The Salina Journal from Salina, Kansas on May 25, 1998 · Page 14
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The Salina Journal from Salina, Kansas · Page 14

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Monday, May 25, 1998
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.THE SAL1NA JOURNAL SOCCER MONDAY, MAY 25, 1998 BB The Associated Press United States midfielder Joe- Max Moore jumps over Kuwait's All AI-Hadiyah as they battle for control of the ball during Sunday's game won by the U.S., 2-0. It was the Americans next-to- last exhibition game before leaving for next month's World Cup. JJ.S. blanks Kuwait Americans get goals from Ramos, Stewart in 2-0 exhibition victory By LANDON HALL The Associated Press ,.. PORTLAND, Ore. — It was bet- j-'ter than the scoreless tie against ^Macedonia. But it probably was' n't good enough to beat Germany. .,. "The U.S. thoroughly outplayed : Kuwait, but we failed to capitalize .on'our scoring opportunities," U.S. coach Steve Sampson said after Sunday's 2-0 victory, "It's nice that we converted two chances, but we had 14 in the first half alone. We need to do better in front of the goal." Tab Ramos and Ernie Stewart scored in the Americans' next-to- last exhibition game before leaving for the World Cup. The United States outshot Kuwait 25-4. Defender David Regis, who*became a U.S. citizen Wednesday, made his international debut and played the entire 90 minutes and looked sharp. Regis, a former Frenchman who was born in Martinique, had a good chance to score in the 18th minute, but his shot was about two yards to the left side of the net. "You could tell in the first 10 or 15 minutes that you could trust him out there," said defender Thomas Dooley, the U.S. captain. With just next Saturday' game against Scotland remaining before the trip to France, the Americans (6-3-2) don't have much time left to find their rhythm. Stewart, who missed last week's game, scored in the 37th minute when midfielder Brian Maisonneuve found an opening in front of the penalty area and looped a pass to the right in front of him. . Stewart ran right and drove the *fjall into the left side of the goal, ending a 128-minute scoreless "streak for the Americans. Kuwait was selected as an exhi- • bition opponent because its style ! is similar to that of Iran, the ; Americans' second opponent in ; the World Cup. Ramos, who played just the last 15 minutes, connected in the 82nd minute from a severe angle off a pass from Preki Radosavljevic. Ramos, who scored the lone goal in a 1-0 World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica in Portland last September, worked the ball in close on goalkeeper Khalid Al- Fadhi and sent the ball into the left side of the net, his seventh goal in international play. Ramos, expected to challenge for a starting spot at the World Cup, was playing his second international game since surgery last fall to repair a torn knee ligament. Eric Wynalda, the Americans' regular starting forward, played the second half and moved well on the slippery field in his first game since arthroscopic knee surgery on April 16. Wynalda had three shots, none of them difficult. The Americans, who outshot Kuwait 14-0 in the first half, stayed with Sampson's 3-6-1 system, which uses three defenders, six midfielders and one forward. "Whatever system Steve decides to play, the team has to accept it," Reyna said. "We really can't question whether we like it or not, we just have to learn to play it and do well." The United States was missing several players expected to start in their World Cup opener against Germany on June 15 in Paris. Gobi Jones sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee during practice last week, Brian McBride is recovering from a concussion sustained last weekend against Macedonia, and Frankie Hejduk has a strained hamstring. Group A WORLD CUP CAPSULES BRAZIL Comment — After a most-humiliating loss to the United States in February, the mighty Brazilians were staggered. Then, only weeks before opening defense of its 1994 World Cup title, Brazil was rocked and badly outplayed by rival Argentina. Coach Mario Za- gallo is hearing it from all sides and also from within, where some players have complained about being held back offensively. Still, this is Brazil we're talking about. It is a nation that probably could put five teams Into the World Cup and likely see all five advance past the first round. Superstar talents Ronaldo and Romario are sure to lead a team that should still dazzle the world. Outlook — Much is made of Brazil historically having trouble whenever it plays in Europe. Perhaps the reason for that is because a much more physical style is allowed in Europe. But don't fall into that trap. Brazil will be there at the end — for sure. SCOTLAND Comment — Scotland never has advanced past the first round in the World Cup. One reason, of course, is because it has three times been drawn into the same first-round group as Brazil, which is like starting out the tournament with one loss. This time, the World Cup literally will begin with a Scottish loss, since Brazil opens the tournament on June 10 against Scotland. After that, things get a little easier, with Norway and Morocco the other teams in the group. But the