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Group D: Spain Is Strongest in 'Group of Death'

By Alex Johnson
Washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, June 3, 1998




Spain | Nigeria | Paraguay | Bulgaria


Spain
Fourth place: 1950

Eventually, Spain will win a World Cup. But it won't be this year. And no matter when it happens, it will be long overdue.

Spain always enters the tournament with high hopes, only to disappoint. This year will be no exception, as Spain comes to France with a team built on two of the greatest clubs in the world — Barcelona and newly crowned European champions Real Madrid — fielding many of the best players in the game, but with the same inability to perform at their best for their country.

The Spaniards are solid in the back. Goalkeeper Andoni Zubizaretta has had a long and honorable career with the national team, and while he will start for sentimental reasons even though he is not Spain's best choice — he's retiring right after the tournament — he's more than sufficient. That's because in front of him are two of the best defenders in the World Cup, Fernando Hierro of Real Madrid, who almost singlehandedly destroyed Juventus's glossy attack in the European Cup final, and Rafael Alkorta of Athletic Bilbao. There's more than enough talent here, in Sergi and Miguel Nadal, to survive the absence of Josep Guardiola, the Barcelona star who is out with a leg injury.

Guardiola's absence, in fact, will be felt more in midfield, where he was just as big a factor. Midfield options are few. Julen Guerrero is back, aiming to rehabilitate his reputation after he was blamed for Spain's 1994 quarterfinal elimination. He could do it, but nagging injuries just as easily could limit his appearances. Guillermo Amor has the track record, but he's been displaced in the Barcelona lineup by Albert Celades and hasn't played much recently. Both are in the World Cup team, and Amor may play alongside Celades in France.

Similarly, Emilio Amavisca (Real Madrid) and Fernando Sanchez (Real Betis) have had trouble even cracking their club lineups. If Spain is to do well, Luis Enrique of Barcelona, a reliable supporting player, must take more responsibility for orchestrating the attack. He's capable of doing it.

Most glaring has been Spanish forwards' failure in big games. Hopes this year rest on Raul, the 20-year-old Real Madrid phenom. But Raul is also a candidate to go home as this year's answer to Guerrero. He has at times been breathtaking in his young career, but he has tried to fight through a groin injury since midseason, and by the end of Real Madrid's campaign he had frequently been withdrawn into midfield because of his flat performances.

Coach Javier Clemente's options are mixed. Kiko Narvaez of Atletico Madrid is big and powerful, ideally suited to partner Raul, but he's a provider, not a scorer. Fernando Morientes picked up much of the scoring slack at Real late in the year and could be a surprise in France, but he's also new in the national team, with only one cap, and just as easily could fade under the pressure. Alfonso of Real Betis has the experience and the track record, but his performances this season have been uninspiring. And Juan Antonio Pizzi was benched at Barcelona.

Spain has enough to win this group, and it has a fighting chance in the second round, probably against Denmark. The prognosis is the same it always is: If the Spanish forwards can find enough backbone to perform in the late rounds, there's no telling what they can accomplish. But you'd be a fool to bank on it.

Nigeria
Before Nigeria goes home — as early as the second round — Bora Milutinovic will be known as the best defender in the world. That's because Nigeria's new coach will do more to shut down the exciting, freewheeling Olympic champions than its opponents will.

You remember Bora, the "miracle worker" who led Costa Rica and the United States to their best modern showings in the World Cup. He's also the man who turned Mexico into a cautious, frightened team and got canned for it.

Milutinovic is a taskmaster and a control freak, which works well with teams of limited talent. But he seems uncomfortable letting talented soccer players play soccer. His new team includes four African players of the year – Victor Ikpeba, Nwankwo Kanu and Rashidi Yekini – and a raft of other European stars, such as Sunday Oliseh, Taribo West, Celestine Babayaro, Daniel Amokachi, Tijani Babangida, Austin Okocha and Finidi George. But true to form, Milutinovic has prescribed defined roles for his players, who are among the best in the world when they're given the freedom to play.

Milutinovic has been on the job only four months, but already he's alienated his players, who criticized him after their 1-0 loss to Germany in a friendly in April. The revolt went so deep that Milutinovic prevailed upon the Nigerian federation to issue a statement reaffirming that he's in charge, not a clique of players led by Amokachi known as "the Mafia." Not surprisingly, Nigeria arrives in France riding a string of ugly losses, including 4-1 to Grasshoppers, a Swiss club team. FIFA's world rankings don't mean much, but even so, Nigeria's fall to 74th place is telling.

This is a team that beat Brazil and Argentina back to back to win Olympic gold, a collection of creative, surprising players who with another coach would be among the favorites to win Africa's first World Cup. Bora Milutinovic is very smart man — the question is whether he is smart enough to sit back and let them play or just too smart for his own good. If it's the latter, than whomever they face in the second round must be favored to send the Nigerians home early.

