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When They’re Around, Danger’s Near

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Goals are like children. They are all beautiful.”

--Italian striker Christian Vieri

*

Somewhere in Sydney, there is an Australian garden that will forever be a part of Italy.

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It was there, 15 years or so ago, that Roberto Vieri taught his son, Christian, the rudiments of soccer: the way to head the ball, the way to run and swerve, the way to shoot, the way to dribble, the way to score goals.

A lot has changed since then. Now, Christian Vieri is the leading scorer in the Spanish League with Atletico Madrid. Now, he is the top striker on the Italian national team. Now, along with Argentina’s Gabriel Batistuta, he leads all goal scorers at World Cup ’98.

But some things have not changed. Roberto Vieri, once a top player in Italy before moving to Australia, still teaches his son a few lessons.

“He always tells me what I’m doing wrong; there’s no point in him telling me what I’m doing right,” Christian Vieri, 24, said. “He’s got the right to do so. He was a great player.

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“I’ve only seen bits of matches he played, recorded on old tapes, but when I was little, we played together in our garden in Australia.”

Those early lessons obviously were well learned. Going into Italy’s quarterfinal game against France at Saint-Denis on Friday, Vieri has scored five goals in four games.

Batistuta, the cattle-ranch owner from Reconquista, Argentina, who plays for Fiorentina in Italy but is contemplating a move to the English Premier League, is matching him strike for strike. His penalty kick against England on Tuesday night in Saint-Etienne leaves him also with five goals after four games.

But in their race for the “Golden Boot,” awarded to the top goal scorer in the World Cup, the two marksmen have not left the trailing pack far behind.

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True, Chile’s Marcelo Salas and Mexico’s Luis Hernandez have fallen out of the running now that their teams have been eliminated. Salas and Hernandez--both, oddly enough, nicknamed “El Matador"--finished with four goals apiece.

But Vieri and Batistuta are being chased by a formidable pack of players, not least of which are Brazil’s Ronaldo and Cesar Sampaio, Germany’s Oliver Bierhoff and Jurgen Klinsmann, France’s Thierry Henry and Croatia’s Davor Suker.

Each of them has three goals going into this weekend’s quarterfinals.

And, only a goal behind but still not out of the running are the Dutch trio of Dennis Bergkamp, Philip Cocu and Ronald de Boer, Argentina’s Ariel Ortega, Italy’s Roberto Baggio and Brazil’s Bebeto, each with two goals to their name.

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The Netherlands plays Argentina on Saturday in Marseille, and a Dutch victory could achieve two things: knock Batistuta out of the scoring race and propel any of the Dutch threesome into the thick of it.

Similarly, when Brazil takes on Denmark on Friday night in Nantes, Ronaldo and friends will have not only a place in the semifinals as their goal but some personal honors too.

Ronaldo well remembers Bierhoff’s remark before the tournament began that it would be satisfying to finish ahead of Ronaldo in the France 98 scoring race just as the then-Udinese and now AC Milan striker did in last season’s Italian championship.

It doesn’t take much to goad Brazil’s standout into action. Last week, it was assistant coach Zico who did the trick.

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“He’s an exceptional player, but he’s got to improve,” Zico said. “He has to move more. If he doesn’t, he can be marked more easily by the defense.”

Thanks a lot, said Chile, because after hearing that, Ronaldo went out and scored twice against the South Americans and also hit the post and crossbar on a night when he could have become the first Brazilian to score a hat trick in the World Cup since Pele in 1958.

It was a comprehensively devastating performance.

“When he plays like this, he is just unstoppable,” said Chile’s Ivan Zamorano, a teammate of Ronaldo at Inter Milan. “There was nothing we could do against him.”

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There were other ominous warnings.

“These goals tasted sweet, but they just whetted my appetite for more,” Ronaldo, 21, said.

“Those goals will have broken the spell that was hanging over him,” said teammate Roberto Carlos of Real Madrid.

While Ronaldo narrowly missed his hat trick, Batistuta already has scored his, against Jamaica. That made him only the fourth player in World Cup history to score two hat tricks. “Batigol,” as he is known, also netted three goals against Greece in the USA ’94 World Cup.

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The Argentine star’s latest goal was his ninth in World Cup play, surpassing Diego Maradona’s national record, and took his total to 48 goals in 64 matches for Argentina.

The striker’s art is a difficult one to define, but it requires, among other things, speed, power, vision, opportunism and luck.

“It seems I’m always in the right place at the right time,” said Germany’s Bierhoff, whose latest goal, against Mexico, was his 20th in 30 games for his country. “Maybe I just have that instinct.”

Said Klinsmann, who also scored against Mexico, bringing his international tally to 47 goals in 107 games: “I always expect to get a pass and score a goal. That’s my job, scoring goals.”

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Linked to Major League Soccer after the World Cup, Klinsmann is now tied with the retired Rudi Voller as Germany’s second-best all-time leading scorer. Gerd “Der Bomber” Muller, remains in front with a remarkable 68 goals in just 62 matches for his country, including 14 in World Cup play.

Vieri can only dream of those sorts of statistics.

“There’s a lot of pressure on me to keep scoring, but I can handle it,” he said.

Especially if his goals put Italy in the World Cup final on July 12, Vieri’s 25th birthday.

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All those hours in that Australian garden will have paid off.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Top Goal Scorers

* 1930 Guillermo Stabile (Argentina): 8

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* 1934 Angelo Schiavio (Italy): 4

Oldrich Nejedly (Czechoslovakia): 4

Edmund Cohen (Germany): 4

* 1938 Leonidas da Silva (Brazil): 8

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* 1950 Ademir (Brazil): 9

* 1954 Sandor Kocsis (Hungary): 11

* 1958 Just Fontaine (France): 13

* 1962 Drazen Jerkovic (Yugoslavia): 5

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* 1966 Eusebio (Portugal): 9

* 1970 Gerd Muller (West Germany): 10

* 1974 Grzegorz Lato (Poland): 7

* 1978 Mario Kempes (Argentina): 6

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* 1982 Paolo Rossi (Italy): 6

* 1986 Gary Lineker (England): 6

* 1990 Salvatore Schillaci (Italy): 6

* 1994 Hristo Stoitchkov (Bulgaria): 6

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Oleg Salenko (Russia): 6

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Most World Cup Goals in Career

Gerd Muller (West Germany): 14

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Just Fontaine (France): 13

Pele (Brazil): 12


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