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Prediction: France to win second straight
There hasn't been a repeat World Cup champion in 40 years, not since Brazil in 1962, and that team had Pele on its roster.
Brazil came reasonably close four years ago, taking its defense of the 1994 championship to the final round. There, the Brazilians picked a bad time to run out of Ronaldo and lost to France, which now steps up for its chance to be pilloried by the doomsayers, and there have been more than a few.
The case against Les Bleus goes something like this: France won't have home-field advantage this time, France won't have Didier Deschamps and Laurent Blanc this time, France won't have a Paraguay-Italy-Croatia path to the final this time, France won't have same burning ambition to win one for the republic this time, France recently lost at home to Belgium.
Le blah, le blah, le blah. France lost that exhibition in Paris while playing without Thierry Henry, one of the world's best forwards, and Zinedine Zidane, probably the world's best player. They will both be in the lineup in Asia.
France also has the best back line in the tournament, still manned by '98 veterans Lilian Thuram, Marcel Desailly and Bixente Lizarazu. Patrick Vieira, the key cog in Arsenal's double championship season, has more than adequately replaced Deschamps in the central midfield. And Fabien Barthez remains the most entertaining goalkeeper on the planet_which, admittedly, is not always a great thing for France.
Beyond that, this French team, unlike the '98 winners, has real forwards_Henry, David Trezeguet, Sylvain Wiltord. Four years ago, France won the World Cup without a goal from a forward in its last four games.
That won't have to happen this time. With a better team than the one that won four years ago, France will claim the trophy again in 2002. And after dispatching England, Brazil, Argentina and Italy in the final four rounds, the French will have deserved it.
Subtitled: Three More Warmups For The Cup Holders. (And by that, we mean three cushy first-round games for the defending champions_not the plastic rings in your car cradling the results of your 4 a.m. coffee run, designed to get you through two more halves of live World Cup soccer.) France kicks back, Uruguay kicks everybody else, Denmark hobbles away with second place.
Beating Raul? It has happened before, most notably in 1998, when Spain and its heralded striker finished behind Paraguay and Nigeria and were eliminated in group play. This time, Spain postpones its traditional tent-folding until the quarterfinals, shuts out Paraguay but fails to shut up Paraguayan insult comic/goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert. Only one miracle at a time.
No beautiful games here, especially from Brazil, which shuts down the samba and methodically dispatches Turkey, China and Costa Rica. Turkey, visiting the World Cup for the first time since 1954, is delighted to discover it has better soccer players than China and Costa Rica. Highlight of the group: China Coach Bora Milutinovic's postmatch press conferences, which baffle translators in five different languages.
Goalkeeper controversy rages in the U.S. camp as Coach Bruce Arena names Kasey Keller his starter over Brad Friedel. Back line controversy rages in the U.S. camp as Arena names his four starters for the Portugal game and insists they all must play. Americans recover from Portugal defeat to beat South Korea and tie Poland, squeak though on goal differential.
Oh no, no Keano! Ireland Coach Mick McCarthy wins the admiration of his colleagues by telling his disruptive captain, Roy Keane, to catch the next flight home, but loses any chance of seeing the light of the second round. Cameroon, coached by a German, beats Germany, which could use a Cameroon midfielder or two, for the top spot in the group.
In between hourly radio updates on the condition of captain David Beckham's foot, all of England watches the boys tie Sweden (the tabloids are despondent) and tie Argentina (the tabloids are exultant) before doing the business in a must-win finale against Nigeria. Argentina wins twice to take first place and most important prize of all_a second-round matchup against Denmark, thus avoiding France until the semifinals.
Croatia edges Mexico in the opener, and that takes care of that. Italy and Croatia advance, Mexico and Ecuador start thinking about the next Copa America.
Belgium's streak of consecutive World Cup ties ends at four, because even the Belgians can figure out how to beat Tunisia. Japan beats Tunisia too for its first World Cup victory ever and a crowd-pleasing trip to the next round.
Cameroon-Paraguay: The Indomitable Lions send Patrick Mboma at Chilavert, then Samuel Eto'o, then Lauren Etame-Mayer, then Marc-Vivien Foe. Chilavert keeps on talking, to himself, muttering incoherently after a two-goal defeat.
France-England: Or is it an Arsenal intrasquad scrimmage? The English Premier League champions are represented by Sol Campbell, Martin Keown and Ashley Cole on England's backline and by Thierry Henry, Sylvain Wiltord and Patrick Vieira in the French attack. Confusion reigns in London as emotionally torn fans watch Emmanuel Petit, former Arsenal midfielder, win it for France.
Argentina-Denmark: Watching highlights of France over England, the Argentine players give thanks it's not them. Argentina 2, Denmark 0.
Spain-Germany: A mismatch, according to the track records. Spain, the team that doesn't know how to win, against Germany, the team that refuses to lose. But this isn't 1990, and Carsten Jancker isn't Juergen Klinsmann. Spain shocks Germany. Spain shocks Spain.
Italy-United States: Well, Yanks, it was an improvement over 1998. Now go home and find some fullbacks.
Brazil-Japan: Brazil rolls, Japan claims glorious triumph over long-since eliminated South Korea.
Belgium-Turkey: Enough to make a Belgian soccer fan go cold turkey. Hope the sake's strong.
Portugal-Croatia: Out with the old, in with the new. Portugal becomes this year's Croatia
France-Brazil: Rematch of the '98 final. Ronaldo feels better this time. It won't matter.
Cameroon-Italy: Indomitable Lions meet the irresistible force, also known as Italy's eight-man defense. To the dismay of lovers of wide-open soccer throughout the world: Italy, 1-nil.
Spain-Portugal: The Iberian championship. Portugal's new to this territory, Spain suspects it might be on borrowed time. Ignorance is bliss. Portugal 2, Spain 1.
Argentina-Turkey: The Turks are here because it was either them or the Belgians. But not for long.
Italy-Portugal: Tortured by nightmares of Italy going out of the '94 and '98 World Cups on penalties, Italian Coach Giovanni Trapattoni gambles and instructs his forwards to go forward during regulation. What's this? Goals? By Totti, Vieri and Del Piero? Who'd have imagined?
France-Argentina: Basketball fans switching over from the NBA Finals quickly agree: This is the real final. Unlike the Lakers, the French staff carefully inspects all players' meals. Unlike Sacramento, spectators in Saitama have actual lives. In a classic, France moves on.
France-Italy: The last time these two met in a major tournament, Italy was moments away from claiming the 2000 European Championship, leading, 1-0, in the 90th minute. The Italian fans were already celebrating when Wiltord, a second-half substitute, broke free to equalize just before the final whistle, setting up overtime and Trezeguet's eventual winner. France won't cut it nearly so close this time. Trois-peat, anyone?