Midfielder Stig Inge Tofting rides a Harley with a group of
bikers, several of whom are now in jail. "They were my friends
before they got in trouble," he says, "so I don't see why I
should stop being their friend." When Tofting isn't
Stig-matizing foes with his crunching tackles, his teammates
attack in waves.
Midfield wizard Zinedine Zidane will rank among the top five
players in history if the defending world and Euro champs hoist
the Cup trophy. But an overreliance on past-their-prime regulars
Youri Djorkaeff, Christophe Dugarry and Frank Leboeuf will keep
that from happening.
Striker El Hadji Diouf, 21, the African player of the year, is a
devotee of Tupac Shakur. Considering his weak supporting cast,
Diouf's theme song should be the late rapper's Me Against the
Only Brazil, Germany and Italy have won more World Cups than
two-time champ Uruguay, but coach Victor Pua's boringly
defensive (some would say dirty) team won't survive this group.
Irascible goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert can win matches with
his saves and his free kicks, but his one-game Cup
suspension--after he spit in the face of Brazil's Roberto Carlos
last year--will keep Paraguay from advancing.
What are the odds that striker Zlatko Zahovic will become the
second straight player with the initials ZZ (following Zinedine
Zidane) to lord over the World Cup? Better than you might think.
Zahovic's buzz reached a fever pitch after his three goals at
Euro 2000. Look for him to lead the Cup's smallest country (pop.
1.9 million) to the second round.
"Results aren't that important to me," says coach Jomo Sono.
"We're building for the long term." Good thing, because the
short term doesn't look good for Bafana Bafana.
Why does mononymous striker Raul become synonymous with choke
artist as soon as he dons the Spanish colors? Perhaps because he
was anonymous during Spain's first-round washout at World Cup
'98, then missed a key penalty kick in Euro 2000. "I haven't
shown the best of me with the national team," says Raul. "I
desperately want to change that." Don't count on it.
He's a two-time FIFA World Player of the Year and the
fifth-leading scorer in his country's history despite missing
nearly three full seasons with injuries--and he's only 25. If
Ronaldo is back in form (and recent games suggest he is), look
for a rejuvenated Brazil to silence its howling critics back home.
God bless Bora Milutinovic, the gypsy coach who steered the
Chinese into their first World Cup. A great feat, yes, but the
talent to advance just isn't there.
The Ticos finished ahead of Mexico and the U.S. in qualifying,
but rampant injuries and reckless attacking--Three strikers?
What is this, 1950?--will make their second Cup a short one.
After a 48-year absence, the Turks are back, and they're staying
awhile, thanks to a dozen players with playing experience in top
GROUP D (Includes USA)
Nigerian-born striker Emmanuel Olisadebe, Poland's first black
player, had a rocky start in Eastern Europe (where racist fans
showered him with bananas during one game), but he won Poles
over with eight goals during Cup qualifying. Warning to the U.S.
(a first-round foe on June 14): The best Pole position is
goalkeeper, with Liverpool's Jerzy Dudek.
Are the Portuguese, a trendy pick to win the Cup and the first
opponent for the U.S., overrated? Midfielder Luis Figo, the
reigning world player of the year, has been in mediocre form of
late, and playmaker Rui Costa was injured for most of the club
season. After its electrifying semifinal run at Euro 2000,
though, Portugal has no shortage of confidence. Says coach
Antonio Oliveira, "We must stop being the best and come in first
To succeed at the World Cup, the U.S. will have to make South
Korea the first host country to fail to advance to the second
round. It won't be easy. Though the South Koreans are 0-10-4 in
five World Cups, they play well at home and have gifted
midfielders in Yoo Sang Chul and Ahn Jung Hwan (who plies his
trade for Serie A club Perugia). The U.S. and South Korea have
met twice in the past six months, with each team winning on home
soil, but the rubber match on June 10 is the only one that
Eto'o, brute? No, striker Samuel Eto'o is actually one of
several stylish attackers for the reigning Olympic and African
champions. The lout is captain Rigobert Song, the only player
ever to be ejected from games in two World Cups. The last two
Cups have had surprise semifinalists (Sweden in '94, Croatia in
'98), and Cameroon, explosive and organized, will become the
first African team to reach that lofty round.