Scots still will have their work cut out for them and most likely will have to depend on a defensive-minded strategy. Fortunately, defense is the strength of this team, with Colin Hendry, a sweeper, the best player on the team. Outlook — Behind Brazil, Scotland probably will have to outduel Norway for the second bid to the second round. Norway looks stronger right now, but the Scots are talented enough that they could steal away enough points to advance. MOROCCO Comment — This is very much an improved team over the defensive-minded 1994 version, mostly because new coach Henri Michel, one of Morocco's all-time best players, has installed a more aggressive attack. Morocco still Is a team that cannot match most opponents In ability, but midfielder Noureddlne Naybet Is exceptional and can spark a counter-attack at any moment. Mustapha Hadji and Salheddlne Basslr are the primary goal-scorers. Outlook — The Moroccans have to consider reaching the Cup a second time as a major achievement. This team Is Improving and has various talents dotting the lineup. But any thoughts of advancing past the first round, at least this year, are pie In the sky. NORWAY Comment — Norway has shown great and rapid Improvement, qualifying for the World Cup In 1994 for the first time In 56 years and then winning its qualifying group for 1998. Norwegian coach Egll Olsen Is regarded as one of the world's best tacticians. He also might be one of the luckiest. After all, except for heavy favorite Brazil, Group A looks weak. With talented goalkeeper Frode Grodas leading the way, the Norwegians could advance to the second round, which is another step in the right direction. Outlook — Scotland might give the Norwegians trouble, but Norway looks like the second-best team in Group A. Still, it Is a long way from reaching the world's highest level of soccer. A second-round appearance should happen, but then so should a quick exit. Group B ITALY Comment — One of the all-time World Cup greats, Italy must show vast Improvement and perhaps hope for the best from once- great forward Roberto Bagglo if it is to again fulfill expectations. And those expectations by the rabid Italian fans are, as usual, nothing short of a semifinal appearance for the famed Azurri. Four years ago, Italy rode Baggio's greatness all the way to the championship game, where it fell in a Shootout to Brazil. Since that day, Baggio has steadily declined and a year ago clearly no longer was a dominant force. However, in recent months Baggio has recovered some of the magic and he could be key for Italy and coach Cesare Maldini. Outlook — Critics and doubters are everywhere. The Azurri has played sluggishly lately, dropping below even the United States in the world rankings. But few teams are as consistently strong come the World Cup as Italy. Drawing a relatively easy group should help, too. CHILE Comment — Chile at times looked sluggish and qualified for the Cup finals by the slimmest of margins, but it earned a nice draw and has a pair of big-time goal scorers who could make a difference. Marcello Salas recently was named the South American Footballer of the Year, and Ivan Zamorano starred for a strong Inter Milan team in Italy. Coach Nelson Acosta also is an advocate of pushing the ball and forcing the action, which should work well in this group, where defense is suspect for both Cameroon and Austria. Outlook — Sallas and Zamorano combined for an amazing 18 goals during qualifying. If they get hot, they might even carry Chile to first place in the group over favored Italy. More likely is a battle with Cameroon for the second position out of the group and into the elimination round of 16. CAMEROON Comment — No longer a novelty act, Cameroon is respected and feared by every opponent it faces. It was in its first World Cup appearance in 1982 that Cameroon stunned Italy, having several opportunities to upset the eventual Cup champions before settling for a tie. Now, Cameroon is the first African nation to qualify for three consecutive Cup finals appearances and Is much more polished than before but as fast and athletic as ever. Coach Jean Manga Onguene has yet to settle on a consistent rotation of players, but he says it is a good omen that Cameroon is again grouped with Italy, the opponent that helped springboard Cameroon to the big time. Outlook — The "Indomitable Lions" will entertain World Cup viewers with their style and talent. This is, however, a team that has shown some holes defensively because the starting lineup has changed so often. If one group comes together, Cameroon could advance. AUSTRIA Comment — The Austrians have been on a slide since qualifying first in their group for the World Cup finals last year. Coach Herbert Prohaska has been criticized in recent months after a series of poor outings. The team has struggled trying to find scorers, and Prohaska has changed lineups constantly. "We are not a dream team," Prohaska said before losing to the United States 3-0 last month. Still, there is talent and it is hard to ignore Austria's record of 7-1-2 in the final round of qualifying, even if it came in a weak group. Outlook — It would not be a shock if Austria made it out of the group, but considering its recent struggles, facing perennial power Italy and the talented Cameroon and Chile squads will be a major chore. Group C FRANCE Comment — This French team has two key elements that recent World Cup entries never had: Playmakers who can finish drives to the goal and a home crowd. World Cup history says one never should underestimate the power of playing at home. The French crowds, which were allocated the majority of World Cup tickets, will be wild 1998 World Cup Venues City, stadium and capacity during the tournament, with the total number of games to be played at each venue. Nantes |] Beaujoire Stadium j| Cap.: 38,500 7 f Games: 6 '}'•:?