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The Foot That Fits the Golden Boot : There Are No Shoo-Ins, as Any Striker From Asprilla to Zaguinho Could Walk Away With Trophy as Cup’s Leading Goal-Scorer

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1990, it was the wild eyes, the outstretched arms, the joyous celebrations of Italy’s Salvatore (Toto) Schillaci that fired the fans’ imagination.

In 1986, it was the smooth skills, the fluid motion, the calm demeanor and the deadly finishing of England’s Gary Lineker that won their applause.

In 1982, it was Italy’s Paolo Rossi who captured their hearts.

In 1978, it was Argentina’s Mario Kempes who grabbed their attention.

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Every World Cup has had its leading goal-scorer, the player who finds the back of the net more often than anyone else.

Sometimes, he is already famous, like West Germany’s Gerd Muller in 1970 or Portugal’s Eusebio in 1966. Other times he is a relatively unknown player who suddenly is thrust into the international spotlight, like Poland’s Grzegorz Lato in 1974 or Yugoslavia’s Drazen Jerkovic in 1962.

Either way, he is the man with the golden boot, the player goalkeepers come to fear more than any other.

In the 64-year history of the World Cup, 16 players have had the honor of being the tournament’s top marksman. There have been only 14 tournaments, but three players tied for the award in 1934.

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Among those 16, one name stands out: Just Fontaine, who was born in Morocco but played for France, scored an astonishing 13 goals in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. It is a record that seems unlikely to be broken.

“Dark, sturdily built, a fast and determined runner with excellent acceleration and a fine shot"--that’s how English journalist Brian Glanville described Fontaine in his book, “The History of the World Cup.”

Look at that description again. It takes more than the ability to strike the ball hard and accurately to be a world-class goal-scorer. One has to be tough, durable and able to withstand the furious onslaught of the world’s best defenders.

One also has to be fast, not only fleet of foot but quick-thinking. Some strikers are described as “instinctive,” but more often there is considerable guile and cunning in their makeup. Lineker, for example, used to “hide” behind defenders, according to Denmark’s Kent Nielsen.

“It’s more like chess than soccer against him,” Nielsen said. “He’s always hiding behind a defender. He never does much until you suddenly realize that he’s done exactly enough, and by then it’s too late.”

Lineker, now playing in Japan, was the Golden Boot winner as top scorer of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico with six goals. Six, in fact, seems to be the magic number needed. Each of the four most recent winners--Schillaci, Lineker, Rossi and Kempes--had that many.

Gone are the days of Muller, “Der Bomber,” who scored a record 14 World Cup goals, including 10 in the 1970 tournament in Mexico. Or of Fontaine, and Hungary’s Sandor Kocsis, with 11 in 1954. Nowadays, scoring a half-dozen goals is likely to be enough to be proclaimed the world’s top striker.

So, who are the candidates to become the goal-scoring hero of 1994? Which of the many first-class forwards who have come to the United States will emerge as the tournament’s top marksman during the next month?

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Here, in alphabetical order, are 10 of the players with a very good chance:

LUIS ROBERTO ALVES (MEXICO)

Better known as Zaguinho, this tall, left-footed striker made Mexican soccer history when he scored a national team-record seven goals in a 9-0 rout of Martinique during the 1993 CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament, which Mexico won. His dribbling skills and shooting ability make him a threat from almost anywhere, although he prefers the left side. Zaguinho, 27, was nicknamed in honor of his Brazilian father, Zague, who played for many years in the Mexican League. If Mexico does well, Zaguinho could be the star of the tournament.

FAUSTINO ASPRILLA (COLOMBIA)

How popular is Asprilla, 24, in his native land? Well, one Colombian radio station keeps reporters permanently in Italy and carries live commentary on every match played by his club, Parma. The Italian team paid $4 million to acquire Asprilla from Atletico Nacional in 1992. He has exceptional speed, a deadly shot and an unpredictable temperament. His scoring was instrumental in helping Parma win the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1993 and reach the final again this year. One of nine children, he was born in poverty-stricken Tulua, near Cali. According to no less an authority than Portugal’s Eusebio, Asprilla has “all the qualities necessary to become a world-class star.”

GABRIEL BATISTUTA (ARGENTINA)

The soft-spoken striker from Reconquista, a rural town in the province of Santa Fe, says he wants to emulate Mario Kempes, whose six goals propelled Argentina to its first World Cup triumph in 1978. The 25-year-old, now playing for Fiorentina in Italy, has all of the credentials. He was the top scorer in the 1991 Copa America in Chile and scored both goals in the final against Mexico in the 1993 Copa America in Ecuador. Batistuta has 18 goals in 28 internationals. “Scoring a goal is just the best feeling for a striker,” he said. “But it’s difficult to describe.”

BEBETO (BRAZIL)

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Even though he turned 30 this year, Bebeto remains one of the world’s top forwards. Two seasons ago, he was the leading scorer in Spain with 29 goals for Deportivo la Coruna, the club he joined after leaving Vasco da Gama. He had the distinction of scoring against every Spanish First Division club except one. This season, he again ranked among the league’s scoring leaders. He is small and seemingly frail, but opponents have learned just how strong and elusive he is. His ball-control skills are second to none, some of them having been taught to him by the great Zico. Bebeto scored five of Brazil’s 20 goals in World Cup qualifying play.

