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Group H: Nothing Here Will Slow Down Argentina

By Alex Johnson
Wednesday, June 3, 1998

Argentina | Croatia | Japan | Jamaica

World Cup champions: 1978, 1986; Runners-up: 1930, 1990

At the moment, Argentina is the best team in the world. You never want to place too much emphasis on pre-tournament friendlies, but recent 1-0 shutouts of Chile and Brazil (in Rio, no less) are difficult to ignore. It's almost criminal that while its main rivals for the championship will be struggling with tough preliminary groups, Argentina will have two near-walkovers and a moderate test against Croatia to get comfortable in the tournament's easiest group.

Coach Daniel Passarella has been criticized for his heavy-handed approach, but it was largely a necessity if he was to restore order to the undisciplined, truculent team that turned off much of the world with its petulant display in the 1994 World Cup in the United States. He's lightened up enough to have restored Gabriel Batistuta, Argentina's all-time leading goal scorere, pairing him with Claudio Lopez in a neat, efficient attack. He's finally found a real successor for Diego Maradona's No. 10 shirt in Ariel Ortega, who should claim his place as one of the game's best creators in this tournament. It would have been best if he'd relented on his opposition to Fernando Redondo, who could complement Ortega perfectly, but there's only so far Passarella is willing to bend.

Argentina is a nice blend of youth and experience. The team belongs to Ortega, 23, and Juan Veron, 23; with Roberto Ayala, 25, Marcelo Gallardo, 23, Lopez, 23, and Hernan Crespo, 22, they are the heart of the squad that will lead Argentina into the next century. But when things get sticky, Passarella can also rely on established veterans like Nestor Sensini, 31, a formidable tackler; Jose Chamot, 29, an intimidating stopper; Batistuta, 29; and Abel Balbo, 32, who has scored more goals in Italy's Serie A than any other foreigner in history. Claudio Caniggia, who can still terrorize wide defenders at 31, has been unable to shake off his association with Maradona and win Passarella's confidence, however, and he didn't make the cut.

The blend of this team is best exemplified by Diego Simeone, the inspirational Internazionale Milano defensive midfielder who is in his prime at only 28 but has been in the national team for a decade and leads the squad with almost 70 caps.

Only in goal is Argentina not completely convincing. Carlos Roa of Mallorca in Spain was Passarella's choice until River Plate's German Burgos shut out Brazil last month; both are fine keepers, but significantly, neither has even 15 caps, and neither has played at World Cup level. Still, if Brazil has shown anything over the past 40 years, it is that a deep, talented team can win it all with even mediocre goalkeeping. Burgos is better than that.

There's no telling what Argentina can accomplish once it frees itself from the shadow of Maradona, the greatest player since Pele and simultaneously the most disruptive. Passarella may finally have exorcised that ghost, and Argentina comes to France with immense talent, solid experience, steely determination and resolute direction. There are huge potholes ahead — Germany in the quarterfinals, Brazil in the semifinals — but of all the 32 teams in the World Cup, Argentina is best equipped to take home the Jules Rimet trophy.

Until the last minute, Croatia looked like a dark horse, sure to make an impressive showing in its official debut (many team members have been here before when they were with the old Yugoslavia). Croatia will advance from Group H by default, but the loss of its two top strikers in the last week means Coach Miroslav Blazevic will have little ammunition for Round 2.

Alen Boksic is one of the best strikers in the world, but his club team, Lazio, appears to have kept secret a serious knee injury while it was negotiating his sale to AC Milan. It turned out last week that he needs major surgery and will miss the World Cup. Then Blazevic failed to keep his cool when Igor Cvitanovic, of Real Sociedad in Spain, disagreed with him in a practice session; he kicked Cvitanovic off the team.

Blazevic has a couple of credible Spanish league options but only about a week to rebuild his attack. Davor Suker is a force to be reckoned with, but he was benched at Real Madrid and is short of both confidence and fitness. Goran Vlaovic of Valencia is a legitimate starter opposite Suker, but he is not in Cvitanovic's class. And if Suker or Vlaovic gets hurt or ejected, there's nothing left.

Blazevic's better move probably is to pack back and counterattack. In midfield, Zvonimir Boban (AC Milan), Aljosa Asanovic (Napoli) and Robert Prosinecki (Croatia Zagreb) can play with anyone, and the defense, featuring Robert Jarni (Real Betis), Slaven Bilic (Everton) and Igor Stimac (Derby County), is serviceable. Suker's playmaking abilities make such an approach feasible if Blazevic can get enough intensive training time in to make it work.