*.*$; •'s/f ;f -$,\ t f ** trt? FRANCE98 FOOTIX Official Mascot St. Denis Stade de France Cap.: 80,000 Games: 8 : Lens Felix-Bollaert Stadium «• Cap.: 47,275 H Games: 6 Paris Pare des Princes Cap.: 49,000 Games: 6 FRANCE St. Etienne ^ Geoffroy-Guichard Stadium It Cap.: 36,000 Bordeaux Lescure Park Cap.: 36,500 Games: 6 Toulouse Municipal Stadium Cap.: 36,500 Games: 6 Montpellier Mosson Stadium Cap.: 35,500 Games: 6 Marseille Stade Municipal Cap.: 60,000 Games: 7 supporters. And with a pair of blossoming stars In Zlne- dlne Zldane and Yourl Djorkaeff leading the way, the French understandably have high hopes even though France has not qualified for the Cup since 1986. Outlook — The French could not have received a better draw than joining relative lightweights Saudi Arabia, Denmark and South Africa. France should easily move on to the second round, and if It can gain some steam and get good goal-scoring out of Zi- dane and Djorkaeff, anything Is possible, even hoisting the Cup come July 12. SOUTH AFRICA Comment — Just five years after the end of apartheid, which isolated South African sports from much of the rest of the world, the "Bafana Bafana" qualified for the World Cup finals. It's quite an accomplishment. It also might be the best this still-learning team can hope for in 1998, especially after drawing a tough group. The best South African players will be Sizwe Motaung, who is a strong midfielder, and Mark Fish, a defender who played for Lazio in the Italian league this year. Outlook — The South Africans drew the tough if not Impossible task of facing host France in its first World Cup finals match on June 12 in Marseille. It will be a wild scene, no doubt, and the talented French team figures to overrun the South Africans. Don't expect South Africa to win a single match in its group. SAUDI ARABIA Comment — Brazil might be the defending World Cup champion, but Saudi Arabia has Alberto Parreira, who coached Brazil to the 1994 championship in the United States. Parreira's guidance could go a long way toward giving the Saudis respectability and a shot at coming out of a tough group, It already has, with Parreira's Brazilian Influence clearly taking hold with his new team. The Saudis qualified impressively and have shown steady improvement and a knack for attacking from all over the field. And remember: Four years ago, the Saudis advanced to the round of 16 without Parreria. Outlook — Good. It will not be a surprise for Saudi Arabia to advance out of the group, joining France or Denmark In the second round. DENMARK Comment — Beware the Danes. Here is a team that always seems to be taken lightly, yet somehow finds a way to hang around. During qualifying, in fact, while all the world was raving about the super-talented Croatian team, it was the Danes that owned the dangerous qualifying group that also included a strong Greek team. The biggest reason for Denmark's success is goalie Peter Schmeichel, a giant of a man with quick reflexes. Schmeichel can shut down shots that seem unstoppable. He should star in France. Offensively, the Danes rely on Brian Laudrup, a longtime consistent scorer in the European leagues. Outlook — Drawn into one of the more unpredictable groups, Denmark might be in a prime position to advance deep into the tournament. If France can't handle the pressure of being the host team and Schmeichel turns away Saudi Arabia's attacks, the Danes even could win the group. Victor Ikpeba, are worth the price of admission. Keep an eye on the Nigerians. They could stun the world, even though they drew the loaded "group of death." Outlook — A betting man looking for a long shot that could come In a winner would place a dollar on these guys. Sure, they might not even get out of the first round considering they are In Group D, which is the toughest of the field. But Nigeria Is among the most talented teams in the world. PARAGUAY Comment — If ever there was a team to keep a close eye on, this is it. Paraguay Is for the most part unheralded but strong. It plays an aggressive style much like Brazil's. Most of Paraguay's hopes, however, will depend on how well wlld-and-crazy goalie Jose Luis Chilavert plays. He is one of the best talents in the world but something of an eccentric and volatile personality. He will not play unless a giant image of a bulldog is emblazoned on the front of his jersey. He constantly leaves the net, much like Mexico's Jorge Campos, and talks and challenges opposing players throughout the match. But Chilavert is such an all-around talent that he often takes free-kicks and penalty kicks for his team and he allows few goals. Outlook — The term "dark horse" comes to mind. Paraguay