DENNIS BERGKAMP (NETHERLANDS)

Never mind Marco Van Basten, Ruud Gullit and all the rest, it is Bergkamp at whose feet Holland’s future lies. Widely proclaimed to be the next great Dutch star, Bergkamp this season made the move from Ajax Amsterdam to the rarefied atmosphere of Italy’s first division. He and Internazionale of Milan took some time to hit it off, but the Dutch striker won his place in the fans’ hearts by helping the team win the UEFA Cup, salvaging an otherwise forgettable season. Bergkamp was discovered as a teen-ager by none other than Johan Cruyff and learned the ropes with Cruyff’s old club, Ajax, where he played alongside Van Basten. Bergkamp averaged 25 goals a season for three years in Holland before moving south. At 25, he is ready to show his ability to score more than a goal every other game for the national team is no fluke. He has superb skills, and his finishing touch is second to none. Confidence to perform on the largest stage might be his only weakness at the moment, but the World Cup should cure that.

ILIE DUMITRESCU (ROMANIA)

The shadow of Gheorghe Hagi has lain across the Romanian team for quite a while, but in the past year or so Dumitrescu has emerged as a player who can steal some of the attention from his more illustrious teammate. Like Bergkamp, Dumitrescu is 25 and has tremendous technique. His goals are often spectacular, and he has been scoring them with greater frequency of late. The Steaua Bucharest star has collected nine goals in Romania’s last seven matches and looks certain to be signed by a wealthier club, perhaps in Italy, if his World Cup goes according to plan. His partner in the Romanian attack, Florin Raducioiu, already plays for AC Milan. Between them, Dumitrescu and Raducioiu scored 12 of Romania’s 29 goals in its qualifying campaign.

JUERGEN KLINSMANN (GERMANY)

Not many players have enjoyed as much success as Klinsmann, whose quickness, control and finishing ability make him perhaps the most lethal weapon in the German arsenal. His honors speak for themselves: World Cup winner in 1990; UEFA Cup winner in 1991; top scorer in the Bundesliga in 1988; Olympic Games bronze medalist in ’88; German player of the year in ’88. He has achieved fame and fortune in three countries--Germany, Italy and most recently France, where he plays for AS Monaco. He is said to be heading back to Italy on a two-year, $1.5-million contract with Sampdoria after the World Cup. At 29, he is still at the peak of his game. Not bad for a baker’s son from Stuttgart.

ROMARIO (BRAZIL)

Having had to deal with the kidnaping and subsequent release of his father in Rio de Janeiro earlier this year, Romario has dedicated himself anew to the sport. “The only way I can repay the Brazilian people for all the support they gave me is by scoring goals and helping to win the World Cup,” he said. He is certainly in form to do so, having just inherited Bebeto’s Spanish League scoring title by accumulating 30 goals for league champion Barcelona. Romario, a silver medalist in the 1988 Olympics in which he was the top scorer with seven goals, helped PSV Eindhoven win three Dutch championships before he moved to Spain for $4 million. Recalled to the Brazilian team for the final World Cup qualifying game against Uruguay, he scored both goals in a 2-0 victory that purchased Brazil’s ticket to the World Cup. His left foot is his main weapon.

HRISTO STOICHKOV (BULGARIA)

For three consecutive years, Stoichkov was Bulgaria’s player of the year. But it was not until the volatile striker was lured to Spain by Barcelona that he achieved worldwide fame. Since Stoichkov joined the club, Barcelona has won four Spanish championships in a row, with their Bulgarian star a key contributor to each one. In frequent trouble with referees because of his explosive temper, the 28-year-old nonetheless has sublime skills. He can set up goals, as he does for Bulgaria, or score them, as he does for Barcelona. In the 1990-91 season, he scored 38 goals. No one in Europe did better. Two seasons ago, he banged in 20. This season, while teaming up front with Brazil’s Romario, who led the Spanish League with 30 goals, Stoichkov still was able to score 16. Strangely, he has not done as well for the national team, but Bulgaria is confident Stoichkov will remedy that in the next few weeks.

RACHIDI YEKINI (NIGERIA)

Four years ago, Yekini could have been a huge star, as big as if not bigger than Cameroon’s Roger Milla. But because Nigeria lost its final qualifying game to Cameroon when a tie would have been enough to send it to Italy, it was Milla, not Yekini, who achieved stardom in Italia ’90. Now, Yekini, 30, has one last chance to grab the global spotlight. He is ready, judging by his performance at the African Nations’ Cup in Tunisia in March. He finished as the championship’s top goal-scorer with five goals as Nigeria won the title. Earlier, he had recorded eight of Nigeria’s 17 goals in its World Cup qualifying campaign. And before that, he had been the leading scorer at the 1992 African Nations Cup in Ivory Coast. Tall and powerfully built, he is unafraid of opposing defenders, which helped him become the top striker in the Portuguese League this season with 21 goals for Vitoria Setubal. He deservedly was voted Africa’s player of the year for 1993.

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There are a dozen or more other strikers of outstanding ability taking part in World Cup ’94. Defending champion Germany, for example, also has Karlheinz Riedle and Rudi Voeller. Italy has Giuseppe Signori, the leading scorer in the Italian League in each of the last two seasons. In addition to Batistuta, Argentina can count on the services of Abel Balbo and Claudio Caniggia, if the latter can recover his form after a yearlong ban for cocaine use.

Switzerland’s Stephane Chapuisat and Adrian Knup make up one of the deadliest duos in the tournament. Another team with a fierce 1-2 punch is Sweden, which boasts Martin Dahlin and Tomas Brolin. Then there are Belgium’s Josip Weber, Colombia’s Adolfo Valencia, Spain’s Julio Salinas, Russia’s Sergei Yuran and a host of others.

All in all, this could be a high-scoring World Cup. Italia ’90 produced an average of 2.21 goals a game, the lowest in the event’s history. But with the talent available in 1994, that figure easily could be improved on.

After all, even the tournament’s mascot is named Striker.


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