The Teams: Group E
1. Holland | 2. Belgium | 3. Mexico | 4. South Korea By Alex Johnson
Wednesday, June 3, 1998
Runners-up: 1974, 1978.
Holland makes it easy on sports writers. They just rerun the same preview they ran before every World Cup for the last 30 years, simply changing the names.
The Dutch always seem more interested in scoring personal points within the team than scoring goals against the opposition. Big Orange plays in a red mist.
In years past, divisions between the camps of Holland's two biggest teams, Ajax and Feyenoord, caused internal rifts. In 1994, the problem was coach Dick Advocaat's unpopularity with his best players, most notably Ruud Gullit, who sat out the finals. This time, reports of racial tension between the white Holland-born players and the black Surinam-born players surfaced when a Surinamese magazine reported that Patrick Kluivert, Clarence Seedorf and Winston Bogarde said they felt like second-class citizens. Coach Guus Hiddink never did lay the problem to rest, but his addition of Surinam-born Frank Rijkaard, one of Holland's greatest players, to the coaching staff has lowered the temperature.
The Dutch bring a boatload of talent to any tournament, but they do best only when they have a dominant figure. They reached the final of the 1974 World Cup because Johan Cruyff refused to let them lose. The 1988 European champions marched to Gullit's tune. In recent years, however, the team has had to accommodate so many big stars that no one could emerge.
"The team is lacking a leader," Hiddink said shortly after qualifying ended. "... We have inspirational players those who can dictate the play but the great leader has not come forward."
So the door is open for Dennis Bergkamp, the English Player of the Year, to step up. Bergkamp is sometimes out of the team because he refuses to fly; the only Dutch loss in qualifying was at Turkey, which Bergkamp skipped. But Bergkamp will be on board in France assuming he's recovered from a pulled hamstring.
No one can replace Bergkamp's goals if he's out; in Edgar Davids, however, Hiddink has a rare tough guy who can pull people along by the force of his personality. But the Juventus midfielder is still lying low after he, too, accused Hiddink of racism, which led to his being dropped from the 1996 European Championship squad. Davids, known as "the Pit Bull," is back now only after a reportedly tense meeting with the Dutch federation, and he and Hiddink are said not to talk to each other.
On the field, Holland has altered its tactics of 1994, which produced exciting, wide-open games but leaked goals and sent the Dutch home after the quarterfinals. Hiddink has pulled back a midfielder and established an orthodox 4-4-2 that glitters with world-class players at every position. In goal is Edwin van der Sar, one of the best there is, good enough to take the job away from the excellent Ed de Goey. Jaap Stam has emerged in the last year as a defender on par with Bogarde and Frank de Boer; Manchester United made him the most expensive defender in the world last month when it paid $18 million to buy him from PSV Eindhoven.
Davids, Seedorf, Ronald de Boer (Frank's twin brother) and Wim Jonk are hard to match in midfield, but the wonderfully named Giovanni van Bronckhorst has forced his way to the forefront at Feyenoord and could send one of them to the bench. He adds balance as a natural left-sided midfielder and coverage for Marc Overmars, a true old-fashioned winger of the type rarely seen these days.
Overmars's wing play is what makes Holland special. Many teams try to play wide up front to stretch the defense, but Overmars does it naturally. He creates gaps in defenses that world-class finishers like Bergkamp and Kluivert feast on. But there is little depth behind the two strikers, and if Bergkamp is out injured (Hiddink says that "little is certain") or if he takes one of his patented swan dives and gets ejected Hiddink will have to make uncomfortable adjustments. The next choice is Pierre Van Hooijdonk, whose erratic play in the weak Scottish league for Celtic got him sold off to Nottingham Forest, where he did better toiling away in the equivalent of England's second flight.
We should learn a lot about Holland immediately. Its first game is against its eternal rival and neighbor, Belgium, always a test of the Dutch commitment. The Dutch could easily win the tournament. But they could just as easily go home after the second round. More than with any other team, the choice rests with themselves.
Fourth place: 1986.
For a change, the Belgians are as unsettled as their Dutch neighbors. Coach George Leekens can't seem to decide who his best players are, and even at this late date, his starting 11 isn't set.
Leekens and his predecessor, Wilfried van Moer, who was fired two games into the qualifying schedule, used 43 players in Belgium's 10 qualifiers. Only one, goalkeeper Filip de Wilde, played in all 10, and right up to the June 2 deadline, Leekens was still considering 35 players for 22 slots. Leekens's indecision almost cost him his best player, Enzo Scifo, who quit in a huff after Leekens dropped him for Belgium's friendly against the United States; he returned only reluctantly late last month.
Belgium snuck into the finals only through a playoff, and Leekens struggled early to get a grip on the job. His first game was a 3-0 loss to Holland, which in addition to being in Belgium's World Cup group was ironically also in the same qualifying group. That result disenchanted the Belgian public, which still isn't quite convinced.
The federation was accused of destroying two teams by hiring Leekens. Mouscron, the provincial club he had led to the top of the league, claimed that losing Leekens in midseason cost it the championship. The press claimed that the seemingly out-of-his-depth Leekens would take the national team down with him.
But Leekens persevered, and his wholesale roster experiments produced the return of Franky van der Elst out of international retirement to settle the midfield and the revival of Luc Nilis, whose return to form gives Belgium a true goal scorer up front. Even though van der Elst is 37, Leekens says getting him back is his most important accomplishment since becoming coach.
Tactically, Leekens's biggest decision was to turn the attack over to Luis Oliveira, the Brazilian-born Italian league star who led Belgium with six goals during the qualifying campaign and who scored a critical goal in the playoff against Ireland.