is in a tough group and might not even advance out of the first round. But given a break or two, this team could surprise the world. BULGARIA Comment — The tough Bulgarians proved four years ago they can beat any team in the world, riding the magical skill of Hristo Sto- ichkov to a victory over Germany and an appearance in the semifinals. The core of this team remains the same as 1994, but there have been some up and down moments with Stoichkov, who has battled with team leadership and coaching. But for the finals in France, everyone seems happy and Stoichkov is as good as ever. This is not a deep team, but its front line Is strong. Another key for Bulgaria could be Yordan Lechkov, who seems to be the pulse of the squad; when he plays well, the Bulgarians usually win. Outlook — Some have called Group D "the group of death." With Nigeria, Paraguay and Spain, this will be a battle. Still, Bulgaria is capable of earning one of the top two spots and advancing. AP/Wm. J. Castello first-round opponents. Outlook — How this team never has won a World Cup game Is mind-boggling. It Is a good team but always has had bad luck in the draw. And so It goes again in 1998 — first round and out. MEXICO Comment — A recent headline In a Mexican national newspaper said of the national team, "We are very, very bad." Obviously, no one Is pulling punches regarding the suddenly shaky status of a team that should be considered a contender. The beginning of the end probably began with a disappointing 0-0 tie before 120,000 Mexico City fans against an undermanned U.S. team. Coach Bora Milutinovic was fired in favor of Manuel Lapuente, even though the tie guaranteed Mexico a spot in the Cup finals. Not since last November has Mexico played a game that can legitimately be called impressive. Mexico is slumping. Badly. But so long as flamboyant and talented goaltender Jorge Campos and terrific forward Carlos Hermosillo are still around, this team is capable of recovering. Outlook — Never has Mexico advanced past the first round in any World Cup tournament held on European soil. Unless things change, Mexico could be in trouble. Group F Group E Group D SPAIN Comment — One of the most consistent teams in the world for more than two years now, the Spaniards seem to have all the weapons In place to make a big run at the Cup championship. The key to Spain's hopes likely will be the play of 21-year-old star-in-the-making Raul. Considered the best up-and-coming talent in the world, Raul will join the proven Luis Enrique for Spain. It promises to be a dangerous one-two punch. The Spaniards also are very good defensively, and coach Javier Clemente confidently calls on virtually every player on the roster. Outlook — Spain has lost only once (to England on penalties in 1996) since the 1994 World Cup. It is the most impressive run in the world. The Spaniards are in the toughest group in the tournament but should survive and move deep into the tournament, perhaps even challenging for the crown. NIGERIA Comment — Nobody in the world wants to face Nigeria. It is an extremely explosive, up- and-coming team that constantly puts pressure on a defense and is capable of beating anybody. With the hiring of Bora Milutinovic, who was fired by Mexico last December, Nigeria now also has a proven coach who might be able to harness some of the undisciplined ways. Two of the most exciting African players to come along in years, Nwankwo Kanu and NETHERLANDS Comment — Could this be the year the Dutch finally lay to rest their decades-long reputation for under-achieving? Perennially talented, but consistently inconsistent, the Dutch appear to be as unified and strong as ever. Yes, they indeed could be in store for a big run through the Cup tournament. Forward Dennis Bergkamp is among the best players alive, and the team has looked very strong whizzing through tuneup matches and pre-Cup preparations. The wild, colorful Dutch fans should rest their lungs and voices — they could have a lot to cheer about. Outlook — Although Group E is among the strongest in the field, no team should beat the Dutch in the first round. After that, it all depends on living up to expectations again. The Dutch rarely have, but here they look strong. BELGIUM Comment — Belgium gathered itself after a huge setback to The Netherlands early in World Cup qualifying and ultimately played terrific soccer on the way to clinching a berth in France. Unfortunately, the draw placed The Netherlands in Belgium's group, forcing coach Georges Leekens to lament, 'They're undoubtedly better than us, but maybe something great can happen." That something has to be offense. Belgium generally can stay close to any team in the world because of a line of solid defenders, but goals have been scarce. Outlook — Realistically, this team must concentrate on outdueling Mexico for second place in the group behind the Dutch. The Belgium-Mexico match on June 20 in Bordeaux should be a thriller, with both teams knowing that the winner likely will advance and the loser goes home. SOUTH KOREA Comment — This is a formidable team, possibly the strongest in Asia. And with South Korea co-hosting the 2002 World Cup, there will be considerable pressure to advance past the first round. But in a tough group, that