Paraguay
If nothing else, the rest of the world is in for a treat once it discovers what South American partisans already know, which is that the world's best goalkeeper is not Peter Schmeichel or Angelo Peruzzi or David Seaman but Jose Luis Chilavert, the linebacker-sized would-be striker who sports a bulldog on his shirt.

Chilavert takes many of Paraguay's free kicks and penalties, and he's scored more than 40 goals in his professional career. His goal off a free kick gave Paraguay a tie in Argentina, paving the way to France and to a ride off the field on his teammates' shoulders. But what sets him apart from Jorge Campos and the rest of the Rene Higuita clones is that he is also a top-class shot-stopper and defensive organizer. He's a monumentally arrogant presence who rattles his opponents right out of their game; his psych job on Ronaldo in last year's Copa America has entered South American legend — the world player of the year completely disappeared from the game after Chilavert saved his penalty kick and taunted him with the ball.

While it is not just Chilavert, Paraguay is not a well-balanced team, however. Chilavert is ably supported by a corps of solid, Brazil-trained defenders, but from the midfield forward, the squad is weak.

Most notable in the back is Carlos Gamarra of Corinthians, who is perhaps the best defender playing in Brazil. There's such a glut of defensive talent that Francisco Arce, who also plays in Brazil, moves to midfield for Paraguay, so coach Paulo Cesar Carpegiani can find places for Catalino Rivarola and Celso Ayala.

But Paraguay's midfield often takes a back seat to the marauding overlapping of its defenders, and that will be costly against Nigeria or Spain. Carpegiani must persuade his team to let Roberto Acuna of Real Zaragoza in the Spanish league control play in the middle. Getting the fractious Paraguayans to agree on that or anything else is difficult, though. The team has been torn apart by the demand of Chilavert and others to omit Julio Cesar Romero, the immensely creative but unpopular 38-year-old who became known as Romerito during his years in Brazil. Carpegiani stood his ground, picked Romero, and has suffered recent losses to Holland (5-1, no less) and even Japan.

The options are limited up front. Aristides Rojas of Union is a dangerous striker, but he is relatively inexperienced on the world stage. Newcomer Hugo Ovelar has only three caps, but his play for Cerro Porteno forced him into the national team and may be enough to get him into the starting lineup. Jose Cardozo can do the job, but he's out of favor with Carpegiani after skipping Paraguay's U.S. tour to help his club team, Necaxa, on its run through the Mexican playoffs.

Paraguay can escape the Group of Death — it could even win it — if it can exploit the real weaknesses of Spain and if Nigeria goes into the shell its coach has built. But if it does, it will have to be on the back of a series of 1-0 results. If its opponents realize their potential, Paraguay will win a lot of fame (or infamy) but little else. Third place sounds about right.

Bulgaria
Fourth place: 1994.

Bulgaria, one of the biggest surprises of the '94 finals, is back with the same cast of characters. That won't be good enough this time.

Hristo Stoichkov, 32, Ivailo Yordanov, 30, Lyuboslav Penev, 31, Zlatko Yankov, 32, Krassimir Balakov, 32, Trifan Ivanov, 32, and Emil Kostadinov, 30, will almost all line up again for Bulgaria on June 12 against Paraguay. Those ages are a cause for concern, given coach Hristo Bonev's aggressive, pressing style; you have to wonder how long these players, whose recent performances include a loss to Macedonia, can hold up in a tough group.

Bonev may have an idea what's in store. "It is not realistic to talk about" repeating the showing of 1994, which included an upset of Germany. "I am looking at young players, but time is short, and results cannot be achieved in a day."

Some newcomers have broken into the first team, notably left-footed defender Ivailo Petkov, 22, but the rest of the squad is a collection of players with more than 50 caps and players with fewer than 10. If any of the iron-man 11 starters turns up hurt or ineffective, there's little Bonev can do. The big three strikers, Stoichkov, Kostadinov and Penev, have so monopolized play that there's no other credible striker. Marian Hristov, a midfielder with but 10 caps, would be the next option. And it's that way throughout the team.

Stoichkov is the key player, of course, top scorer of the '94 World Cup and that year's European Player of the Year as a consequence. He's still a hothead who can bag five goals or be ejected within five minutes.

If sheer will were enough, Stoichkov alone would push Bulgaria into the late rounds. As it is, he is one of the few top-class left-footed strikers in the world, which is always awkward for defenses, and the rest of the group is so evenly matched that Bulgaria could sneak into the second round if results fall its way. But that will happen only if Bulgaria can keep pushing all those old legs at top speed against three much younger sides. The surprises of 1994 seem to have simply run out of time.


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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