WORLD CUP : Italy Kicks Off Defense of Its Title in Opener With Bulgaria Today

Times Staff Writer

How long ago it all seems, that July evening in 1982 when all the world turned Italian.

How long since we saw the craggy features of Enzo Bearzot at last break into a smile, his ordeal over, his strategy vindicated.

How long since we saw Dino Zoff, that most elegant of goalkeepers, triumphantly holding the World Cup aloft in the gathering dusk at Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu Stadium.

How long since the heroes of that Spanish summer--Paolo Rossi, Claudio Gentile, Marco Tardelli, Bruno Conti, Antonio Cabrini and all the rest--earned their place in the history of the game with that convincing 3-1 victory over West Germany.

Now, almost four years later, their reign as world champion is nearing its end--unless, that is, Italy can surprise everyone and successfully defend its title.


But there is a note of caution. No nation has won consecutive World Cups since Brazil did so in 1958 and 1962, and there are many here in Mexico who believe it is too great a challenge for Italy, which meets Bulgaria at noon today in the tournament opener at Azteca Stadium.

If ever there was a wide-open World Cup, this is it. The consensus among players, coaches, the media and even many fans is that the field of 24 finalists contains at least eight, and possibly even 12, teams capable of emerging victorious on June 29.

To begin with, all six previous champions--Italy, Brazil, West Germany, Uruguay, England and Argentina--have to be favored. Then there is European champion France, which boasts the world’s best player in Michel Platini, and Mexico, which has the decided advantage of playing at home.

That makes eight, but no one feels comfortable in completely discounting the chances of Denmark, Poland, Spain and the Soviet Union. They might all be longshots, but the task is not beyond them. Poland, for example, finished third in both 1974 and 1982.

Today, in the smog-filled Valley of Mexico before an Azteca Stadium audience of more than 100,000, the play begins.

What follows is a brief look at the 24 competing teams, with their best-ever World Cup performance indicated in parentheses. The 24 teams are divided into six groups of four, with each team playing the others in its group. Two points are awarded for a win, one for a tie. The top two teams in each group plus the four third-place teams with the best records will advance to the second round. Goal differential is the main tiebreaker.

GROUP A ITALY (Defending champion; winner in 1934, 1938, 1982)--The Italians traditionally start out slowly. In 1982, for example, they tied their first three games against Poland and unheralded Peru and Morocco before sweeping aside Argentina, Brazil, Poland and West Germany to claim the world championship.

This time, they face stiff early opposition from Argentina but should manage to advance simply on the basis of their almost impenetrable defense. The one question mark is the lack of a true playmaker to direct the offense.

ARGENTINA (Winner 1978)--Cesar Luis Menotti, the coach who led Argentina to its 1978 triumph in Buenos Aires, has been wandering around the International Press Center here like a lost soul. He has toned down his earlier attacks on the personality, intellect and coaching ability of current Coach Carlos Bilardo, but he is not overly impressed by Argentina’s chances.

The ongoing feud between Menotti, here as a broadcast journalist, and Bilardo has caused some dissension on the team (a few players still being loyal to their former coach), but all will be forgotten once play begins.

BULGARIA (first round)--The Bulgarians have an odd sort of record in that they consistently seem to reach the World Cup finals and then just as consistently fail once they’re there.

This is their fifth appearance, but they have yet to win a game. The current team is solid, but perhaps stolid would be a better word. It lacks any real star player and its style is unspectacular. In short, it is likely to make an early exit from the tournament.

SOUTH KOREA (first round)--Coach Jung Nam Kim, who has his team playing a refreshing variety of open, fast-paced soccer with none of the negativity surrounding the modern game, is realistic about his team’s chances.

“If we do not get beyond the first round, this is normal against teams like Italy, Argentina and Bulgaria,” he said. “Getting into the second round would be the best we could hope for.”

GROUP B MEXICO (quarterfinals)--Coach Bora Milutinovic has said that if his team reaches the semifinals, it will be in the final. The problem for Mexico, however, may be in getting to--and through--the quarterfinals.