In 1989 pundits said that reunification would create a
21st-century soccer juggernaut. While the former East Germany
has fueled the team with talent (led by rising star Michael
Ballack), its West German-born counterparts look like a lost
generation. "Our national team has no self-confidence, no
courage and no creativity," German legend Gunther Netzer moaned
recently. Other than that, things are great.
A former amateur boxer, Manchester United midfielder Roy Keane
is Ireland's lone superstar, an inspirational leader who can
pass and tackle with the world's elite. Unfortunately the
Fighting Irishman tends to get his Irish up--and get sent off.
If "the red mist descends," as Keane puts it, look out. If he
keeps his cool, and if his supporting players are as consistent
as they were during qualifying (when their side eliminated the
Dutch), Ireland will repeat its 1990 run to the quarterfinals.
The Sons of the Desert are here mainly because Iran somehow lost
to Bahrain on the last day of Asian qualifying. Midfielder Nawaf
Al-Temyat is the best of a thin bunch.
GROUP F (Includes Argentina)
The star (David Beckham) will be rusty, having just returned
from a broken left foot. Defender Gary Neville and midfielder
Steven Gerrard will miss the tournament with injuries. And if
the English lose or tie their opener against Sweden, they could
face a scenario in which Argentina, having won twice to clinch
first place in the group, has no incentive against the Swedes in
its final first-round match. Talk about irony: the English
relying on help from the Argentines for survival.
Political chaos, a revolving door of coaches and a terrible draw
don't augur well for the Super Eagles, despite the skills of
attacking players Jay Jay Okocha and Nwankwo Kanu.
Worth watching for more than just the dyed-red stripe in his
hair, speedy winger Freddy Ljungberg could emerge as the
surprise of the World Cup. His team, the most lightly regarded
side in the Group of Death, could be equally surprising. "All
three of our opponents think they will beat us easily," says
striker Markus Allback. "Good. It will make it that much sweeter
if we knock them out."
GROUP G (Includes Italy)
The Croats' firepower--Alen Boksic, 32; Robert Prosinecki, 33;
and Davor Suker, 34--is older than the Dinaric Mountains. The
loss of stopper Igor Tudor to an ankle injury means their
chances amount to a molehill.
So fearful for his life was coach Hernan Dario Gomez after being
shot in the leg last year--reportedly because he didn't pick the
son of Ecuador's former president for the youth national
team--that he fled for the relative safety of ... Colombia.
Adoring fans coaxed Gomez back, and he led the Ecuadorans to
their first World Cup berth. Si, se puede (Yes, it can be done)
is their rallying cry. We respond, citing their only healthy
scoring threat, 33-year-old Alex Aguinaga: No, it can't.
After losing a qualifier in Estadio Azteca for the first time
(to Costa Rica), Los Tricolores' trip to the Cup was in
jeopardy, but under fiery new coach Javier Aguirre, they made a
successful charge. With striker Cuauhtemoc Blanco fully healed
from a torn right ACL, Mexico should reach the second round for
the third straight time.
Perhaps the world's foremost perpetrators of boring, defensive
soccer, the Belgians leave us asking: Why did you have to
qualify instead of the neighboring Dutch?
Like Ichiro Suzuki, midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata is such a
popular export that travel agents in Japan do steady business
selling "Nakata tours" to Italy, where he plays for Parma.
Thanks to a sweetheart draw, vocal fan support and boundless
energy, Nakata and mates (particularly talented 22-year-old
midfielder Shinji Ono) will have what it takes to survive the
How did the Russians luck into a draw of Belgium, Japan and
Tunisia? "If we fail to qualify for the next round," says
assistant coach Mikhail Gershkovich, "we really have no excuse."
If the Carthage Eagles don't finish last in their group--they've
had five head coaches in the past 15 months--it will be a shock.
For more World Cup coverage, including on-the-scene reports from
Grant Wahl and team pages for each of the 32 competing nations,
go to cnnsi.com/worldcup.