goal might not be reached no matter how well South Korea plays. Choi Yong-Su, a longtime star, remains South Korea's best hope after scoring nine of his nation's 26 goals during qualifying. Veteran forward Hwang Sun-Hong is another strong scorer, but the defense has been suspect and there are no freebies among the GERMANY Comment — Here is most everyone's second choice to win the 1998 Cup, behind Brazil. And there is good reason for that. Bert! Vogts' team is highly motivated after what it considered a disappointing semifinal loss to Bulgaria in 1994. It also is exceptionally talented, deep, and is playing close to home. Germany went unbeaten during qualifying for France despite playing such strong teams as the Ukraine and Portugal. Among the famous names that return for the mighty Germans are Juergen Klinsmann, Oliver Bierhoff and Sean Dundee. The forward line is among the best in the world. Outlook — Anything less than a semifinals appearance would be a huge disappointment for this team. And even that might not satisfy the Germans' thirst for success. Really, everything is lined up perfectly for Germany to make a run at matching Brazil with four World Cup titles. UNITED STATES Comment — Shortly after the World Cup draw, the world opinion was that this U.S. team, though much improved, would not go beyond the first round. But since that December draw, the Americans have made aggressive strategic and personnel moves. And this team has blossomed. It will be a veteran team spiced with young talent that seems to be coming together at the perfect time. An upset win over World Cup favorite Brazil came Feb. 10 — shocking, to say the least. Then, there was perhaps the best performance of the year in a 3-0 win over Cup- bound Austria, highlighted by spectacular play from Claudlo Reyna, who inherited Harkes' job. Outlook — On top of the political tension that will be in the air, all U.S. hopes probably will hinge on the June 21 game against Iran. After all, a loss to Germany is likely in the opener and Yugoslavia on June 25 is a tossup. That means the American have to beat Iran or else. YUGOSLAVIA Comment — Somehow, Yugoslavia remains a very strong soccer force despite the ravages of war in the country. The majority of Yugoslavia's players no longer live in their homeland but play in various European leagues. Forward Predrag Mi- jatovic stars for Real Madrid in the Spanish league and has been dominant for his national team, scoring 14 goals during qualifying. This is a dangerous team that has been known to get into a groove and go on goal- scoring sprees, as it did in an 8-1 win over Hungary to clinch the World Cup finals berth. Outlook — Two factors are motivating the Yugoslavians to excel in France: The opportunity to prove that Yugoslavia is alive and well and the chance to face Croatia in a later round. But in order to get out of the first round, the Yugos will have to get past the United States, which will be a big chore, but one they expect to accomplish. IRAN Comment — This was the final learn to earn a spot in the World Cup finals, securing the trip with a last-minute goal in its final qualifying game. Still, it did make it into the field and deserved to make it. Forward Ali Dale is considered one of the best goal-scorers in the world and is a threat against any defense. This is not the most talented team around and tends to compound its problems by always bickering and chang- ing rosters and strategies. In fact, the Iranians recently changed coaches for the third time in the last two years, firing Mayeli Kohan and replacing him with Brazilian Valdeir Vieira. Outlook — Realistically, Iran Is concentrating only on the June 21 match with the United States. It likely will not advance to the second round. As for the much-anticipated date with "the great Satan" U.S. team, at least on paper the Americans should win. ROMANIA Comment — It's tough to gauge the Romanians because they came out of a very weak group qualifying for the Cup finals. One thing for certain, though, is that even if it's hard to tell how good Romania is, it definitely is a confident team after sweeping away the Macedonias of the world during qualifying and advancing to the quarterfinals four years ago In the U.S. Captain Gheorghe Hagl, a smallish but high-flying scorer, was the biggest reason Romania fared so well four years ago, and Hagi is back. Coach Anghel lordanescu also has at his disposal highly regarded goalie Bogdan Stelea, who has given up just two goals in the past year. Outlook — One of the brighter stories of the 1994 Cup, Romania might have a different sort of experience this time around. England and Colombia figure to give the Romanians all they can handle just getting out of the first round. COLOMBIA Comment — It is an aging team under ungodly pressure to succeed and seemingly always in the middle of some sort of political fight. This could be Colombia's last stand. The makeup of this team not only is much the same as it was four years ago, but it's very similar to eight years ago. Carlos Valderrama, Leonel Alvarez, Wilson Perez, Freddy Rincon — this 30-something group is playing in Its third Cup final and is hoping for one last run. Of course, the Colombians also are hoping to give their legion of fans