SEOUL — This could be the World Cup where Giovanni Trapattoni meets Admiral Yi Shun-Sin-hopefully not in person, as since the venerable admiral died in 1598.
Be that as it may, Italy's coach still might find it useful to refer to the deeds performed by the admiral more than four centuries ago. Yi , as naval historians know and you should too, was the inventor of the "turtle ships."
These ingenious devices were nothing more than wooden ships armored by encasing them in a sort of shell-hence the name. Yi used them to such good effect that he defeated a superior force of Japanese vessels and became a Korean maritime hero in the process.
What, you might understandably be asking, does this have to do with the World Cup? Well, nothing and everything.
What we are doing here is making a case for Italy, which very well might not need any help at all. If it does, though, here it is, free of charge.
Defense has long been Italy's forte. The country didn't win the World Cup three times simply by singing arias at opponents; it had to shut them up too. The names of Italy's defensive heroes ring down through the ages: Franco Baresi being the most recent and Paolo Maldini the most current.
Then there is Trapattoni himself. Known affectionately as "Trap"-a name Yi would have enjoyed-Trapattoni is Italy's most successful club coach of all time.
A quick glance at his resume shows seven Italian league titles, one German league title, two Italian Cups, the European Champions Cup, three UEFA Cups, one European Super Cup and one Toyota/Intercontinental Cup.
But, sadly, no World Cup.
Not until now.
Italy's team bristles with offensive weapons, just like Yi's famous turtle ships. There are, for instance, no fewer than six top-class forwards on the Italian roster: Francesco Totti, Alessandro Del Piero, Marco Delvecchio, Filippo Inzaghi, Vincenzo Montella and, perhaps best of all, Christian Vieri.
Trap doesn't need to tell his forwards anything. What he needs to do is build a shell around them. A defensive perimeter so tight that nothing can penetrate, and even if it does, there still will be Gianluigi Buffon or Francesco Toldo in goal to handle the odd shot or two.
It's a can't-miss plan, an armor-plated way to the silverware. Here, then, is the route map to Italy's fourth World Cup:
Mon dieu! Is there nothing that can stop the French? Not here, there isn't. Coach Roger Lemerre's world champions win the group with ease. Denmark wilts in the heat and humidity and Uruguay, deservedly or not, grabs second. Senegal is left thinking how nice it was to take part.
Spain, still pawing at the dust like an angry bull over its last miserable World Cup effort, gores everyone in sight. Paraguay's Jose Luis Chilavert finds he is not invincible after all. South Africa trips up and tiny Slovenia finds itself through to the last 16.
World Cups are not arranged for Brazil to go out in the first round. Never have been, never will be. Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and company run circles around the rest. Turkey is stuffed by Brazil but has enough to finish ahead of Costa Rica and China.
The Portuguese navigated their way to the Far East centuries ago, so navigating a way through these shallow waters is no challenge at all. Can you say Luis Figo, Rui Costa and Pauleta? Second place? Well, it won't really matter who gets it, so why not say the United States ahead of South Korea and Poland?
Don't be fooled by Germany's tragic tale of injuries and lowered expectations. Coach Rudi Voeller still has plenty left in reserve and is wily enough to prefer finishing second behind Cameroon and thus avoiding Italy in the quarterfinals. Ireland and Saudi Arabia are just along to provide color.
The so-called "group of death" is overrated. The Swedes are ordinary as usual and the Nigerians are disorganized as usual. The much touted Argentina-England rematch in Sapporo turns out to be a dud. The South Americans boast about winning the group and the English whine about being the runner-up. Nothing new there.
Italy has been given virtually free passage to the quarterfinals, thanks to the draw. Nothing here will give Vieri and company any trouble, and goalkeeper Buffon will be lucky if he even sees the ball. Croatia's doddering elders hold on for second, while Mexico and Ecuador head for the airport.
Among this lot it would be almost a blessing if Coach Philippe Troussier's Japan won it all, but it doesn't have the goods to do better than finish second. That means the dull men from Belgium probably will prevail, leaving the Russians and Tunisians free to do some shopping before shipping out.
Cameroon-Slovenia: Patrick Mboma gallops through the mud-the rainy season has arrived by now-and slays the Slovenians, whose own star, Zlatko Zahovic, is totally eclipsed.