When the World Cup takes the world stage in Mexico for a month starting Saturday, soccer's premier event will be overflowing with brilliant players, tradition-filled rivalries, stirring controversies and even a fear of terrorism and fan violence. And yet, just as on most street corners from here to Hong Kong, the only thing anyone south of the border wants to talk about these days is the weather.

The 13th World Cup will be played in nine Mexican cities between May 31 and June 29, and the talk of each town is how the heat and altitude will affect play.

"In Mexico, you have to play against the altitude," said Teofilo Cubillas, Peru's former World Cup star who will do sideline interviews for SIN, the Spanish-language cable network that will televise the entire competition to the United States.

"It is a physiological process to adapt," Bulgarian Coach Ivan Vutsov told reporters after his team arrived in the highlands city of Toluca to train. "You get more tired rapidly because you can't get enough air, and the muscles also take more time to be able to function well in the altitude."

"This makes it necessary to play a shorter game with a softer touch," said Italian Coach Enzo Bearzot, "because the altitude makes it difficult to make an accurate pass over 40 meters. The team with a short game can strike."

Because of the setting, many observers think the Latin American entries will have a distinct advantage over the European entries. And, indeed, two statistics are telling: on six previous occasions in which a Latin American nation has hosted the World Cup, no European team has won it, and the host nation has won six of the 12 Cups (and finished second twice).

Still, this is an amazingly balanced tournament, with up to nine teams having realistic chances to take home the top prize. Brazil, Argentina and defending champion Italy get a lot of support, but the Brazilians are hurting, the Argentinians are bickering and the Italians have been largely unimpressive since their success in Spain four years ago. Others point to France, which plays a Latin-style game, or Denmark, making its first Cup appearance with a stylish offense. Uruguay, England and the Soviet Union all look formidable, and, of course, the host nation, Mexico, cannot be discounted.

Group E, comprising Denmark, Scotland, West Germany and Uruguay, has been labeled the "Group of Death" because of the strength of the teams.

The world's top players usually shine in this event, and Argentina's Diego Maradona, France's Michel Platini and West Germany's Karl-Heinz Rummenigge again will get a chance to show their stuff.

Of the 24 nations in the competition, 22 survived two years of qualifying. Italy, as defending champion, and Mexico, as the host nation, gained automatic bids.

There are six groups of four teams each. After round-robin play within each group, the top two teams from each group, plus the top four third-place finishers, advance to the next round. At that point, the tournament turns into a 16-team, single-elimination event.

Following is a preview of the 24 teams, listed in probable order of finish in each group: GROUP A ARGENTINA

Coach: Carlos Bilardo.

Key Players: Midfielder Diego Maradona, defender Daniel Passarella, forward Claudio Borghi.

Outlook: After winning the World Cup at home in 1978, Argentina flopped badly in 1982. As usual, it will have a creative offense centered around Maradona, who often is compared to Pele. But Maradona, a millionaire at 26, often has appeared lackadaisical in recent matches. The defense is suspect. Overall, the team has looked slipshod in pre-Cup matches, putting pressure on Bilardo, who replaced the highly regarded Cesar Luis Menotti. ITALY

Coach: Enzo Bearzot.

Key Players: forward Paolo Rossi, forward Alessandro Altobelli, defender Giuseppi Bergomi.

Outlook: The defending champion has turned over half of its team since 1982 and has looked listless in matches the past year. Then again, before their 1982 success, the Italians had played poorly. The team's defense remains difficult to penetrate. Its offense is the big question mark, especially since the highly erratic Rossi -- Italy's all-time leading World Cup scorer with nine goals -- has not played that well the past couple of years. BULGARIA

Coach: Ivan Vutzov.

Key Players: forward Plamen Getov, forward Rusi Gotchev, midfielder Radoslav Zdravkov.

Outlook: Georgi Dimitrov anchors a solid, bruising defense, but the offense does not generate enough goals to make the team a contender. Also, the country still is reeling from a scandal this year that led to the disbanding of two clubs and lifetime bans for five players. SOUTH KOREA

Coach: Kim Jung-Nam.

Key Players: Forward Choi Soon-Ho, forward Kim Jong-Boo, midfielder Huh Jung-Moo.

Outlook: One of the longest of the long shots, the South Koreans are agile and adept at a wide-open, push-the-ball-up brand of game. Choi, a dangerous striker, sometimes is likened to Argentina's Maradona. The defense includes Jung Young-Cho, who played for the North American Soccer League's Portland Timbers in the early 1980s. In brief, South Korea has traveled a long way for a short stay. GROUP B MEXICO

Coach: Bora Milutinovic.

Key Players: Forward Hugo Sanchez, forward Luis Flores, midfielder Tomas Boy.

