength of Argentina, but they could reach the latter stages of the tournament. Much will depend on whether captain David Beckham is fit enough to play.

With Nigeria and Sweden in the same group, neither Argentina or England are assured of reaching the second round. Whoever finishes second in the group is also likely to play France in the second round, so they face an awesome task.


Traditional powers Germany and Brazil had difficult routes to the World Cup, with the former scraping through the European play-offs and the latter only ensuring their place with a 3-0 win over Venezuela in their final qualifier.

Brazil, of course, are the only country to have taken part in all 16 previous finals and a World Cup without them is almost unthinkable. They will be desperate to make up for their defeat by France four years ago and Ronaldo, if he is fit, will be on a personal mission to rebuild his reputation after illness forced him to play like a ghost in the 1998 final.

Brazil can never be discounted, but under coach Luis "Big Phil" Felipe Scolari they have abandoned Pele's "Beautiful Game" and their more pragmatic style may only see them through to the last eight.

Germany are also going through a period of transition and with several key players ruled out through injury will have one eye on the 2006 finals on home soil. They look good enough to survive a first round group also comprising Ireland, Saudi Arabia and Cameroon, but a quarter-final place would represent a real achievement.

Among those bidding to win the World Cup for the first time , Portugal and Spain have high hopes, while Italy, under coach Giovanni Trappatoni, believe their 20-year wait for their fourth world title is about to end.

They could well be right.

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