ITALY (GROUP G)
Once the second round starts, Italy's half of the bracket (with
possible foes Germany, Portugal and Spain) will be far easier
than the other half (Argentina, Brazil, England, France). In
other words, punch the Italians a ticket to the final. They have
the planet's top goalkeeper, Gigi Buffon, and top defense, led
by the ageless Paolo Maldini, as well as sniper Christian (Bobo)
Vieri, perhaps the only Italian whose favorite athlete is a
cricketer (Sir Donald Bradman).
ARGENTINA (GROUP F)
The federation owes bonus money to its players and coaches, but
what are a few IOUs when you're the tournament cofavorite? The
Argentines lost only once in 18 qualifying matches, and they're
so stacked that one of their splendid center forwards, Gabriel
Batistuta or Hernan Crespo, won't even start. The Group of Death
awaits, but so too does a debt-clearing $6.4 million payoff,
which FIFA gives to the federation of the tournament runner-up.
USA (GROUP D)
Can the Americans' most complete player, midfielder Claudio
Reyna, finally make an impact on the world stage? Can the slow
back line hold firm? Can Clint Mathis become a genuine
goal-scoring threat? This much we know: The Yanks have the punch
to beat South Korea and tie Poland, the likely requirements to
reach the second round. They must, however, avoid being blown
out by group powerhouse Portugal on June 5. A loss by two goals
or more, and they will probably have to win their next two
matches to survive. Our prediction: Team USA will advance.
Who'll Rule the World?
Before you scoff at an American magazine's World Cup picks, bear
in mind: People snickered when SI tabbed host France to win its
first World Cup four years ago. This time around the French may
be cofavorites (with Argentina) to repeat as champions by taking
the final in Yokohama, Japan, but we'll cast our lot instead
with Italy, a veteran group fully capable of cashing in on the
kindest draw imaginable. --G.W.
FIRST ROUND (in predicted order of finish; top two from each
group advance to second round)
A B C D
FRANCE SPAIN BRAZIL PORTUGAL
DENMARK SLOVENIA TURKEY UNITED STATES
SENEGAL PARAGUAY CHINA POLAND
URUGUAY SOUTH AFRICA COSTA RICA SOUTH KOREA
E F G H
IRELAND ARGENTINA ITALY JAPAN
CAMEROON SWEDEN MEXICO RUSSIA
GERMANY ENGLAND CROATIA BELGIUM
SAUDI ARABIA NIGERIA ECUADOR TUNISIA
SECOND ROUND--JUNE 15 TO 18
E WINNER IRELAND ELIMINATES SLOVENIA B RUNNER-UP
G WINNER ITALY ELIMINATES U.S.A. D RUNNER-UP
E RUNNER-UP CAMEROON ELIMINATES SPAIN B WINNER
D WINNER PORTUGAL ELIMINATES MEXICO G RUNNER-UP
A WINNER FRANCE ELIMINATES SWEDEN F RUNNER-UP
C WINNER BRAZIL ELIMINATES RUSSIA H RUNNER-UP
F WINNER ARGENTINA ELIMINATES DENMARK A RUNNER-UP
H WINNER JAPAN ELIMINATES TURKEY C RUNNER-UP
QUARTERFINAL ROUND - JUNE 21 AND 22
ITALY ELIMINATES IRELAND
Too-talented Italians continue easy path to final by
overwhelming Roy Keane and mates.
CAMEROON ELIMINATES PORTUGAL
Indomitable Lions put cocky Portuguese back on heels, strike
last in goalfest.
BRAZIL ELIMINATES FRANCE
French reliance on old guard proves fatal as Brazilians avenge
'98 loss in Cup final.
ARGENTINA ELIMINATES JAPAN
Argentine second string could reach World Cup quarterfinals
SEMIFINAL ROUND - JUNE 25 AND 26
ITALY ELIMINATES CAMEROON
Maldini & Co. lock down Cameroonian attack. It isn't pretty, but
Italians know defense wins titles.
ARGENTINA ELIMINATES BRAZIL
Grudge match? Try bloodbath. Expect penalty kicks to decide
matters in this battle between South American neighbors.
FINAL ROUND--JUNE 30
ITALY ELIMINATES ARGENTINA
With one more day of rest, Italians punish still-gimpy
Argentines and join Brazil as only four-time world champions.