better memories than four years ago, when an own-goal by Andres Escobar against the United States ousted them in the first round. Shortly after his arrival back to Colombia, Escobar was murdered, reportedly by mobsters. Outlook — Valderrama remains one of the world's best players, even at 36. And this team remains capable of beating anyone and going a long way. ENGLAND Comment — After not qualifying for the World Cup four years ago, the English could not have looked stronger going Into the 1998 tournament. This Is a contender, for sure, but with one qualification: A few key Injuries have frazzled the edges a bit. Ian Wright has been hampered by a series of injuries while playing for Arsenal In the English league. Midfielder Jamie Redknapp will miss the World Cup altogether after suffering ligament damage In a knee. And Paul Gascolgne has not returned to full strength after suffering a leg Injury a month ago. Outlook — Hoping to cure all the aches and pains — both physical and emotional — that go with a World Cup berth, coach Glenn Hoddle has enlisted the services of a faith healer for his team. Hey, whatever works. The English always play better soccer In Europe than on other continents and should be a real threat playing so close to home. TUNISIA Comment — Former Polish star Henry Kasperczak has done the smart thing since being hired three years ago to resurrect Tunisia's soccer fortunes. He started with defense and built this team from the back to the front. The result Is a rather unstylish brand of soccer, but for this developing team it worked well enough to get it to France. Along the way, Tunisia gave up just one goal in six World Cup qualifying matches. The top players are, of course, defenders — Khaled Badra and goalie Chokri al-Ouaer. Outlook — The three favored teams in the group — Colombia, England and Romania — definitely will have trouble scoring against Tunisia's packed-tight defense. Eventually, however, the defense will break and Tunisia figures to go home after the first round. ARGENTINA Comment — It took a while for the Argentines to adjust to coach Daniel Passarella's unpredictable lineup rotations and unique offensive style. It also has been hard for Argentina's loyal fans to adjust to any national team that did not include Diego Maradona. But as the World Cup opener approaches, all looks well again. Look for Argentina to make a real charge for the championship in France, with youngsters Juan Sebastian Veron and Ariel Ortega on the verge of superstardom and a deep, experienced team, led by forward Gabriel Balistu- ta, making Argentina formidable in every way. A recent victory over Brazil might have been the confidence-booster for this team. Outlook — Argentina is in a tough group, but it is an impressive team. Look for the Gauchos to go deep into the tournament, if not all the way to the final. JAPAN Comment — After 44 years, Japan finally qualified for the World Cup finals, setting off a nationwide celebration last winter. This team clearly is not among the elite of the world, but it has improved by leaps and bounds under the direction of popular coach Misiyuki Okada, who gets the Japanese playing aggressively and inspired in every match. Nothing will come easy against this team, which features a couple of players — Shoji Jo and Brazilian-born Wagner Lopes — who are creative and consistent scorers. Lopes, who became a Japanese citizen last September, has brought a dose of South American flair to the Japanese team, which will attack in every match. Outlook — The Japanese probably will not advance, but they plays an entertaining style of soccer and will put a scare into most opponents. JAMAICA Comment — The self-styled "Reggae Boyz" are headed lo France, the first Caribbean nation to qualify for the sport's greatest event since Haiti in 1974. II was quite the Cinderella story, no less surprising than the bobsled team qualifying for the Winter Olympic Games in 1988. Coached by Brazilian Rene Simoes, the Jamaicans have developed an all-around solid game highlighted by the play of Paul Hall, Filzroy Simpson and Robbie Earle. Outlook — When Jamaica qualified for the World Cup. the government declared a national holiday and there was partying in every street. The government also gave each player a parcel of land and promised low-interest loans for players to build homes. But that might be as good as it gets for the Reggae Boyz. They're just happy to be here. CROATIA Comment — Many European experts consider Croatia the most talented team this side of Brazil. There are at least six players on the Croatia roster who are considered among the best in (he world at their respective positions. Unfortunately, all that talent rarely has accounted for any significant wins in significant tournaments. Croatia disappointed mightily in the European championships in 1996 and needed a playoff game just to qualify for France '98. The Croats always seem to make life difficult for themselves. Outlook — Don't be surprised at anything the Croats do. They could be ousted in the first round and they could advance as far as the finals. The talent is virtually unsurpassed, but this team has yet to become a team. — By JOHN P. LOPEZ Houston Chronicle

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