So why is coach Aime Jacquet determined to quit after the tournament? Because of constant criticism from the French fans and press, who seem resigned to failure. Maybe it's because the French are just being, well, French, or maybe it's because they see a team filled with exceptional defenders and midfielders some of the best in the world but bereft of first-class strikers.
It's difficult to find a better midfield anywhere in the world. Zinedine Zidane, Youri Djorkaeff, Didier Deschamps, Emmanuel Petit, Christian Karembeu the talent seems limitless, so much so that Ibrahim Ba was dropped altogether. Marcel Desailly, who is one of the very best midfielders in the world when he's on his game, is pushed back into central defense when he plays for the national team. He's joined in the back by stellar players like Lilian Thuram, Laurent Blanc and Bixente Lizarazu, all of them powerful defenders who are capable on the ball; together, the French defense and midfield are perfectly balanced, able to take the ball away from you and then do something dazzling with it.
But who will score the goals? France has great strikers; unfortunately, they're airline pilots, not soccer players. There are some well-known names in the attack force Christophe Dugarry, Robert Pires, Stephane Guivarc'h, Patrice Loko but with the exception of Dugarry, they are small and vulnerable to physical defenders. Dugarry has not played well for France for some time, and he's still in the team precisely because of his size and ruggedness.The guess here is that Jacquet will push Djorkaeff forward, where he has done well for France (his modest 15 national team goals are three times the total of all of the forwards), in partnership with Pires or David Trezeguet, a newcomer with only three caps who set the French league on fire with Monaco.
France, a stylish but trigger-shy team best described as all hat and no cowboy, will easily advance from this group, and from there, it has relatively smooth passage to the semifinals. The offensive shortcomings will tell badly once France gets to that level, however. If they're unlucky, the French could go out sooner.
The heart of the team is still goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel, regarded by many as the best in the world; Marc Rieper; and the Laudrup brothers, Brian and Michael. Those four could see to it that Denmark finishes first in Group C. Their last game in the group is against France, and Brian Laudrup will have an easier time with the French goalkeepers than the French strikers will have with Schmeichel, who will collect his 100th cap in this game.
But, unlike the French, Denmark does not match up well with any of its likely second-round foes, although that might not matter if the opponent is Spain, a team the Danes would dearly love to meet. Spain knocked Denmark out of three straight major tournaments in the 1980s the '84 European championships, the '86 World Cup (5-1, no less) and the '88 European championships. Michael Laudrup was around for those losses, and he's made it a point not to let his teammates forget them, especially Emilio Butragueno's four goals in the 5-1 World Cup debacle.
The core players will be remembered as the most successful Denmark has ever produced; the 1992 European Championship can never be taken away. But it's a fact that Denmark snuck into that tournament only as a last-minute replacement. Those players then went on to do little else internationally. It's difficult to believe that, six years older and six years slower, they can make much of an impact in the later rounds. Denmark is a good bet to win an early game or two and some new fans, but not much else.
The elegant midfield star of the '94 team, Saeed Oweiran, is still around, as is the superb Mohammed Al-Deayea, who gave one of the best performances in goal at that tournament and has shown since then that it was no fluke. Also back is a candidate to become the discovery of the tournament, Sami Al-Jaber, a diminutive 5-foot-1 smurf of a striker who is still a stranger on the world stage. Like Oweiran, Al-Deayea and many of his other teammates, Al-Jaber has been overlooked because the House of Saud forbids players to move overseas. But that ban ends next season, and the big leagues will certainly try this summer to snare the telegenic Al-Jaber, who is just 25 and is fluent in English, French and Portuguese.
The Saudis' weakness is in the back line, a group of defenders who played admirably in 1994 but are prone to forget their defensive responsibilities and go forward a little too much. Nor have they been replenished by significant new talent. Al-Deayea will have to live up to his reputation if Saudi Arabia is to have a hope of beating out France or Denmark.
More important, the Saudis are now known quantities; their 1994 showing saw to that, and even if it hadn't, their coach, Brazilian World Cup winner Carlos Alberto Parreira, would be enough to make people pay attention. Unlike four year ago, Saudi Arabia won't be able to sneak up on anybody; witness last month's 6-0 loss to Norway, which fielded its entire first team out of respect. And that's why the Saudis' better 1998 team is unlikely to duplicate its 1994 success.
The federation this year installed Philippe Troussier as coach in place of Clive Barker, who won that Nations' Cup in a blaze of national good feeling. Troussier, however, was still coaching Burkina Faso at the time, and so South Africa was forced to hire an interim coach until he became available at the end of this year's Nations' Cup. The choice was a good one: Jomo Sono, founder and coach of Jomo Cosmos and virtually the living embodiment of South African soccer.
The team liked Sono and lobbied to have him kept on, especially after he guided his team to its second straight continental final. But the federation was unmoved; it wanted Troussier, a Frenchman known as the White Witch Doctor. After a standoff that lingered too long, Sono was persuaded to step aside, and Troussier stepped in. And into it.
It was hard enough for Troussier taking over under those circumstances. But he did a lot to make it worse. Troussier is one of the more difficult personalities in the game, a man who was fired at Kaizer Chiefs four years ago when his own players a couple of whom are now in his national team revolted. (The Burkina Faso job was the only one of his three national team appointments from which he wasn't fired for insubordination.) And true to form, he's proceeded to step on as many South African toes as he can find.
First he was undermined by his own players, who complained that he was physically and personally abusive in practices. Then he dropped some of the team's most popular players, whose main offense seemed to be that they had won the 1996 Nations' Cup for Barker. And now he's in a sniping contest with his best player, 20-year-old sensation Benni McCarthy, leading scorer of the 1998 Nations' Cup and far and away the most talented player in the team.
Troussier committed heresy by saying he was considering dropping McCarthy, who he says isn't fit enough because he doesn't start for his club team, Ajax Amsterdam. Even Troussier recognized he couldn't get away with that, however, so McCarthy's back in the team. Troussier got even by stripping McCarthy of the number 17, which he made famous in South Africa because that was how old he was when he won his first cap. McCarthy, unfortunately acting his age, threatened to sit out the World Cup unless he got it back. It's a singularly petty dispute, of course, but it's also one that Troussier forced and one that never should have happened. It's also tiresomely predictable.
South Africa is talented enough to make waves in this group if its players find a way not to let the antics of their coach distract them. It boasts players in most of the glamorous European leagues, players who are accustomed to persevering despite the sometimes bizarre character of African soccer. As for Troussier, he's said he hopes he can get a European job out of this tournament. If nothing else, getting rid of the White Witch Doctor might be incentive enough.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company