Croatia is a lock for second place, and games against Jamaica and Japan give Blazevic a chance to rejigger things. Its Round 2 game against England, Romania or Colombia is winnable, but the loss of an entire strike force at the last minute is probably too much to overcome. Croatia can't be ruled out for the round of 16, but it's a long shot, much longer than it was a couple of weeks ago.

The 2002 co-hosts will surprise people in their finals debut. The young J-League has uncovered a mine of talent, enough that Japan's most famous player, former Italian and Brazilian league striker Kazuyoshi Miura, didn't make the team despite scoring a hat trick in Japan's last pre-tournament warmup.

Still, Japan's patient staff understands that this tournament is a learning experience for 2002. Accordingly, teenager Shinji Ono, an especially nimble playmaker, will probably see a lot of action. With Miura dropped, the oldest players are record-setting striker Masashi Nakayama and captain Masami Ihara, who are only 30. Coach Takeshi Okada is likely to field five defenders to keep the games competitive and preserve his young players' confidence for the future.

That leaves a lot of the burden in midfield on the shoulders of Japan's new superstar, Hidetoshi Nakata of Bellmare Hiratsuka, a player of rare flamboyance in Japan and even rarer red hair. He's such a popular figure that he's recently complained of the media crush that materializes whenever he goes out in public. Nakata, the newly crowned Asian Player of the Year, is only 21, but already figures such as Ossie Ardiles, the Argentine World Cup hero who coaches Shimizu S-Pulse, say he could be the discovery of the tournament, and he will announce that he is moving to Spain after the tournament (probably with Espanyol).

Nakata can ease Japan's introduction to the big time, but he can't do it alone. That will be made easier by the emergence of Nakayama, of Jubilo Iwata, who has utterly destroyed the inexperienced J-League defenses. At one point, he recorded four straight hat tricks, which is thought to be a world record. He'll be paired with Shoji Jo, with Brazilian native Wagner Lopes, something of a cult figure in Japan, and Masayuki Okano, who scored the goal against Iran that clinched Japan's qualification, coming off the bench for a late jolt.

Japan could make an impressive mark if it survives its opener against Argentina without too much damage. But it's simply not in the same league as Argentina and Croatia, which Nakata recognizes. His assessment of Japan's chances to reach the second round this time: "Too difficult." Next time may be another issue.

What made Jamaica click after a dreadful start to qualifying was the team spirit instilled by Brazilian coach Rene Simoes, who blended English-born newcomers into a ragtag locally based team with a minimum of friction. But Simoes kept adding and adding, and now that team spirit is gone, and with it any hope Jamaica had of winning a game.

Simoes persuaded the team he inherited that the English imports were needed if Jamaica was ever to be respectable. But even after Jamaica amazingly qualified for the finals with five English veterans in the team, Simoes kept bringing more in, and now eight of his 11 probable starters in France are native Britons, most of whom had never been to Jamaica before 1997 or so. The losers have been the Jamaican veterans who worked so hard to get to France and now will be left on the bench or even at home, unable to claim their reward.

This is now a team of two distinct factions, the real Reggae Boyz who could have been everyone's favorite second team to support, and the ever-growing UB40s, sarcastically named for the British reggae band, mainly unspectacular players with English teams like Derby County, Wimbledon, Portsmouth and Ipswich Town. Steve Malcolm has lost his job to Frank Sinclair of Chelsea. Enthusiastic defender Gregory Messam, a fixture in the qualifying team, did not even make the team for France. Most glaring is the demotion of striker Andrew Williams, potentially Jamaica's most talented native player; he'll probably lose his starting position to English midfielder Darryl Powell, who never played a game in the qualifying campaign.

Goalkeeper Warren Barrett's job looks safe, as does defender Ian Goodison's. But in addition to Messam and Williams, budding star Onandi Lowe may see little if any action. The return of popular striker Walter "Black Pearl" Boyd, dropped before qualification, was seen as a gesture of reconciliation to the holdovers and the public.

There's been a real backlash. Jamaican newspapers have turned against Simoes, asking what's the point of Jamaica's going to France if there are no Jamaicans playing for Jamaica. Simoes had professed to be unconcerned, insisting that his job was to build the best team available, but when one paper published a highly critical profile that reported his salary, which at $200,000 a year is astronomical by local standards, he resigned effective at the end of the tournament.

So now Jamaica goes to the World Cup finals with a lame-duck coach and a middle-of-the-table English First Division side. It had better cash in on the marketing and good will while it can; it is going nowhere fast, and it will not be back for a long, long time.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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