PARIS — Perhaps that Roman chap had the right idea after all. Perhaps he hadn't been to too many toga parties. What was it he said? All Gaul is divided into three parts?
Well Caesar was right. The country is split three ways--those who expectBrazil to win the World Cup, those who want France to triumph, and those who have taken the time to carefully analyze all the factors and realize there can be only one winner.
No, not Italy, although old Julius might have liked that.
The plain fact is that the World Cup needs a new name on the trophy. No matter how popular the Brazilians are--and the streets of Paris are awash with yellow-shirted fans these days--four is quite enough, thank you.
And no matter how methodical and organized and machinelike the Germans are, their efficiency also can be very tiresome. As for the Argentines, do we really need that infernal drum-banging to last the entire tournament?
The Italians had their shot in '94 and blew it. The English would have had a shot this time, but the coach spends too much time with a faith healer, the players spend too much time in bars, and the fans spend not enough time behind bars. Hooligans can cost you votes.
So having dispensed with the five former champions in the field of 32, which of the remaining 27 have a realistic chance to be handed the World Cup by French President Jacques Chirac on July 12?
The Dutch, certainly could be there. But only if they avoid the internal bickering that usually dissolves their challenge. The French would be popular winners, and it would give World Cup co-chairman Michel Platini the trophy he deserved to win as a player in 1982 and '86.
Croatia and Yugoslavia will open a lot of eyes in this tournament but probably lack the nerve to go the distance. That leaves only one country to consider.
How about Spain?
Norway defeated Brazil, 4-2, last year. That won't happen again, at least not in Marseille on June 23. The Brazilians will stroll through the group. Norway will finish second. Hoots, mon, Scotland will be lucky to keep Morocco out of third place.
The United States exposed Austria's weakness in Vienna, so the Austrians will be waltzing out early. Cameroon peaked in 1990 and it's been all downhill since then for the no longer Indomitable Lions. That leaves Italy and Chile fighting for the top spot. Italy gets it on experience, although its defense might have a tough time stopping strikers Ivan (Bam Bam) Zamorano and Marcelo Salas.
If France can keep its poise and not panic under the huge expectations of the entire nation, it should grow in strength as the tournament progresses. Winning the group is the first step. It's a cat fight for second. South Africa, with Benni McCarthy the star-in-waiting, makes is debut and Saudi Arabia is a proven fighter. The smart money says Denmark's experience gets it through.
The "group of death" will see the aging Bulgarians keel over first. Good night, Hristo Stoitchkov. Also due to be put out of its misery is Paraguay, which has shown in warmups that it can't compete. Group winner Spain will glide past both and battle Nigeria into submission and second place. It won't be pretty, just effective.
Contrary to the belief of certain others (hint: check the column next door), this is the weakest group of all. The Dutch ought to be ashamed if they don't swamp all three opponents. Mexico is hopeless on the road. South Korea deserves to go through on past effort alone, but the boring Belgians will somehow prevail.
There are only two games in this group that matter. One is Germany vs. Yugoslavia for first place, with Berti Vogts' German terriers getting the bite in first. The other is the United States vs. Iran for bragging rights among also-rans. An upset would be nice to see, but none of us will live that long.
What if Tunisia won the whole thing? Dream on. England without Paul (Gazza) Gascoigne is like an asylum without an inmate, but Glenn Hoddle's team can doddle past this group. The Colombians were embarrassed in '94 and are likely to be left red-faced again. Romania peaked in '94 but has just enough left in the tank to take second.
On paper, Gabriel Batistuta and friends should sweep aside its three opponents, but Croatia could be a stumbling block. The Reggae Boyz are here to party; Jamaica's victory was in reaching the World Cup. Japan also makes its debut. It will be a brief one, although watch out for free-spirit midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata.
Brazil-Chile: This matchup won't scare Ronaldo and company. But perhaps it should. Brazil's defense has a walking red card in Junior Baiano and anone too secure goalkeeper in Taffarel. But Brazil wins.
Spain-Denmark: This is the last gasp for Michael Laudrup and brother Brian, the end of the road for the Danes. The Spanish are too well organized and too experienced. They'll win by a goal or two.