For sheer flair, the Romanians are difficult to beat. Hagi, scorer of one of the great World Cup goals in Romania's 3-1 victory over Colombia four years ago, frequently has been compared with Diego Maradona, and Marius Lacatus has rediscovered his scoring touch since his return to Steaua Bucharest. Gheorghe Popescu, Dan Petrescu, Dorinel Munteanu, Ilie Dumitrescu, Viorel Moldovan and Adrian Ilie are typical of the stylish player coach Anghel Iordanescu prefers, and a new generation of younger players has produced national team players capable of sending 1994 stalwarts like Miodrag Belodedici, Florin Raducioiu and Ionut Lupescu into international retirement. One of them, midfielder Denis Serban, 22, will draw a lot of attention from opponents and European scouts.
If anything, Romania suffered from its rampage through qualifying. It was a weak group, and the team never was tested. There's no way to know if it has overcome its severely disappointing showing in the 1996 European Championships, and no way to gauge whether the older stars Hagi is 32, and Lacatus is 34 can stand up against tough opponents for 90 minutes. And defensive stopper Daniel Prodan's absence with an injury will not be easy to overcome.
Nor is it clear that Iordanescu, an army general and a notorious disciplinarian, still commands the respect of his older, established players. The Romanian camp is a contentious one, and Iordanescu's decisions to drop Belodedici and especially Raducioiu caused dissent. The Romanian press has taken to calling the coach "Puiu," which roughly translates as "chicken."
Still, Romania should win a tough group. And finishing first in Group G is vital; the runner-up is almost certainly consigned to a second-round match with Argentina. If that match materializes, however, it could be the game of the tournament. One of Romania's victims in 1994 was Argentina, and the Argentines are back this year as the strongest team in the field. Hagi characteristically boasts that "it cannot be ruled out that Romania will take home the trophy." The draw is crucial, and that's overly optimistic. But not by much.
With England, those questions involve fitness and self-belief. At times since England's return to world soccer in early '90s, the national team has been gripped by almost paralyzing self-doubt. It's one thing to acknowledge that English clubs' exile from international soccer gave other nations a chance to catch up; it's another thing entirely to wallow in self-defeatism.
Perceptions of England are warped by the baying tabloids, which try to convince the world that England is the greatest team that ever played, and the quality papers, which counterbalance that excess with their own excesses of sourness and pessimism. Part of the pessimism arises from England's club performances since the return to European soccer. Before, the European Cup was the preserve of English teams; after, no English team has come close to winning it.
The players' fitness has raised questions, too. Striker Ian Wright is out of the tournament completely. Striker and captain Alan Shearer, a game breaker with few equals, missed most of the season with an injured ankle. Many in the squad are tired victims of the overlong, overstuffed English season.
And that's a shame, because England has truly fine players who deserve better than to be run ragged by a 42-game league campaign plus two long cup tournaments. David Beckham is England's next great star, good enough to have knocked Paul Gascoigne from the team entirely. Shearer, a lethal finisher, is one of the best in the world. That's also a fair assessment of goalkeeper David Seaman.
If finishing first to avoid Argentina in Round 2 is important for Romania, it is doubly so for England, which can equal neither Argentina's fluidity of attack nor its bite in midfield. Of all the preliminary groups, this is the toughest to call, but England can win it if it figures out who it is and what it has. The English are not nearly as poor as many around them seem to think, but that doubt is enough for Romania to knock them off.
Carlos Valderrama is back orchestrating the midfield, as slow and casual as ever after letting his skills deteriorate against inferior opposition in the U.S. league. Worse, Valderrama is 36, and it's an old 36. And that's not all. Freddy Rincon, Antony de Avila, Wilson Perez, Wilmer Cabrera they're all here eight years later, trying to beat the clock and their own reputation, which was left in tatters four years ago in the United States.
Experience is one thing, but Colombia is frankly over the hill if recent form and the South American qualifiers are any indications. As the games piled up in qualifying, Colombia, which started very fast, took only one point in one stretch of five games. It even lost to Peru at home.
Beginning a decade ago, these veteran stars raised Colombia from perpetual second-class status in South American soccer into one of the classy, stylish teams on the continent; then they started the slide right back down. It's not the fault of coach Hernan Dario Gomez, who rhetorically throws up his hands and says there's nobody else available. A younger star, Faustino Asprilla, has established himself as a world-class striker, but it's asking too much to expect him to carry the team. Worse, Asprilla and referees don't mix, and he's been slow to recover from a groin injury.
In fairness, many of the Colombians were great players in their day, and it's conceivable that they could all find their second wind and take Colombia deep into the tournament. But those odds are long; there are just too many players well past their primes.
Then there is the chilling reality of life in the violent Colombian spotlight. More than one player has acknowledged being frightened by threats of death if they don't perform. Striker Victor Hugo Aristizabal publicly shook them off, but Asprilla Colombia's most important player after Valderamma said he would not play if the threats got any worse. The gruesome murder of defender Andres Escobar after Colombia's poor showing four years ago will never be forgotten.
Gomez whose brother Gabriel pulled out of the Colombian team four years because of death threats took over for Francisco Maturana after the collapse in the United States. Although Maturana's removal was harsh treatment for problems that weren't his fault, it looks as though he got out at the right time.
This is much the same team that did so poorly at the 1996 Olympics, picking up more ejections than goals. Worse, its best player, midfielder Hassan Gabsi, is out of the World Cup because of a knee injury.
That leaves the team's hopes with two players, Adel Sellimi, a striker with Nantes in the French league, and Zuobier Beya, a playmaking forward with Freiburg in Germany's second division. Beya, however, has feuded with coach Henryk Kasperczak and was not even sure of a place in the team until recently. And he is not alone. The team's nonchalance has driven Kasperczak to distraction, and he's reported to be bolting for a French club after the World Cup.
There are also, tragically, weaknesses in defense after longtime star Hedi Berkhissa died of a heart attack during a game last year. His replacement is twice-capped Jose Clayton, a newly naturalized Tunisian from Brazil who admits that "I knew absolutely nothing about Tunisian football, but my agent told me, 'It's like Brazil, the beach and the sun.' "
The temptation is to look at Tunisia's recent domination of the African club competitions and infer that the national team must be among the continent's best, too. But that's misleading. Clubs in other nations routinely lose their stars to lucrative offers from Europe and Mexico. That's not the case in Tunisia, where the talent stays home because there's little demand for it elsewhere.
The Tunisians say they have confidence that "anything can happen" in their opener against England because they will have the support of a French crowd, and everyone knows the French hate the English. If that's not grasping after straws, nothing is, and it's a fair reflection of Tunisia's hopes in this group.
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