The final round of the World Cup in football, played for the first time in Asia, opens on May 31 in the capital of South Korea, which co-hosts the event with Japan.
BILLIONS of people, transcending geographical boundaries and time zones and distinctions such as colour, caste and creed, look all set to be united, through the next few weeks, by one mantra, the World Cup. Football's greatest event, the World Cup's final round, being held for the first time in Asia, will have its kick-off on May 31 in Seoul.
This World Cup is also the first to be hosted by two countries - South Korea and Japan. Of the 32 teams that are in the fray for the coveted FIFA Cup, 29 have emerged from an arduous sequence of 779 qualifying matches held between March 4, 2000 and November 25, 2001. There are three direct entrants - the holders France and the two host countries.
Indeed, Korea and Japan seem to have left no stone unturned in their preparations to host the event; they have tried to iron out the political differences that existed between them over the years and work hand in hand for the success of the World Cup. They spent a mind-boggling $2 billion for the 20 new stadia - 10 in each country.
Each stadium is marked by architectural splendour and has facilities that far outstrip the best of what has been offered to players, officials, spectators and the media till date. This also signals the start of a new era in the history of Asian sport: the total operational cost for the tournament is now expected to touch a staggering $1,200 million, the expenses on the stadia excluded.
The winner of the tournament will take home $5.33 million, almost 70 per cent more than what France was awarded when it knocked Brazil off the pedestal in Paris in 1998. The French, incidentally, are once again the favourites for the title, alongside Argentina, Brazil and Italy. Portugal and England are emerging as outside bets.
In the post-War era, no team other than Brazil has won back-to-back World Cups and no team has won three major titles in a row in world football so far. But then, the French, who added the European championship two years ago to their tally of world titles, have looked invincible in recent times and could rewrite record books as they emulate the 1958 and 1962 World Cup triumphs of the Brazilians.
France boasts of the phenomenal skills of Zinedine Zidane, arguably the best player in the game today, and a brilliant line-up comprising Fabian Barthez at the goal, Lilian Thuram, Marc Desailly, Bixente Lizarazu and Frank Lebeouf in defence, Patrick Vieira as the defensive shield, Emmanuel Petit and Laurent Robert in the midfield, and Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet upfront. They fit well into the 4-1-3-2 system that was adopted by Roger Lemerre, the French manager, through the better part of the last three years with exceptional success.
The French are expected to stroll through Group A in the first round where they face Denmark, Uruguay and Senegal. (Senegal makes its World Cup debut this year along with Ecuador, China and Slovenia.) But the champion side could land in trouble in the second round as it is grouped with Argentina, England and Brazil in the same half of the 64-match main draw. Thirty-two matches are scheduled to be played in each of the two host nations.
With two teams each from the eight preliminary groups qualifying for the second round, the French are scheduled to meet in the pre-quarterfinals the runner-up in the "Group of Death" (Group F), which could be Argentina, England, Nigeria or Sweden. And beyond that, the 1998 winner could meet Brazil in the quarterfinals and Argentina in the semifinals if Argentina avoids meeting the Les Blues in the second round.
While a final between the French and the fancied Argentineans, in Yokohama, Japan, on June 30, is thus ruled out, a potential threat to the two sides and also Brazil is Italy, a three-time winner. Italy has been lucky to get a favourable draw. However, it is tipped to face Cameroon or Germany, and Portugal or Spain on its path to the title round, each capable of springing a surprise.
Yet, it is hard to write off Argentina. It stormed into the final round as the winner of the South American qualifying matches with as many as four matches to spare. It is a team that appears to be more formidable than France. Although every match in its group would be as intensely fought as a cup final, the two-time winner could still rule the roost here and beyond if its key players - Gabriel Batistuta, Hernan Crespo, Juan Sebastian Veron, Roberto Ayala, Diego Simone, Ariel Ortega and Javier Zanetti - produce the same magic as in the qualifying round.
Brazil, in contrast, had a poor run in the qualifying round before it ensured that its record was intact. (Brazil is the only side that has played in all World Cup final rounds.) But bolstered by the return of Ronaldo, its key striker, from injury to competitive football, Brazil looks quite a transformed side. It should breeze its way past the first round, where it is drawn together with Turkey, China and Costa Rica in Group C. In search of a record fifth title, the Brazilians are thereafter slated to meet the runner-up of Group H, which is comprised of Japan, Russia, Belgium and Tunisia. Other than Ronaldo, the key figures in the team are Roberto Carlos, Emerson, Ronaldinho Gaucho and Rivaldo. However, doubts remain about the fitness level of Rivaldo, who plays for FC Barcelona at club-level.
Expectations of Italy's progress from the bottom half of the draw are based on the fine blend of youth and experience the team has. It is drawn in Group G along with Croatia, Mexico and Ecuador in the initial league, wherein only Croatia, a surprise semifinalist at France '98, looks capable of causing an upset. Subsequently it could be either South Korea, the United States or Poland in the second round, depending upon which among these three teams will emerge behind Portugal, the possible topper in Group D.
The real challenge for the Italians could be a meeting with either Cameroon or Germany in the quarterfinals and possibly Portugal or Spain in the semifinals. Italy seems to have the right men in each department to overcome these obstacles - the experienced trio of Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro in defence ahead of custodian Gianluigi Buffon, and Gianlucco Ambrotta, Franceso Coco, Luigi di Biagio and Damiano Tommasi in midfield. The Italians play in a unique 3-4-1-2 system, and this should leave the highly talented Francesco Totti playing the role of an additional creator behind the two strikers, Christian Vieri and Filippo Inzaghi.
With Cameroon and Germany (drawn in Group E along with Ireland and Saudi Arabia) now pale shadows of their former selves, Italy should waltz its way into the semifinals and possibly go all the way if it successfully tackles Portugal. However, that could be a touch-and-go affair, with the resurgent Portuguese themselves boasting of a fine line-up, including Luis Figo, FIFA Player of the Year, and the equally brilliant Manuel Rui Costa, Jorge Costa, Nuno Gomes and Joao Pinto.
Portugal, which plays swift and dazzling football, is expected to emerge unscathed from Group D and again from its possible meeting with Croatia in the second round. Spain, with the irresistible Raul at the helm, could be the possible opponent for Portugal in the quarterfinals, if the former manages to leave behind its image as a perennial underachiever in world football and tackle Paraguay, Slovenia and South Africa in Group B in the first round.
Both Paraguay and Slovenia are possible giant-killers, and should they progress, that could lead to a scenario that would also affect the chances of Cameroon and Germany beyond the opening phase, just as England, with David Beckham and Michael Owen in lead roles, could disturb the equations in the top half of the draw with an inspired display.
In the event, only one thing looks certain: the co-hosts, South Korea (which is yet to achieve its first win in five appearances), and Japan (which is playing in its second World Cup) are unlikely to progress beyond the first or second round. In fact, entry into the second round by one of these two teams itself would be a big boost for Asian football in its effort to join the big league, so overwhelmingly dominated by European and South American countries.
Otherwise, the only attention that Asian football could possibly gain during the tournament would be from the presence of Bora Milutinovic, the 'miracle man' from Serbia who as coach of the Chinese team will be making his fifth straight World Cup appearance. He guided Mexico, Costa Rica, the U.S. and Nigeria in the last four editions.
The World Cup, right from 1930, has remained either with Europe or with South America, eight times in each case. The big question now is, which way will it travel from Asia? Could it be France, Italy, Argentina or Brazil?