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WORLD CUP

Cut to the chase

It may be fashionable to bash the defending champion, but France is positioned to win it all again

May 29, 2002|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There hasn't been a repeat World Cup champion in 40 years, not since Brazil in 1962, and that team had Pele.

Brazil came reasonably close four years ago, taking its defense of the 1994 championship to the final round. There, the Brazilians picked a bad time to run out of Ronaldo and lost to France, which now steps up for its chance to be pilloried by the doomsayers, and there have been more than a few.

The case against Les Bleus goes something like this: France won't have home-field advantage this time, France won't have Didier Deschamps and Laurent Blanc this time, France won't have a Paraguay-Italy-Croatia path to the final this time, France won't have the same burning ambition to win one for the republic this time, France's star midfielder Zinedine Didane injured his leg in an exhibition match Sunday.

Le blah, le blah, le blah.

Zidane, the best player in this tournament, did tweak his thigh and will miss France's World Cup opener against Senegal. France should probably be able to manage that one without him. In 1998, Zidane was red-carded in France's second match and was suspended for the next two, against Denmark and Paraguay in the second round. France managed.

France lost that exhibition in Paris while playing without Thierry Henry, one of the world's best forwards, and Zinedine Zidane, probably the world's best player. They will both be in the lineup in Asia, although Zidane will sit out the opener because of a thigh injury.

France also has the best back line in the tournament, still manned by '98 veterans Lilian Thuram, Marcel Desailly and Bixente Lizarazu. Patrick Vieira, the key cog in Arsenal's double championship season, has more than adequately replaced Deschamps in the central midfield. And Fabien Barthez remains the most entertaining goalkeeper on the planet-which, admittedly, is not always a great thing for France.

Beyond that, this French team, unlike the '98 winners, has real forwards-Henry, David Trezeguet, Sylvain Wiltord. Four years ago, France won the World Cup without a goal from a forward in its last four games.

That won't have to happen this time. With a better team than the one that won four years ago, France will claim the trophy again in 2002. And after dispatching England, Brazil, Argentina and Italy in the final four rounds, the French will have deserved it.

GROUP A

Subtitled: Three More Warmups for the Cup-Holders. (And by that, we mean three cushy first-round games for the defending champions-not the plastic rings in your car cradling the results of your 4 a.m. coffee run, designed to get you through two more halves of live World Cup soccer.) France kicks back, Uruguay kicks everybody else, Denmark hobbles away with second place.

GROUP B

Beating Raul? It has happened before, most notably in 1998, when Spain, with its and its heralded striker, finished behind Paraguay and Nigeria and were was eliminated in group play. This time, Spain postpones its traditional tent-folding until the quarterfinals, shuts out Paraguay but fails to shut up Paraguayan insult comic/goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert. Only one miracle at a time.

GROUP C

No beautiful games here, especially from Brazil, which shuts down the samba and methodically dispatches Turkey, China and Costa Rica. Turkey, visiting in the World Cup for the first time since 1954, is delighted to discover it has better soccer players than China and Costa Rica. Highlight of the group: China Coach Bora Milutinovic's postmatch news conferences, which baffle translators in five languages.

GROUP D

Goalkeeper controversy rages in the U.S. camp as Coach Bruce Arena names Kasey Keller his starter over Brad Friedel. Back-line controversy rages in the U.S. camp as Arena names his four starters for the Portugal game and insists they all must play. Americans recover from Portugal defeat to beat South Korea and tie Poland, and squeak though on goal differential.

GROUP E

Oh no, no Keano! Ireland Coach Mick McCarthy wins the admiration of his colleagues by telling his disruptive captain, Roy Keane, to catch the next flight home, but loses any chance of seeing the light of the second round. Cameroon, coached by a German, beats Germany, which could use a Cameroon midfielder or two, for the top spot in the group.

GROUP F

In between hourly radio updates on the condition of captain David Beckham's foot, all of England watches the boys tie Sweden (the tabloids are despondent) and tie Argentina (the tabloids are exultant) before doing the business in a must-win finale against Nigeria. Argentina wins twice to take first place and most important prize of all-a second-round matchup against Denmark, thus avoiding France until the semifinals.

GROUP G

Croatia edges Mexico in the opener, and that takes care of that. Italy and Croatia advance, Mexico and Ecuador start thinking about the next Copa America.

GROUP H

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