The Teams: Group F
1. Yugoslavia | 2. Germany | 3. United States | 4. Iran By Alex Johnson
Wednesday, June 3, 1998
Third place: 1930. Fourth place: 1962.
After having been excluded from the last World Cup by U.N. sanctions, Yugoslavia comes to France determined to prove its quality. The Yugoslavs have an abundance of talent, most of it dispersed among the glamour European clubs but unable to show its stuff on a world stage because of United Nations sanctions. There are players in this team who can dramatically improve their professional situations with a good performance here, and that's powerful incentive.
In fact, Yugoslavia has one of the most talented rosters in the entire tournament, the core of which won the world Under-20 championship in 1987 and is now reaching its peak. The Yugoslavs started their European qualifying campaign slowly, but once they got their legs under them, they utterly destroyed Hungary in a two-leg playoff, 12-1 on aggregate, including a 7-1 win in Budapest that was Hungary's worst home loss in 88 years.
In Predrag Mijatovic, they have one of the premier strikers in the world, scorer of the goal that gave Real Madrid the European Cup and a strong contender for European Player of the Year (he finished second to Ronaldo last year). He's built an understanding with midfielder Dragan Stojkovic that has produced one of the most powerful partnerships in the tournament, keying an attack that can overwhelm any opponent.
The array of offensive and midfield talent Mijatovic, Stojkovic, Savo Milosevic, the brilliant Dejan Savicevic, Vladimir Jugovic is so overwhelming that Anto Drobnjak, one of the leading goal scorers in France and a key member of French champions Lens, did not even make the final cut. It will also allow coach Slobodan Santrac to carry one or two more defenders than other teams. That will take some of the pressure off Sinisa Mihajlovic, one of the best defenders in Italy, with Sampdoria. The talent is so deep, in fact, that Santrac plays all 11 starters in their natural club positions, a rarity in World Cup teams.
The dispersal of the best players across Europe, created when Yugoslavia's league was shuttered during the war, has given home-based players a chance to play full-time, and a few have snuck into Santrac's squad. Goalkeeper Ivica Kralj of Partizan Belgrade has forced his way into the lineup, sending Italian league veteran Aleksandr Kocic to the bench, and Red Star Belgrade's Dejan Stankovic, still a teenager who recently signed a record contract to join Lazio in the Italian league, is a good bet to push another of the veterans out of the first team.
The presumption is that Germany is the favorite in Group F, but that's a knee-jerk reaction. Yugoslavia has better players at many positions and younger players at every position. Past Yugoslavian teams, reveling in their reputation as the Brazilians of Europe, have sacrificed winning for the sheer beauty of their play, but this year's team is intent on the right goal. "This team takes no prisoners," said the team's general manager, Bata Bulatovic. "It doesn't play for the fun of the crowds, as sometimes the old Yugoslav teams did. It plays to win the games."
The Yugoslavia-Germany game will decide the group, and Yugoslavia is simply better this year. From there, it may be unstoppable.
World Cup champions: 1954, 1974, 1990. Runners-up: 1966, 1982, 1986. Third place: 1934, 1970. Fourth place: 1958.
West Germany or Germany has made the semifinals in eight of the last 11 World Cups. It has played for the title six times, winning three of them. And it is the defending champions of Europe.
That's one heck of a pedigree, a formidable argument that Germany again is a favorite to win this tournament. Germany is always a model of consistency and teamwork, more often resembling a well-constructed, top-class club side in its cohesion than an all-star team that convenes only when needed.
But there's a crucial difference between the German national team and a traditional club power. Good clubs build for the future, rotating young new players into the side. Germany, by contrast, has relied for a decade on the same core of players who have taken it to the title game of all but one of the major tournaments it has entered in the 1990s.
