The rise of the underdog

Print edition : June 22, 2002

The World Cup in football reaches the knockout stage, and it has been upsets all the way.

SOUTH KOREA, co-hosting with Japan the 2002 FIFA World Cup, presented a colourful opening ceremony marked by a harmonious blend of tradition and hi-tech, which was enjoyed by the huge gathering at the Seoul stadium and millions around the globe. But what followed was straight from a fairy tale - a David and Goliath act, so stunningly enacted by Senegal, the new African sensation, to demolish the reigning champion, France.

England's captain David Beckham congratulates team-mate Michael Owen who scored the team's second goal against Denmark.-TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP

And it did not stop with that; the shock reverse was the start of a nightmare. Two games later, the holder was out of the tournament in the very first phase. France, the top favourite to win the title, had been riding the crest of the success that it achieved at home four years ago and later in Euro 2000. Suddenly it left to make searching introspection.

Italy was the first team to face such a plight way back in 1950, after being the winner in 1938. (There was no World Cup in the intervening period because of the Second World War.) Then, in 1966, Brazil, the most successful country in terms of World Cup titles (it has won four titles till date), faded out in the first stage after being the victor in Chile in 1962. But France sank further: it went out without scoring a goal. The irony is that the French team, at least on paper, had an enviable line-up: master craftsman Zinedine Zidane, former FIFA World Player of the Year; Thierry Henry, the English league's top scorer; David Trezeguet, the Italian league's top scorer; and new comer Djibril Cisse, French league's top scorer.

France's problems started with the last-minute withdrawal of key player Robert Pires owing to injury. Zidane joined the list of the injured with a thigh strain just days before the World Cup, following a practice match against South Korea. Zidane, the soul of the team, could not take the field for the first two matches. Disaster struck again when Henry received a 'red card' for a studs-up foul against an Uruguayan player in the second match. The inability of Trezeguet to find rhythm added to the woes.

Suffice it to say that France yearned for inspiration. Not even the country's President, Jacques Chirac, who got in touch with skipper Desailly, could offer much. Even luck deserted the side, with genuine shots at the goal bouncing off the framework. Despite a heavily bandaged thigh, Zidane returned for a face-saving act against Denmark. France at that point needed a 2-0 win to escape elimination. But 'Zizou', as Zidane is popularly known, did not find his form.

INDEED, Asia's first World Cup started with a surprise, and it was to turn into horror for some from the way in which events unfolded from there. After France it was the turn of Argentina, which was equally favoured by bookmakers, to bite the dust. Argentina was followed on the final day of phase one by another top-rated squad, Portugal. Italy clung on after a jolt; England, after contributing to Argentina's downfall, lived on with an eye-catching win over Denmark for a quarter-final berth.

Equally inspiring has been Brazil, which cruised on in style. Spain, dubbed an under-achiever, looks ready to rewrite that part of World Cup history, having reached the quarter-final at Ireland's expense. Like England, Germany too appears to be getting into its groove after beating Paraguay for a quarter-final berth.

Seldom has the World Cup witnessed such a disastrous beginning. Form and predictions went awry, and the bookmakers became the big beneficiaries. France, Argentina and then Portugal - three much-fancied squads - were all downed by underdogs. Anyone who saw Gabriel Batistuta score that brilliant headed goal to take Argentina past Nigeria could not have imagined that the Latin American giant would be felled two games later.

Senegalese players celebrating Pape Bouba Diop's goal against France, the holder, in Seoul on May 31. It was the first goal of the World Cup.-PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP

A country that gave the world Diego Maradona, a player placed next only to the Brazilian legend Pele, also had an array of high-performers, most of whom play for European clubs. Batigol, as Batistuta is popularly known, is the leading name of the lot; he has scored the largest number of goals for his country, more than even Maradona. Then there were Ortega, Aimar, Sebastian Veron and Hernan Crespo, all of whom give Argentina a classy look.

But looking impressive is one thing, and performing quite another. Argentina's loss to England was unexpected on paper. But when David Beckham, just back from injury, inspires his colleagues it had to be England's day. When Beckham scored the winner off a penalty, it was a personal retribution, for four years ago at Saint Etienne in France, he had the humiliation of being sent out in the match against Argentina. Argentina won that game and Beckham was left to despair, only to rise and shine.