Outlook: As host nation, Mexico would rate as a dangerous threat even if its players wore ankle chains. Milutinovic, its Yugoslav-born coach, has tried to install a strong defense. Sanchez, once with the San Diego Sockers and the leading scorer in the Spanish league for Real Madrid the past two years, has been slowed by a knee injury recently. BELGIUM

Coach: Guys Thijs.

Key Players: Midfielder Enzo Scifo, defender Eric Gerets, goalkeeper Jean-Marie Pfaff.

Outlook: As always, Belgium's defense will yield little and its offense will create little. The Belgians probably are among the top 10 teams in the tournament, but unless they suddenly discover a goal mine, they won't advance beyond the second round. Pfaff, an incurable showman, is one of the world's top goalkeepers and, if he's more spectacular than usual, the Belgians could ride a series of 1-0 victories into the quarterfinals. PARAGUAY

Coach: Cayetano Re.

Key Players: Forward Roberto Cabanas, forward Julio Cesar Romero, midfielder Roberto Nunez.

Outlook: Making its first World Cup appearance since 1954, Paraguay is unlikely to advance far. The offense relies heavily on Cabanas and Romero, both formerly with the New York Cosmos, and the defense suffers frequent lapses against top opponents. IRAQ

Coach: Evaristo Macedo.

Key Players: forward Hussein Saied, forward Ahmad Rhady, goalkeeper Raad Hamoudi.

Outlook: Making its first World Cup appearance, the Iraqis have a conservative offense dependent on Saied's goal-scoring abilities. Someone in the Iraqi soccer federation seems to have a George Steinbrenner mentality -- Macedo replaced fellow Brazilian Edu as coach earlier this month after Edu had replaced Brazilian Jorge Silva de Vera earlier this year. Regarding Iraq's chances -- as they sometimes say in New York, wait till next year. GROUP C FRANCE

Coach: Henri Michel.

Key Players: Midfielder Michel Platini, midfielder Alain Giresse, midfielder Jean Tigana.

Outlook: A team with legitimate title aspirations, France has a marvelous midfield and a solid goalkeeper in Joel Bats. The French often are called the "Brazilians of Europe" because of their style of play. Platini is arguably the world's best player and considered the world's most dangerous player off a free kick. It's a deep, experienced, confident squad, but the French have yet to prove they can win consistently away from home. SOVIET UNION

Coach: Valery Lobanovsky.

Key Players: Midfielder Oleg Blokhin, forward Alexander Zavarov, defender Sergei Baltacha.

Outlook: Like the French, the Soviets are unproven away from home. They typify Eastern European soccer -- a strong defense (with goalkeeper Rinat Desayev) but a plodding offense. A decade ago, Blokhin, now 34, may have been the fastest, if not the best, player in the world. Earlier this month, Lobanovsky was named to replace Eduard Malofeyev as coach, the Soviets said, because half of the national team came from Lobanovsky's Dynamo Kiev club. HUNGARY

Coach: Gyoergi Mezey.

Key Players: Midfielder Lagos Detari, forward Josef Kiprich, forward Peter Zoltan.

Outlook: It is unlikely Hungary has the skill or depth to compete with France or the Soviet Union. The Hungarians employ a counterattacking style, and Detari, 23, may be the most dangerous of their new generation of players. CANADA

Coach: Tony Waiters.

Key Players: Forward Dale Mitchell, defender Bruce Wilson, goalkeeper Tino Lettieri.

Outlook: Here's a squad for Americans in search of a hopeless underdog to latch onto -- a 1,000-to-1 shot making its first Cup appearance; the only competitor in Mexico without a national soccer league; a motley mishmash of North American Soccer League retreads, Major Indoor Soccer League pros and undistinguished amateurs. In short, it's the 1962 Mets making a cameo appearance. The Canadians will try to play sturdy defense and look to Branko Segota (of the San Diego Sockers) for goals, but their best chance is to hope their opponents drink the water. GROUP D BRAZIL

Coach: Tele Santana.

Key Players: Forward Careca, midfielder Zico, defender Junior.

Outlook: For a team favored by many to win, three-time Cup champion Brazil is curiously in disfavor with many of its home fans. The squad has had problems with injuries, dissension and disorganization. Stars Zico (knee) and Cerezo (leg) are among those slowed by injury and star defender Leandro chose not to join the team. When Zico is healthy, he rates among the world's best, a worthy successor to Pele, full of creativity and grace and the ability to score from improbable angles. SPAIN

Coach: Miguel Munoz.

Key Players: Forward Emilio Butragueno, forward Francisco Clos, midfielder Rafael Gordillo.

Outlook: If Brazil stumbles, Spain -- an engaging, offense-oriented team -- could emerge as a strong competitor and a favorite among the Latin American fans. Gordillo is a competent playmaker and Butragueno, only 22, has proven with Real Madrid that he's an enormous talent with quick-strike capabilities. Goalkeeping could be the team's downfall. NORTHERN IRELAND

Coach: Billy Bingham.

