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Among Many Hard Workers, Strikers Stand Out

By William Gildea
Washington Post Columnist
Thursday, June 18, 1998; Page B6

 Brazil's Ronaldo, although only 21, is considered the world's best striker, but he has some strong competition. (Jean-Christophe Kahn/Reuters)
PARIS — Not since Maradona came along in 1982 has a World Cup debut been as anticipated as that of 21-year-old Ronaldo. In Brazil, he's considered the next Pele. Ronaldo has the speed of Michael Johnson, at least at a short distance, and the feet of Fred Astaire. Ronaldo weaves through traffic like a Paris taxi driver. He does that best of all, eliminating defenders with a dip of a shoulder or quick turn. The ball almost seems attached to his toe. Little wonder then that this 16th World Cup was declared Ronaldo's long before the kickoff.

In two games against modest opposition, Scotland and Morocco, the shaven-headed, gap-toothed Ronaldo Luiz Nazario de Lima has matched his billing. He scored and assisted Tuesday against Morocco, and the assist belongs in future texts on how to play the game. He beat four Moroccans in his last 10 yards approaching the goal from the left side, pulling the goalkeeper toward him like a magnet. Then he slid the ball to the wily warhorse Bebeto. Rarely does a scorer receive the ball in such favorable location. It was as if Bebeto were standing on a beach at water's edge with a whole ocean in front of him.

But this World Cup is far from over even if Brazil, lollygagging in recent friendlies but out of the gate with a rush in the World Cup, is the first team to clinch a place in the round of 16. Ronaldo is not the only striker in the world, although the attention he's gotten sometimes makes it seem so. It could be that Germany's Juergen Klinsmann, Argentina's Gabriel Batistuta and Italy's Roberto Baggio might be tired of hearing about Ronaldo — and they are positioned, if they have good fortune, to take the Cup away from him.

Alan Shearer of England, Marcelo Salas of Chile, Hristo Stoichkov of Bulgaria and Dennis Bergkamp of the Netherlands might share those feelings. But Shearer, Salas and Stoichkov lack the supporting cast to challenge Brazil, while the Dutch have been so star-crossed for so long they almost need a realignment of heavenly bodies to contend for the Cup.

Klinsmann, Batistuta and Baggio all have played major roles in World Cups, although Ronaldo, in addition to his natural talent, at least has been to the show even though he didn't get to perform. As a 17-year-old he observed from Brazil's bench four years ago in the United States when Romario starred up front with Bebeto and Brazil won an unprecedented fourth Cup on a penalty shootout against Italy. Baggio, who led the Blues to the final, by then had been injured and played well below par.

Klinsmann and Germany won the Cup in Italy in 1990. But Klinsmann, 33, has been slowed by injuries and, people thought, age. He surprised with his play against the United States, displaying plenty of energy in running the field, heading a ball from traffic to set up a goal and adding the clinching score in the 2-0 victory. He looked happy during the game, and after it when he said: "I felt great right away. I felt like taking the initiative, and I'm really glad I scored a goal. That goal was the culmination of all the hard work I put in over the last few weeks."

Batistuta possesses the ability to lead Argentina out from the shadow of Maradona, whose drug use sped his decline. Batistuta scored for Argentina in its 1-0 opener against Japan, but Yutaka Akita, who marked him, claimed not to have been that impressed. "Batistuta did not move so much and he was not as crafty as I had expected," Akita said. It was true that Argentina, the dark horse of this tournament, played only an average game against the World Cup newcomer. But it was unlikely that Batistuta would match his hat trick in Argentina's 1994 opener against Greece. As Batistuta said: "You have to win before anything else."

He knows: The World Cup is a marathon. And he gave every indication that he's ready to run it. When Argentine writers pressed him as to which club he might play for next season, he changed the subject. He has something else on his mind, if taken at his word. "It would be spectacular," he interjected, "if I could be the top scorer and win the World Cup with Argentina."

As for Baggio, he exudes the steadiness needed by Italy, sometimes shaky under pressure over the years. His is an attitude that comes with having almost reached the mountaintop. "I'm calm and confident," Baggio said after scoring once to Salas's two goals in Italy's opening 2-2 tie with Chile.

But to date, it's still Ronaldo's World Cup. "He's beginning," said a Brazilian official after Ronaldo's game against Morocco. His goal, which split two defenders and was impossible to stop, came after he had been held scoreless in three internationals — a drought for him. Mario Zagallo, Brazil's coach, was happy because Ronaldo had enlivened the team. "We're getting better and better," the coach said. "We played very, very well. We were more joyful and more efficient."

Morocco's fans didn't seem to mind despite the 3-0 pounding they took. They celebrated on the Champs-Elysees Tuesday night as if honored just to have had their team on the same field with Brazil. They knew of Ronaldo's ability, which Zagallo characterized this way: "Who knows? One day he may be remembered as the greatest footballer ever." Moroccans sang and danced, in many instances with Brazilians. A group of Moroccans waved happily to a car full of Brazilians speeding by with the top down, their flag streaming. Give Morocco the early World Cup lead for being good sports.

And, so far, keep Ronaldo in the forefront on the field. Watching him scoop a loose ball and weave through a crowd of defenders to serve Bebeto with his easy tap-in suggests how hard it is for a goalkeeper to stop the likes of the great strikers. Although he never played against a Ronaldo or a Klinsmann or a Baggio, the Frenchman Albert Camus was a goalkeeper before he became a philosopher and writer. "I learned that the ball never came to you where you expected it," he once said. "This helped me in life."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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