The Teams: Group B
1. Italy | 2. Chile | 3. Cameroon | 4. Austria By Alex Johnson
Wednesday, June 3, 1998
World Cup champions: 1934, 1938, 1982. Runners-up: 1970, 1994. Third place: 1990. Fourth place: 1978.
It's difficult to see Italy returning to the final this year, fielding much the same team that ground out results on its way there in 1994. If anything, that team was less than the sum of its parts, driven to succeed mainly by the will of Franco Baresi and the luminous skills of Roberto Baggio, and it barely snuck into this year's finals via a playoff.
But Baresi is retired, and Baggio has won just a couple of caps in four years. Up front, the Juventus strike force will be broken up, as coach Cesare Maldini will insist on starting the bruising Christian Vieri to protect Alessandro Del Piero, the quicksilver future of Italian soccer who has yet to fully duplicate his club form with the national team. That will consign the even spindlier Filippo Inzaghi to a sub's role, unless he has to replace Del Piero, who has a pulled thigh muscle. Even Baggio could be thrown back into the thick of things.
Italy traditionally battles its way deep into any tournament it enters, however, and on paper it has the heart of a defense able to give it a chance against any opponent. That's important, because Italy could draw Brazil in the second round. But captain Paolo Maldini and Billy Costacurta did not play well in the second half of the Italian season as AC Milan sank into mediocrity, and sweeper Ciro Ferrara didn't make it back from a broken leg.
The brightest stars in the Italian defense, in fact, are likely to be Parma's Fabio Cannavaro and Lazio's Alessandro Nesta. Cannavaro will be just fine, but Nesta has yet to show he has the stomach for the big time. It was his mistake on a corner kick that allowed Juventus to score the only goal in the game that essentially decided the Italian championship; three days later, he mentally drifted off and provided the opening that lost the first leg of the cup final.
Starting goalkeeper Angelo Peruzzi is out injured. Gianluca Pagliuca, who kept goal in 1994, is a safe replacement, but Italy may have trouble if he gets hurt. The new backup, Francesco Toldo of Fiorentina, is untested at this level.
For the first time in several World Cups, Italy's strength is not in defense or attack but in midfield; few nations can match a midfield of Dino Baggio, Francesco Moriero, Demetrio Albertini and Roberto Di Matteo. But their confidence is key; Dino Baggio and Di Matteo can disappear without a trace against solid opposition, and their colleagues have shown a troubling failure to don't cover well when that happens.
This is a team of odd parts, some of them rusty, some of them creaking, some of them plain missing. Unfortunately for Italy, they don't have the luxury of an easy opening game, having drawn Chile and its world-class strike force. Italy will make it out, but it could easily slip to second place and earn a quick goodbye in a rematch of the 1994 final against Brazil.
Third place: 1962.
The smart money says Chile will be overawed by its surroundings, but this is a squad that took a point on the road off Argentina in qualifying and another against Bolivia in the airless trap of La Paz.
Great forwards trump a lot of problems, and of all the 32 teams in the finals, only Yugoslavia has a strike force to equal Chile's Marcelo Salas and Ivan Zamorano. Though he was no unknown to anyone who follows South American soccer, Salas burst on the world scene last year to be regarded as one of the great strikers in the game today. In his hat trick to beat Peru in a vital qualifier, he scored once with his left foot, once with his right foot and once with his head.
When he was first teamed with Zamorano, the living legend of Chilean soccer, there was concern that these two similar players would get in each other's way, but they have meshed perfectly, and they combined for 23 goals in the qualifying campaign: 12 for Zamorano, 11 for Salas, who has added great passing to his repertoire.
Historically, Chile's reputation, if it has a reputation at all, has been that it is a team that builds classy attacks from midfield but then can't finish off the chances. This time, finishing will be no problem. How far Chile goes will depend on how its midfield holds up, and that could be a problem.
The midfield leaders are the talented but erratic duo of Marcelo Vega and Jose Luis Sierra. Vega, however, is still bothered by a leg injury he has been playing with for six months, and he was less than impressive in his few games against the weak competition of Major League Soccer. Worse, he's something of a hothead, and he could be one of the first victims of the new crackdown on inelegant tackles. That makes him an obvious target of the canny Italian midfield in the opening game of the group.
Both teams will advance, but whoever loses this first game will likely finish second and that probably means a second-round date with Brazil.
This is the year we will discover which is the real Cameroon: the Indomitable Lions of 1990 or the mewling kittens of 1994.
The guess here is that the 1994 model fits better. Federation turmoil, team turmoil, money problems, revolving-door coaches and a bizarre power struggle have consistently stunted Cameroon's long-term development in this decade.
The coach of the moment is Claude Le Roy, who was hired to end an in-house battle over whether 1990 World Cup hero Roger Milla would supplant Jean Manga Onguene; Le Roy coached Cameroon to the 1988 African championship, but the unending changes of leadership three coaches this year alone mean no consistent philosophy has taken root in a young squad that has turned over considerably since 1994.
Players like Milla and Francois Omam-Biyick put Cameroon on the world map eight years ago, but the heart of this team rests in players who are relative strangers to most of the world, most notably Rigobert Song of Metz in the French league, a brilliantly talented defender who is all of 22 but already has 42 caps and is the leader of the team.
Another exciting young player based in France is Salomon Olembe, a defender who broke into the Nantes lineup even though he is only 17. He holds the distinction of being the youngest player ever, just 16, to take the field in a full international at Wembley Stadium when Cameroon played England last year. And striker Patrick Suffo, owner of 10 caps already at age 19, has just joined Olembe at Nantes. But a crushing loss is the absence of Marc-Vivien Foe (pronounced Foo-ay), an important part of the Lens side that surprisingly won the French championship. He's 23 and has won 39 caps, and Lens thinks so highly of him that it turned down an $8 million offer from Manchester United. Unfortunately, he broke his leg in training last month and won't play.
There is real talent in the Cameroon team, but it has had little direction for too long. At best, it can hope to go out honorably by defeating Austria and using this World Cup as a learning experience for some of the best young players in Africa. If it's smart and its federation rarely is, unfortunately Cameroon can start building a truly dangerous team for 2002.
Third place: 1954. Fourth place: 1934
Anyone who claims to know how Austria is going to do in France is deluded. After an impressive qualifying campaign that saw it win its group over Scotland and Sweden, Austria has been wretched in its buildup to the finals. A dispiriting 3-0 home loss to the United States was neither surprising nor undeserved.
Most of the time, Austria can boast of being competent at all positions, led by the ageless striker Toni Polster of FC Koln in Germany. Now 34, he's been Austria's top player for more than a decade. Werder Bremen's Andreas Herzog is a star in midfield; he's joined by Heimo Pfeifenberger and Ivica Vastic, who are admirable, competent midfielders. Wolfgang Feiersinger, a solid professional defender, has settled a back line that also includes the eminently competent Peter Schoettel and Anton Pfeffer.
But that's pretty much the best you can say about Austria: When it's on its game, as in the qualifying campaign, it is solid and dependable. Too often, it is uninspired or uninterested, and when it is, it's a 5-0 loss just waiting to happen.
So which Austria will show up: the strong, cohesive unit that won its qualifying group, or the disorganized, bickering side that lost a friendly at home to Hungary, of all nations?
Coach Herbert Prohaska has put the best possible face on recent results, saying the losses were a good thing because they lowered expectations for his team, which he has said at other times could even make the semifinals. That's a bad sign, and at the risk of being proven wrong if Austria comes out breathing fire, the guess here is that it will wrestle with Cameroon for third place.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company