No Crying in Argentina
Wednesday, June 3, 1998
Let's answer the most important question right off the bat. Argentina will win the World Cup.
One or two other countries may have one or two better players, but no other team has the depth of talent and, just as important, the balance of talent of coach Daniel Passarella's squad.
If Argentina does win, it will be a worthy champion, indeed. If the groups end up as they should, Argentina will have to beat England in the second round, Germany in the quarterfinals and Brazil in the semifinals, as demanding a gauntlet as any World Cup champion has ever run. But it has the game and the steel to do it.
There's no shock in predicting good runs for those teams, but as in every tournament, this World Cup will serve up its share of surprises. The entire bracket could be turned upside down if Norway beats out Brazil to win Group A. Egil Olsen's Norwegians can't approach Brazil in skill, but in their tactics and approach, they are almost perfectly constructed to beat the Brazilians in their group game. Brazil will go much further in the tournament, but Norway, which has never lost to Brazil and is coming in on a roll, has a better-than-even shot at winning their group.
Yugoslavia, not Germany, is the favorite in Group F. Not only is Yugoslavia one of the strongest teams in the tournament, and a legitimate pick to win it all, but this is also one of the weaker German teams in memory, with real holes in midfield and too much age at every position. This is the United States' group, and while it is a very long shot, the possibility can't be dismissed that the fast, midfield-driven Americans will take one or even three points off the Germans in their group opener.
If Yugoslavia does take the group, then the second round would probably see a Germany-Holland matchup. Advantage Germany; the Dutch are better, but the Germans are tougher, and Holland's great striker Dennis Bergkamp is looking more and more like he'll miss the finals with an injury.
Other likely second-round attractions are Brazil-Chile, which could be one of the best games in the tournament, and Argentina-England, in which England will fail to get revenge for Diego Maradona even though it won't have to face Diego Maradona. Argentina's reward: Germany. And if it survives Germany, Brazil would probably be up next, in the semifinals.
In the other half of the bracket, by contrast, the way is clear for Yugoslavia to ride straight to the finals, presuming Brazil does win its group. Thanks to the luck of the draw, Yugoslavia probably will have to deal with only Belgium in the second round and Romania in the quarterfinals. It looks like the home-standing French will stand in the way in the semifinal, but France's pop-gun attack makes that a winnable game.
So it's Yugoslavia against Argentina in the final. At 3 p.m. July 12, Predrag Mijatovic, Dragan Stojkovic, Savo Milosevic and Dejan Savicevic will run smack into Nestor Sensini, Jose Chamot, Javier Zanetti and Roberto Ayala ... Yugoslavia's irresistible force against Argentina's immovable objects. It has the chance to be a great final, but the Argentines are more experienced at this level, and they will have been tested against better competition along the way.
Prediction: Argentina 2, Yugoslavia 1.
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