When a demoralised Argentina went on to lose points against Sweden in the last league match and bowed out, Batistuta was in tears. He had wished to retire on song at the end of this World Cup. Ironically, the end came on a tearful note.

Equally poignant was the story of Portugal, which was touted on the eve of the competition as a dark horse. With skilful players such as Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Pauleta, Sergi Conceicao and Joao Pinto among others, Portugal was expected to revive memories of 1966 when that inspiring figure, Eusebio, took the country into the semi-final before finishing third overall. If Senegal touched off the slide for France, then the United States was to shock Portugal with a stunning win.

Still, Portugal appeared to regain some ground with Pauleta's hat-trick that marked the side's handsome win over Poland in the next game. But, as often happens in a four-team league, even one loss can turn dreadful. To remain in the contest Portugal had to beat South Korea in its last match. Technically it was not beyond the European squad and as the game progressed, the requirement eased to a mere draw as at another venue Poland was thwarting the U.S. But Portugal's game inexplicably took the horrendous route of self-destruction. Nothing else can explain the fouls committed by two key players, Pinto and Beto, that resulted in their expulsion.

Meanwhile, fired by homeground support, the tireless Koreans punctured Portugal's dream with a stunning goal by Park Ji Sung, which triggered delirious scenes in the Incheon Munhak stadium. And, as though rewarded for its grand win over Portugal earlier, the U.S. too qualified in a peculiar way. It lost to Poland but stood next to the host on points.

THE initial phase of World Cup 2002 will be remembered for two notable performers coming from the two continents that had been crying for recognition, Africa and Asia. The world of football has seen Cameroon (who can forget Roger Milla?), Nigeria (made famous by Yekini and Amokachi) and South Africa earlier. It was Senegal's turn this time round to add incandescence to the African flair. Its wonderfully scripted success started with it reaching the final of the highly competitive African Nations cup, and it promises to go far in the current World Cup. The only squad from Africa to cross the first stage (Cameroon, Nigeria, South Africa and Tunisia failed), Senegal is already into the quarter-final, with another spectacular show of speed and skill, so thrillingly personified by Henri Camara, to put out a fast-rising Sweden. Such has been Senegal's impact that names such as Pape Bouba Diop, El Hadji Diouf, Khalilou Fadiga and Henri Camara have become hugely popular.

It all started in the hallowed Seoul stadium on that Friday night when Diop became the toast of the multitudes and a reason for widespread celebrations at Dakar, the oceanside capital of the West African nation. Diop was France's conqueror, Diouf the tormentor, and Fadiga, the indefatigable playmaker. Only hours before the match, Fadiga was being investigated by the police for the alleged theft of a gold necklace.

Senegal is a former French colony and most of its players play in Europe, mainly France, and so it was a classic case of the subject getting the better of the master. Way back in 1990, Cameroon had shot into fame with its first-round win over the then reigning champion, Argentina. On that occasion the Maradona-inspired Argentines reached the final before falling. But Senegal's turned out to be a fatal sting.

FOR Asia, this has been a wonderful World Cup. Not many may reckon an Asian country to lift the Cup in the foreseeable future. But this edition has certainly put Asia ahead of Africa with two contestants - Japan and South Korea - fittingly the hosts, progressing to the second round. For both teams, winning a match in the final round itself was a first-time experience. While Japan made its debut in 1998, South Korea had contested in five World Cup finals and played 14 games without winning even once. Japan's first win was over Russia, while South Korea subdued Poland 2-0.

The progress of the host countries reflects the high-level coaching, their regular exposure to top-quality opposition, and the backing of their respective federations. Then, of course, home fan support counted. Phillippe Trossier tuned Japan the way he had put disorganised African national teams into shape earlier, and his tough regimen is helping Japan turn the corner. Similarly, the Dutch Guus Hiddink, despite the short time that was available to him, could inculcate the virtues of toughness into the Koreans. Both Japan and Korea topped their respective groups, and the organisers would have asked for no more. If it was Hidetoshi Nakata who earned fame in 1998, the focus is on another Japanese, Junichi Inamoto this time.

In comparison, Saudi Arabia and newcomer China looked out of form with both suffering repeated defeats on their way out.

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