And the Next World Cup Champion Will Be Argentina, No . . . Brazil, No . . .

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Italian players have been told to stop smoking, eat lots of pasta and abstain from sex. They are allowed the occasional glass of wine, however.

The Brazilians have been told they can bring their wives or girlfriends with them and are free to enjoy themselves.

The Germans have been promised $75,000 apiece if they win; the English have been promised even more.

The wizards, clairvoyants, astrologers and assorted other seers have consulted their charts and crystal balls and have pronounced Argentina the winner. And Italy. And Brazil. Clairvoyants like to cover all the bases.

From all of this activity, one thing is clear: It's World Cup time once again.

The opening match of soccer's quadrennial world championship is just two weeks away, but soccer fans around the globe have been debating the merits of the 24 contenders for months.

Will Italy, the host nation and a three-time World Cup winner, be able to reach the championship game in Rome on July 8 and capture the title in front of its own exuberant fans?

Will Argentina, the defending champion after its victory in Mexico four years ago, once again be able to parlay the unique talents of Diego Armando Maradona into a third world championship?

Can Brazil, the reigning South American champion and unquestionably the most entertaining and popular finalist, recapture the glory of 1970, when it won its third World Cup?

Can the Netherlands, the current European champion with stars such as Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten and Frank Rijkaard in its lineup, finally win the trophy that eluded it in the finals of 1974 and 1978?

Or is this West Germany's year? The Germans were runners-up in Spain in 1982, and again in Mexico in 1986. Perhaps it is their turn?

These and other questions abound as Italy prepares to stage one of the sporting world's great spectacles. There will be a total of 24 teams in 52 matches in 30 days spread over a dozen Italian cities, beginning in Milan on June 8, when Argentina plays Cameroon. Two months before the opener, 2.25-million tickets, or 88% of those available, had been sold. In the Los Angeles area, Channel 34 will televise a majority of the matches.

Among the serious contenders, there are perhaps six nations that have a legitimate chance at emerging the winner. In no particular order, they are Italy, Argentina, West Germany, Brazil, the Netherlands and England.

Since the first World Cup in Uruguay in 1930, only six countries have won the world championship. Uruguay has done so twice, in 1930 and 1950, but its young team is considered a longshot at best this time around.

Italy (1934, 1938 and 1982) and Brazil (1958, 1962 and 1970) have each won the World Cup three times and both are likely semifinalists this year. Argentina (1978 and 1986) and West Germany (1954 and 1974) are two-time winners and they, too, are likely to reach the final four in 1990.

That leaves the English (winners in 1966) and the Dutch.

England, knocked out by Argentina in the quarterfinals in Mexico four years ago, is enjoying a run of success and its star forward, Gary Lineker, is rounding into form. Lineker was the tournament's leading goal scorer in 1986, but he alone cannot carry the English to victory.

The Dutch have ample talent, but star playmaker Gullit has only recently begun training again after a lengthy recuperation following an injury. The Netherlands might have peaked when it beat the Soviet Union in 1988 to win the European championship.

But if all proceeds according to logic, Italy and Brazil should meet in one semifinal in Naples while West Germany and Argentina square off in the other in Turin.

The Italians have the huge advantage of playing at home. In the 13 previous World Cup tournaments, the home team has won on five occasions. Coach Azeglio Vicini has a strong squad of players, including stars Franco Baresi and Gianluca Viali, but Italy has had difficulty scoring goals lately. Perhaps a new striker will emerge in the World Cup the way Paolo Rossi did in 1982.

If not, the Italians could be embarrassed once they breeze through their weak first-round opponents, which include the United States.

No country has won back-to-back World Cup victories since Brazil did so in 1958-1962, which means that Argentina faces an uphill battle. Also acting against Argentina's favor is that only one South American country--Brazil in Sweden in 1958--has won the World Cup when it was played in Europe.

Countering this, Argentine Coach Carlos Bilardo has Maradona, the world's best player in the 1980s, but perhaps now feeling the effect of years of brutal tackles and vicious fouls. Maradona's finest hour might have been in Mexico, where he lofted the World Cup trophy on high.

The West Germans, under Coach Franz Beckenbauer, bear very close watching.Runners-up in the last two tournaments, they have the strength of will to make sure they don't fall at the final hurdle for a third time.

Beckenbauer, whose astonishing personal record includes playing on the losing West German team in the final of 1966, captaining the winning team in 1974, and coaching the runner-up team in 1986, has rising stars in midfielder Thomas Hassler and striker Karlheinz Riedle to go with an experienced, veteran lineup. The Germans will be tough to beat.

That leaves Brazil, a sentimental favorite ever since Pele first graced the World Cup scene as a teen-ager in 1958.

The Brazilians were magnificent in winning the South American championship last year, playing skillful attacking soccer and yet defending with equal tenacity and power. The team has a galaxy of stars: Romario, (coming off an injury), Bebeto, Dunga, Careca, Alemao, Branco. The list is nearly endless.

A championship final featuring the Brazilians and the Dutch would be a classic. Any final featuring the Brazilians would be worth watching.

Jones has covered soccer for The Times for the past 17 years, including the World Cup in 1982 and 1986.

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