Key Players: Captain Sammy McIlroy, defender Norman Whiteside, goalkeeper Pat Jennings.

Outlook: This is a workmanlike team with no real stars -- save for the remarkable Jennings, who at 40 has played in a world-record 116 international games. He delayed retirement to play in one more Cup. If Northern Ireland advances to the second round, it will be on the strength of its defense. Virtually all of its matches end in 1-0, 1-1 or 0-0 scores. ALGERIA

Coach: Rabah Saadane.

Key Players: Forward Janel Nehad, forward Rabah Madjer, midfielder Lakhdar Belloumi.

Outlook: By far the weakest team in a strong group, the Algerians shocked West Germany, 2-1, in their first Cup appearance, in 1982; captain Ali Bergan and many others return from that team. Their most feared player is Belloumi, 28, a former player of the year in Africa. GROUP E DENMARK

Coach: Sepp Piontek.

Key Players: Forwards Preben Elkjaer, forward Michael Laudrup, defender Morton Olsen.

Outlook: Self-proclaimed as "The Common Market Cocktail" because their key personnel play through Europe, the Danes always have played an attacking game dependent on individual moves, but Piontek has built one of their strongest defenses ever. Elkjaer, 28, and Laudrup, 21, have exhibited flashy finishing touches in the Italian league. If Ole Qvist performs spectacularly in goal, Denmark could make its first Cup appearance a memorable one. URUGUAY

Coach: Omar Borras.

Key Players: Midfielder Enzo Francescoli, forward Wilmar Cabrera, forward Jorge da Silva.

Outlook: One of the reasons Group E is considered the toughest World Cup division is the emergence of the Uruguayans, whose solid, technical play and familiarity with the Mexican climate make them feared. London bookmakers rate Uruguay the third choice in the entire field, behind Brazil and Argentina. Francescoli is a wonderful playmaker and scorer. WEST GERMANY

Coach: Franz Beckenbauer.

Key Players: Forward Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, forward Rudi Voller, goalkeeper Toni Schumacher.

Outlook: Like most West German coaches, Beckenbauer preaches air-tight defense and swift counterattacks. But the West Germans, always formidable, will be slowed by the absence of midfielder Brend Schuster, who refused to join the team, and nagging injuries to Rummenigge (knee) and Voller (groin). Beckenbauer may be immensely popular at home because of his playing career, but he'll feel the heat if his team fails to advance to the second round. SCOTLAND

Coach: Alex Ferguson.

Key Players: Captain Graeme Souness, forward Frank McAvennie, forward Eamon Bannon.

Outlook: The Scots will run and run and run but they will not score and score and score. For all their motion, they'll probably be rewarded only with fatigue, especially considering the loss of their top forward, Kenny Dalglish (knee injury), who is being replaced by Steve Archibald. Scotland may go winless in this group. GROUP F ENGLAND

Coach: Bobby Robson.

Key Players: Midfielder Bryan Robson, midfielder Glenn Hoddle, goalkeeper Peter Shilton.

Outlook: England will not give away many goals but it also may have problems scoring against top defenses. The midfield can be wonderfully creative, leaving it up to attackers Mark Hateley, Kerry Dixon or Gary Lineker, the English player of the year, to finish plays. Shilton is among the world's best goalkeepers. England might find Mexican fans rooting against it because of the reputation of English fans. POLAND

Coach: Antoni Piechniczek.

Key Players: Forward Zbigniew Boniek, defender Wladyslaw Zmuda, goalkeeper Josef Mlynarczyk.

Outlook: This is a fundamentally excellent if unspectacular team. It also is a fairly old team, a disadvantage in the heat of Monterrey. Boniek, a proven attacker, may find his load eased if forward Dariusz Dziekanowski, 23, can continue his rapid development. PORTUGAL

Coach: Jose Torres.

Key Players: Forward Fernando Gomes, midfielder Carlos Manuel, goalkeeper Manuel Bento.

Outlook: If Manuel's recent injury (pulled muscle in right leg) sidelines or slows him, Portugal might better spend its time in Mexico sightseeing. Without Manuel's skills, Gomes may find it difficult to get the ball in position to score. Portugal's defenders remain a weak link, too, and the team is without injured star midfielder Fernando Chalana. MOROCCO

Coach: Mehdi Faria.

Key Players: Defender Timoumi Mohamed, forward Krimau, goalkeeper Baodu Zaki.

Outlook: The Moroccans may adapt to the heat as well as anyone in their group, but they are unlikely to win a game. Their strength is defense, and Mohamed, often called "Africa's Pele," is the defense's centerpiece, just returning from a long layoff because of a knee injury.