The football world's premiere event, the World Cup, opened on June 10 at stadia around France. A little less than a week later, the tournaments first winners and losers are preparing to do battle with their next first-round opponents. The Slovak Spectator has prepared a state-of-play report that assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the tournament's 32 entries, and predicts second-round match ups.
Some things just never change. Scotland's legendary bad luck - this time an own-goal that decided the opening match with Brazil - continued to dog the men with the whitest, skinniest legs in the game. The Italians are still masters of the dramatic dive after the clean challenge - the full somersault, double gainer plunge followed by 20 seconds of screaming, writhing, bogus agony. Keep trying, guys. Belgium, as always, plays the most boring football in the world. And the home team still gets a boost from its fans, as witnessed in France's 3-0 destruction of South Africa in front of 60,000 raucous partisans in Marseilles.
But the 16th World Cup finals, the last to be staged in the twentieth century, have already proven a whole new ball game. For one thing, the format has been enlarged in 1998 to 32 teams from 24 in 1994, which has given Asian and African teams a much larger share of the limelight. On the other hand, it has also given a spot to Team Jamaica, a squad that has roughly the same chances in France '98 as the Jamaican bobsled team had in Calgary in 1988.
This World Cup has also seen a more open style of play and plenty of goals, as the new format has meant that teams have to win games in the first round to advance, rather than rely on draws. Nigeria's riveting 3-2 victory over Spain, as well as Italy's last-moment 2-2 draw with Chile, show that these goals are not being scored merely at the expense of inferior new entries. Just remember the 0-0 yawner of a draw in the 1994 World Cup final game, and enjoy the action.
Finally, France '98 has brought non-nonsense officiating back to the tournament. The biggest change is the enforcement of a rule against tackling from behind, but referees in general have shown themselves less willing to put up with infractions and bolshy players. The penalty awarded by Spain's Garcia-Aranda against Brazil was richly deserved, despite all the silly finger wagging that ensued. The red card issued to Holland's Patrick Kluivert, too, was just deserts for unsportsmanlike conduct.
So, high scores, clean play and new faces: here's what these trends will mean for each group.
Group A:Brazil, Scotland, Norway and Morocco
Brazil has to be considered the run-away favorite to advance, having looked sharp in a narrow 2-1 victory over Scotland and a 3-1 pounding of Morocco. The second qualifying berth is still up for grabs, but sentimental favorite Scotland may just squeeze through after a 1-1 tie with Norway, as long as the Picts can handle the Moroccan side.
Group B: Italy, Chile, Cameroon and Austria
Italy and Chile played to a thrilling 2-2 tie, a game that Chile should have won. Exciting Chilean striker Marcelo Salas scored both of his team's goals, and if not for a Roberto Baggio penalty strike in the 87th minute, Italians might have exploded in revolution. Cameroon and Austria play uninspired, lacklustre football at the moment (a 1-1 tie in their opener) and will not get out of the group.
Group C: France, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and Denmark
France, with the home field, crowd and culinary advantage, look set to run away with this one. A 3-0 drubbing of South Africa left second place up to Denmark to win or lose. The Danes' 1-0 victory over the Saudis was not pretty, but it did give them reason to hope.
Group D: Spain, Nigeria, Paraguay and Bulgaria
The group of death. By far the prettiest football of the tournament was played by Nigeria against Spain, a 3-2 victory for the African side featuring a narrowly missed scissor kick by former African player of the year Rachidi Yekini and scores of dazzling dips and doodles. Paraguay and Bulgaria both hurt their chances by not winning against each other (a 0-0 draw), and will have to pull off a big upset over an experienced Spanish side or big gun Nigeria to get out of the group. Not likely.
Group E: Holland, Belgium, South Korea and Mexico
The biggest question in this group is if either of the favored teams, Holland and Belgium, even deserve to advance. Their first meeting, a 0-0 snoozer, was marginally more interesting than watching golf on TV, and did nothing to boost anyone's confidence in their chance to advance. Both Korea and Mexico have long World Cup histories, but their records are largely ones of failure. Mexico's 3-1 victory over Korea may indicate that for the ticos at least the drought may be over. Holland may just come along for the ride.
Group F: Germany, Yugoslavia, USA and Iran
Simple. Take Germany and Yugoslavia, forget about the Americans and Iran. The Germany-Yugoslavia game, on the 21st of June, could be one of the best of the tournament, especially since Jurgen Klinsmann looks to be still in form.
Group G: Romania, Columbia, England and Tunisia
Another tough group. Aside from Tunisia, any of these teams could take it, England with their solid if unimaginative play, dominant Romania with its last-hurrah roster and fiery, fluid Colombia. Since Colombia dropped its opener 1-0 to Romania, look for England to finish runner-up to Hagi's crew.
Group H: Argentina, Japan, Jamaica and Croatia
Argentina is the only one of this group which has been to a World Cup before (the others came in as a result of the expanded format), and even if they weren't one of the pre-tournament favorites, this excess of experience might be enough to turn the trick. Despite Japan's pride (they co-host the next World Cup with South Korea) and Jamaica's novelty value, Croatia will walk out of this group behind the South Americans.
The Slovak Spectator's Final Four Picks:
Nigeria, Brazil, Germany and France
And the Cup winner....Nigeria.