The team’s first-round tests seem simple enough, neither Paraguay, Belgium nor Iraq should cause it any difficulty. Once the tournament reaches the knockout stage, however, and Mexico is paired with one of the game’s real powers, its limitations could become apparent.

Milutinovic has had more than a year to prepare his team, but the arrival of Hugo Sanchez from Spain at the last minute has upset what had seemed a unified group of players.

PARAGUAY (first round)--With the exception of two players, Paraguay is an unknown quantity. Those two players, however, could well be the difference between an early flight home and a respectable showing.

Julio Cesar Romero and Roberto Cabanas are names familiar to North American fans since both played for the New York Cosmos early in their careers. Since then they have blossomed into international-caliber players.

BELGIUM (second round)--Not the most attractive of European teams, Belgium nevertheless had had its share of success, and this time the luck of the draw has favored it.

Even a loss to Mexico in its opening game should not cause too much concern because Belgium has the ability to overcome Paraguay and Iraq.

IRAQ (first World Cup)--Iraq’s achievement in even reaching the finals must be considered a victory. Because of the Gulf War with Iran, the team was unable to play any of its qualifying games at home, yet still managed to win its way through.

Fast, with proven goal-scoring ability and a little flair inherited from their Brazilian coach, the Iraqis are outsiders to reach the second round but could be a surprise.

GROUP C FRANCE (semifinals)--If there is one team in the tournament that deserves to win the World Cup it is France.

In 1982, when the French and Brazilians were clearly the class of the tournament, both lost. Brazil’s loss was a legitimate one to eventual champion Italy, but France was robbed of victory in its semifinal against West Germany.

German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher’s blatant but unpunished foul on French player Patrick Battison, a foul that broke the Frenchman’s jaw, was the turning point in a game won on penalty kicks by West Germany after it had trailed, 3-1, in overtime. Had Schumacher been ejected, as he should have been, the result would surely have been different.

SOVIET UNION (semifinals)--The Soviet team is not altogether different from the Dynamo Kiev team that won the European Cup Winners Cup earlier this month. No fewer than 11 of the 22 players are from Dynamo Kiev, as is Coach Valery Lobanovsky.

That should give the team some cohesiveness and, with a powerful defense shielding a top-flight goalkeeper, the Soviets could be a formidable challenge.

HUNGARY (final)--A little more imaginative than the Soviets, but nevertheless displaying many of the same depressing tendencies toward dull uniformity, the Hungarians cannot be entirely ruled out.

Their World Cup plan, devised by Coach Gyoergy Mezey, reportedly runs to several hundred pages, but unless they find a way to contain France and defeat the Soviet Union, it will only be so much worthless paper.

CANADA (first World Cup)--Thanks in part to the Major Indoor Soccer League, the Canadians are here merely as tourists. Because the MISL clubs refused to release their Canadian players for World Cup training until their own season was over, Coach Tony Waiters was left with no time to adequately prepare his team.

As a result, Canada’s first World Cup appearance seems certain to end in failure. The only question is, can the Canadians avoid such humiliation as the 10-1 defeat suffered by El Salvador in 1982? That defeat was inflicted by Hungary, possibly the weakest of the teams Canada must meet.

GROUP D BRAZIL (Winner, 1958, 1962, 1970)--For once, even though many still regard them as the tournament favorite, the Brazilians find themselves in a state of turmoil on the eve of the competition.

Is midfield maestro Zico fit or not? What about Socrates and Falcao? Can the new generation of Brazilians, players such as 23-year-old Walter Casagrande and 20-year-old Luis Antonio Costa, nicknamed Muller in honor of the former West German World Cup star, fill the shoes left by their more illustrious predecessors?

Despite its reputation, Brazil has not always done well in World Cup competition, and this year even its usually irrepressible fans seem subdued, sensing that something is amiss.

SPAIN (second round)--Having flopped as the host nation four years ago, Spain is anxious to prove that its soccer is of a far higher quality than the 1982 performance showed.