Although you never know from game to game precisely who will play, the team now has a consistent look, playing a more attacking game than past Belgian sides. Scifo, Oliveira and Nilis have the potential to create a lot of goals against inexperienced South Korea and demoralized Mexico in this group, more than enough to get Belgium to second place. Unfortunately, that almost certainly means Germany in the second round. Enjoy the Belgians while you can; they won't be around long. And the next time you see them, they will look far different.
Mexico is in a world of trouble. Don't take just our word for it:
Lapuente is in his second spell in charge of Mexico. He was fired in 1991 after losing to the United States. He returned late last year after Bora Milutinovic the former coach of the United States was fired for tying the United States. There's a thread here.
And wouldn't you know it? If the United States and Mexico somehow advance out of their groups, it's possible that they would face each other in the second round.
Possible, but not likely, and not just because the United States probably won't make it. Mexico, too, is going home after the first round.
It's an axiom that you don't pay much attention to pre-World Cup friendlies. The best players sit while coaches try out new prospects, and stars who do play go at half-throttle to stay healthy. But it's hard to ignore Mexico's recent results. A 5-2 loss to Norway. (Imagine Norway scoring five goals.) A 5-1 loss to Universidad Catolica, a Chilean club team. A 3-1 loss to Argentine club Boca Juniors. A 4-1 loss to VfL Wolfsburg, 14th in the Bundesliga, playing without Claudio Reyna. A 2-1 loss to Chile's youth team.
Those games make last month's 0-0 draw with non-qualifiers Ireland look almost miraculous. The newspaper Excelsior ran a front-page editorial seriously calling on the Mexican federation to withdraw from the World Cup.
Lapuente has made some singularly odd choices for the finals. Carlos Hermosillo, Mexico's all-time leading scorer, is not there. Neither is Luis Alves, the elegant striker known as Zague. And neither is Benjamin Galindo, the defensive rock. But six members of last-place Guadalajara are. And the entire defense that let in those eight goals to two club teams a defense the Mexican press derided as "Swiss cheese" remains intact. Claudio Suarez is solid, but after Suarez and 21-year-old Pavel Pardo, who emerged as Mexico's best defender this year, the rest of the defense is both inexperienced and seriously demoralized.
That makes Jorge Campos's naming as the starting goalkeeper a very adventurous call. Campos is a great goalkeeper, but with a poor defense in front of him, Lapuente is taking a chance sticking with a keeper who could be stranded at the halfway line at the worst possible time. Still, he's much better than the other options, whose main attraction is that they are less risky.
At least the midfield has kept up its end of the bargain, which is no surprise given the emphasis Milutinovic placed on developing it. Ramon Ramirez is experienced (86 caps), quick and tough. Marcelino Bernal, at 36, was recalled to provide a professional example for younger players; he did so well that he's back in the lineup. Alberto Garcia Aspe is a free-kick specialist who has frequently captained Mexico.
Up front, the burden is squarely on the shoulders of Luis Hernandez, who scored only twice in the CONCACAF qualifying campaign. He matched well with Chuautemoc Blanco as Mexico beat the United States in the Gold Cup, but Hernandez is erratic, and Blanco, whom Lapuente seems to prefer to the veteran Luis Garcia, is untested at this level. The shortage of firepower makes the dropping of Zague and Hermosillo difficult to explain.
Mexico heads into the finals with a rattled, ineffective defense backstopped by an idiosyncratic goalkeeper as dangerous to his own team as to the opposition. It has an unproven strike force missing its best parts. Its coach seems lost, and its morale is unmeasurable. It will struggle with South Korea and struggle even worse with Belgium. The confrontation with the Dutch might be too ugly to watch. Mexico will not remember this World Cup fondly.
The South Koreans freely admit that they are out of their league; the federation says its goal is to get the country's first win in the World Cup to build momentum for the 2002 tournament, which South Korea will co-host with Japan. Coach Cha Bum Kun, whom many of you will remember from his playing career with Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayer Leverkusen in the German Bundesliga, is more optimistic, saying he hopes to make it to the second round. He says it's important to "save the face of Asian football," but he, too, admits that anything more is unrealistic.
However, in Choi Yong Su, South Korea does bring one of the better strikers to Group E. Choi is the South Korean offense, scoring better than a third of its goals in qualifying, including a goal in each of the team's seven second-round Asian qualifiers. At 24, he provides fresh legs as well as punch, because the core of this team is the same aging group of players who qualified for the two previous World Cup finals, only to go home winless each time.
Back for another shot are such veterans of previous finals as Choi Yong Il, a dependable goalkeeper but nearing the end of the line; Hong Myung Bo, winner of 92 caps at sweeper but still only 29 and one of the players European scouts will be watching closely; Ha Seok Ju, a 30-year-old free-kick specialist in midfield; and Seo Jong Won, who delivered South Korea's finest moment when he scored the last-minute equalizer in a 2-2 draw with Spain four years ago. They're all among the best players in their part of the world, but the gap between east Asia and Europe or South America is still a big one.
Cha has brought some exciting new players into the team. Jang Dae Il, 23, could put one of the defensive geezers on the bench. He's one of the newer class of Asian defenders who's comfortable coming forward, and he can score goals from set pieces. Yoon Jong Hwan emerged as one of the team's best young players in the Olympics; he'll run the attack from midfield, where he's known as "Mozart" for his ability to orchestrate things. Ko Jong Soo is only 19, but he's an automatic starter in midfield if he's recovered from a bad knee injury. He's already won 19 caps and would be one of the players most scrutinized by the European scouts, but his knee could rule him out of the tournament.
South Korea cruised through qualifying, winning both of its groups easily. But this tournament is at best a chance for Cha to expose new players to the big time. Belgium and Mexico have enough question marks that getting that first win is possible. That would make this a very successful trip.
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