Four years ago, Germany took a team widely admired for its experience to the United States: Goalkeeper Andreas Koepke was 32. Defenders Thomas Helmer, Stefan Reuter, Matthias Sammer, Jurgen Kohler and Olaf Thon were 29, 27, 26, 28 and 28, respectively. Lothar Matthaus, the successor to Franz Beckenbauer as the engineer of the team, was 33. Captain Jurgen Klinsmann was 32.
All but Sammer, who is injured, are back, all four years older.
Some of them are in noticeable decline, too. Matthaus had been out of the team for more than three years when coach Berti Vogts surprisingly named him to the squad for France. Klinsmann was a flop in his return to Italy and forced a transfer to England so he could play first-team soccer. Koepke has likely lost his starting job. Defensive options are so shaky that, incredibly, Matthaus has been named a starter at 37.
Nine of the 11 likely starters against the United States on June 15 are probably playing in their last World Cup. Only three are under 30, and two of them by only months. Even with Christian Ziege, 26, the average age of the German lineup is 32.
So there's age and with it the pressure not to blow it in the last big show. There's also a big roadblock ahead: the chance that Germany will have to face Holland as early as the second round.
In the last year, Vogts has adapted by dropping two men back into what effectively is a five-defender lineup, with only three true midfielders. That could be dicey in France because the strength of the two teams Germany will be expected to defeat is in midfield.
Its first opponent, the United States, will throw six young, fast midfielders at it. That means Vogts has two unhappy choices: take his chances on being overrun in midfield or change the configuration on the fly. That's tough to do under any circumstances, but especially so for Germany, which depends upon consistency and predictability. Germany is notorious for playing poorly in its first game as it is; circumstances old, settled players changing their style against a young, enthusiastic team built expressly to exploit them could leave Germany with quite a battle in its opener.
But the German secret is a fierce determination that Franz Beckenbauer calls "the tournament mentality," an insistence on seeing themselves as winners even when other teams are better. With other teams, that mentality is an intangible you throw into the mix. With Germany it is an incontrovertible fact, trumping age or injury or tactics. Germany comes to France not having improved a bit from the squad that went home too early last time, and certainly not having gotten any younger. But it will find a way to beat younger, better teams.
Yes, Germany was held to an ugly scoreless draw by Finland last month. Yes, some of its best players are old and carrying injuries. And yes, its best player of all, Sammer, won't play a minute. But the Germans will be in the quarterfinals. Bank on it.
Fourth place: 1930.
It's useful to step back a second and appraise how far the United States has come in the last decade. The Americans qualified for the 1990 World Cup only by the skin of their teeth in a traditionally weak region further depleted by the absence of Mexico, which was barred.
Eight years later, the team has rocketed. It says a lot that a second-place qualifying finish that included a draw in Mexico City was regarded as disappointing, and so much American talent has emerged that half of the 1994 team, which reached the second round and gave champions Brazil a tough game, has been supplanted. There's finally a national league, producing players of such quality that coach Steve Sampson enjoys the luxury of choice throughout the lineup. Who could have imagined eight years ago that there would be good, old-fashioned competition for places, and controversy to boot?
The Americans' 11th-place world ranking is meaningless, of course, given the absurdities of FIFA's ranking system. But the United States now rivals Mexico for supremacy in CONCACAF, and debate among U.S. supporters is not over whether the national team will be able to avoid embarrassment at the World Cup but whether it can really play with teams like Germany and Yugoslavia. No one snickers now when Sampson says he thinks the third round is realistic.
He's right; it is realistic to think of beating Germany and making it past the second round. It is also highly improbable.
The U.S. game against Germany will be the biggest the United States has played in years. Sampson may use the same stock lines every coach uses about choosing the best players regardless of the opposition, but the team and formation he will take to France are designed to match up as well as possible with the Germans.
Germany's problems relatively speaking, of course; this is Germany are lack of speed and midfield depth. The United States is crafted to hit Germany right where it hurts. Where Germany is slow, the United States has loaded up with speed. Germany keeps faith with three veterans in midfield. The United States' six-man midfield creates a mismatch with speed and youth to burn. Sampson's preparations may or may not work, but it is the Germans who will have to adapt to the Americans, not the other way around, and that fact alone says volumes about him as a coach and about U.S. soccer in general.