Coach Miguel Munoz, at 64 the oldest of the World Cup coaches, has put together a team that includes a high percentage of younger players just now beginning to make their mark. Many of them are products of the Spanish under-21 team that finished second to England in the 1984 European championships.

NORTHERN IRELAND (second round)--The most famous victory the Irish have achieved in World Cup play came, ironically, in Valencia four years ago when they beat Spain, 1-0.

Coach Billy Bingham has a solid nucleus of that team back, including veteran goalkeeper Pat Jennings and striker Norman Whiteside, the youngest player in the 1982 tournament. Bingham says his team “can’t get any better,” but that can be taken two ways.

ALGERIA (first round)--Like France, Algeria was another team to suffer at the hands of the West Germans in 1982. Algeria actually defeated the Germans, then had to watch in dismay as a contrived tie between West Germany and neighboring Austria resulted in both those nations advancing at the expense of Algeria.

This time around, the Algerians have been given a formidable task in the opening round, but as they proved in Spain, they are not to be taken lightly.

GROUP E WEST GERMANY (Winner 1954, 1974)--Beaten so in the 1982 final by Italy, West Germany returns under the leadership of its most famous player. But even Franz Beckenbauer’s vast experience might not be enough to save the day this time.

Nicknamed the “Group of Death,” Group E does not contain a weak team, and it is very possible that two of its members might be eliminated simply because of the equality among the four teams.

West Germany, certainly, is no sure thing to advance, especially with temperamental midfielder Berndt Schuster having refused to join the squad and striker Karl-Heinz Rummenigge hobbled by injury.

DENMARK (first World Cup)--It is some measure of the players that Denmark has turned out in the last few years that it should be considered one of the contenders in its first-ever World Cup appearance.

Of course, players such as Preben Elkjaer, Michael Laudrup, Soren Lerby and Jan Molby don’t come along every day, which is why they have been snapped up and molded into even better players by the top European clubs.

URUGUAY (Winners, 1930, 1950)--Although highly regarded by many, Uruguay has failed to impress in its warmup games, and it is questionable whether Coach Omar Borras can lift the level of his team’s play in time to do any good.

That said, there remains another factor in the equation that could change things: Midfielder Enzo Francescoli. Easily the finest player Uruguay has produced in decades, Francescoli has the skills that could be enough to make this Uruguay’s year.

SCOTLAND (first round)--The first British country to qualify for four successive finals, Scotland must nevertheless be wondering when it will advance beyond the first stage of the competition.

Chances of it being this time are slim, especially since the team’s most experienced player, Kenny Dalglish, dropped out of the squad due to injury only days before it left for its training base in New Mexico.

GROUP F ENGLAND (Winner, 1966)--Surprisingly, a great many knowledgeable people believe that England has a better-than-average chance of adding a second Wold Cup to the one it won in 1966. They are serious when they say the English team is one of the best-balanced and dangerous squads in the competition.

Certainly, the first round should prove simple enough, but the English players complained of the heat when they defeated Mexico, 3-0, at the Coliseum earlier this month, and temperatures in Los Angeles are nothing compared to Monterrey.

POLAND (semifinals)--The Poles have done exceptionally well in the last decade and a half, earning two third-place finishes. This year’s team might not go quite as far, but it is no pushover.

In striker Zbigniew Boniek, Poland has a true world-class player, while much is expected of newcomer Dariusz Dziekanowski, Poland’s Player of the Year in 1985, as well as such established stars as Andrzej Buncol and Wladyslaw Zmuda, the latter playing in his fourth World Cup.

PORTUGAL (semifinalists)--Portugal did exceptionally well in even qualifying for Mexico because it got off to a poor start in qualifying play and had to fight back.

The highlight was a 1-0 victory over West Germany in Stuttgart--the first time that West Germany had ever lost a World Cup qualifying game--that clinched the spot in the final 24.

MOROCCO (first round)--The second of Africa’s representatives in the tournament, Morocco has high but perhaps unrealistic hopes of reaching the second round.

Coached by Brazilian Jose Faria, the team is more comfortable on attack than on defense and could be vulnerable to the physically stronger English and Polish.