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So Far, So Very Good

By William Gildea
Washington Post Columnist
Thursday, July 2, 1998; Page C1




PARIS — Personally, I hate to see England out of the World Cup because it means waiting to see Michael Owen again. If the teen idol hadn't put on such a thrilling performance Tuesday night in Saint-Etienne, Argentina would have recorded a shutout and no one would still be talking about a classic game that went to penalty kicks. Owen scored a remarkable goal and drew a foul that resulted in Alan Shearer's goal on a penalty kick to create a match for the ages. But there is plenty of consolation: Owen is a prodigy with plenty of time, Argentina remains a dark horse to win the Cup (although its route is mountainous) and France plays Italy Friday in what promises to be another momentous occasion.

If the quarterfinals Friday and Saturday and the rest of the tournament can come close to producing the excitement of the Argentina-England round-of-16 game, the 16th World Cup will turn out to be one of the best. But much remains to be determined. Brazil, a well-rested defending champion, would seem an overwhelming choice against Denmark in Friday's other game. But an upset would turn a forecasted routine Brazilian victory into a World Cup epic.

The winner of Saturday's game between Argentina and the Netherlands almost surely will be decided by the players with the bigger hearts. Argentina is faced with a disadvantage — precious little rest after its tiring overtime struggle with England. The Dutch, though, have a been a frustrating bunch for years. To win, they must overcome their history of inconsistency and internal squabbling and grow up. As for the Germans, who are playing in Saturday's other quarterfinal, they must beat Croatia or suffer a fate similar to 1994, when they were upset by Bulgaria.

From this point on, one outstanding individual could make the difference. The player of the tournament has yet to be determined even though a number of outstanding performers have been pulled from the stage by the deficiencies of their teams. Just to name one, Paraguay's Jose Luis Chilavert proved to be a magnetic presence and an efficient goalkeeper, making one glorious stop after another and, in between, forcefully directing his teammates. A victim of target practice as Paraguay adopted a defensive posture against France, he finally was beaten in overtime by Laurent Blanc. Chilavert lay on the ground, his hands covering his face.

So who will be the 1998 Maradona or Roberto Baggio, little big men who repeatedly stole victories in recent World Cups? It could be Brazil's Ronaldo ("He has a lot more to give," said Coach Mario Zagallo) or France's Zinedine Zidane or Thierry Henry or Italy's Baggio or Christian Vieri, who has five goals, or Argentina's Gabriel Batistuta, who also has five, or Germany's Oliver Bierhoff or Juergen Klinsmann, or someone as surprising as Michael Owen. France-Italy will reveal something Friday.

The French are confident — or at least more confident than the Italians. A prevalent attitude in the host country is that Zidane is back after a two-game suspension, therefore all is right. We are the home team and not to be denied; France will win. It's a rather stern demeanor, and it's hard to dispute. "I know people expect a lot from me, but that doesn't bother me," Zidane said. "I'm ready." The Italians once more are a bundle of nerves. In the Italian camp, some crisis is always bubbling like a pot of sauce.

Italy really does have problems, primarily an injury to Alessandro Nesta that has seriously weakened its defense and the indifferent form of its new Baggio, Alessandro Del Piero. At some point, it's quite possible that Coach Cesare Maldini will have to turn to the original Baggio, who was benched the last game for the pale new version of himself.

Baggio has been highly supportive of Del Piero. "He needs a goal to unblock himself," Baggio said. "He's in the same position I was in 1994 until the goal against Nigeria." Baggio did not score in '94 until his fourth game, then scored twice against Nigeria, once against Spain and twice against Bulgaria. Dino Baggio probably will mark Zidane. Luigi di Biagio will be at the heart of midfield operations.

Now comes a statement directly from the "Casa Azzurra," a.k.a. the Italian embassy in Paris. The consul general, Francesco Caruso, reports: "Like each member of the Italian community in France, I can hardly wait for the Italy-France game to begin." Nor can any of us. Happily, 400,000 Italians live in France, so the cheering will not be one-sided although there are bound to be more French rooters among the 80,000 in the Stade de France in Saint-Denis.

The teams are somewhat mirror images. They both wear blue and are known as "the Blues," and most of the players know each other because several of the French play in Italy's Serie A. Zidane said that he always is getting pounded during games with Juventus, and is prepared to take more bruises Friday but that he is eager because he's never played in a game this important, France's most significant since losing to West Germany in the 1986 semifinals.

The World Cup drama is growing now, and all the major powers remaining — Denmark and Croatia are both on a joy ride — want to avoid the emptiness in losing that Glenn Hoddle, England's coach, expressed today. "There was such a strange emotion, a feeling among us about how well we'd done and what we should have achieved," he said. "That's the saddest thing. It wasn't that we'd lost to Argentina or that we had been knocked out, but that we'll never know what we could have achieved."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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