Such tailoring leaves holes, however. The United States touts its three-man defense, which has recorded four straight shutouts. Those were against Austria, Macedonia, Kuwait and Scotland, however, teams whose combined firepower can't match the craft of the Germans or the talent of the Yugoslavs.
It will field only one striker: an unfit Eric Wynalda, an untested Brian McBride or an undead Roy Wegerle. The U.S. hope is to stifle Germany and wear it out in midfield, then hit late with the creative Preki Radosavljevic coming off the bench. That can work, especially since the United States gets Germany in its first game, when the Germans will still be unsure of Klinsmann's fitness and awkwardly absorbing Lothar Matthaus back into the side after three years. But if it doesn't, then everything the United States is aiming for goes by the wayside.
The United States is solid at many positions and world class at one goalkeeper, where Kasey Keller is one of the five best in the tournament. Midfielder Claudio Reyna, a German league veteran, needs to come up big in a high-pressure tournament to prove he merits the faith Sampson has put in him. Midfielder Cobi Jones at the moment is the best player in Major League Soccer; how he and Preki fare will tell us a lot about the league.
The dropping or benching of veterans like John Harkes, Alexi Lalas and Marcelo Balboa isn't as big an issue as it appears; they helped bring the United States to this level, but they can take it no further. The newer players are unknown quantities at this level, but they are as good a bet as the United States has. Some of them, notably defender Eddie Pope and defensive midfielder Brian Maissoneuve, are clearly superior.
The June 21 game against Iran will get all the attention, but the United States would be ill-served by focusing too heavily on a game that is of more interest for political than competitive reasons. It figures to beat Iran and lose to Yugoslavia. It's a tough order to beat the Germans, but that's what it will take to advance. We know how far the United States has come. Now it's time to learn exactly how far it has to go.
Iran brings real talent to the table more than many people expect but it is in such turmoil that it's hard to see it doing much of anything. This is a team that lost 7-1 to an Italian club team and fired its coach less than a month before the tournament.
In some respects, it's fitting that Tomislav Ivic is out. The federation unjustly fired Valdeir Vieira, the Brazilian who coached Iran to victory in its decisive qualifying playoff with Australia, because he wasn't a big enough name. It was as if, having finally decided to take the plunge with a foreign coach and winning, the federation got greedy.
Ivic proved that having coached many of the top teams in Europe he's been with Ajax Amsterdam, Anderlecht, Atletico Madrid, Olympique Marseille, Paris Saint Germain, Benfica and Porto doesn't necessarily qualify you to lead the national team in a country where the government takes such a close interest in basic decisions. (In an editorial, Iran News suggested in a roundabout way last month that Safaei Farahani, head of the federation, had so screwed things up that suicide was the only honorable way out.) The new coach, Jelal Telabi, figures to restore some calm, if nothing else.
Iran brings three Asian players of the year to France, and it has many more players in top European clubs than the United States has, to make one comparison. Ali Daei and Khodadad Azizi are established stars in Germany, while Karim Bagheri is a big-time player, top scorer in the entire World Cup qualifying campaign. Mohammad Khakpour, a veteran of the Turkish league, is the cornerstone of the defense. In midfield, Bagheri is bolstered by Mehdi Mahdavikia, only 21, who is in line to sign with former European champions Borussia Dortmund after the World Cup.
The most influential player, however, is Ahmed Abedzadeh, the goalkeeper and captain, whose theatricality in goal both inspires and disconcerts his teammates.
A new coach can make a big difference, but Telabi is taking over too late to have much of an impact. Moreover, as a member of Ivic's staff, he carries some of the stigma of the previous regime. Iran is an early candidate to be the Cameroon of this tournament, crashing and burning on impact. The Asian Team of the Year in 1997 could be the Flop of the World Cup in 1998.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company