This is the year the World Cup can, and will, be won by an interloper, someone new, someone not favored, someone outside the staid and too-predictable Brazil-Germany-Italy-Argentina axis.
Brazil was the coherent bet two months ago, expected to dribble through the opposition like Ronaldo and mates in that commercial at the airport, but that was before Romario hurt his leg, Coach Mario Zagallo began tinkering with the roster and Brazil was scrambling to salvage 1-1 draws with European club teams such as Athletic Bilbao.
Argentina has been en vogue in the final days leading up to the Cup--great offensive talent, easy early draw--but who knows how many of Daniel Passarella's best players will actually make it off the bench?
Germany and Italy know how to get results, but the Germans are long in the birth certificate and the Italians seem to have the games of soccer and golf confused, believing that the low score wins here.
France, as host, is favored by some for its style and flair, but World Cups are won on intestinal fortitude, and there isn't enough gall in Gaul.
England has the mentality to win it--bulldog spirit and all of that--and finally the defense to match, but may be too workmanlike to fool anybody beyond the quarterfinals.
Yugoslavia, with its fleet of marauding goal-scorers? Not battle-tested enough.
Nigeria, the reigning Olympic champion? Not with Coach Bora Milutinovic stifling the free spirits in the Eagle attack.
How about a team that should have won twice before but never did; which has a glut of talent and is looking sound during the World Cup run-up; which needs only to avoid the self-destruct button for once to advance deep into this tournament?
How about the Netherlands?
Egil Olsen, the loose cannon who coaches Norway, believes Scotland will upset Brazil in the tournament opener and predicts Norway will beat Brazil in the World Cup final. Take some deep breaths and drink a cold beverage, Egil. Talk is cheap, Ronaldo's right foot is the real thing. Brazil wins the group, Norway out-long balls Scotland for second.
Italy has immense goal-scoring potential with forwards Alessandro Del Piero, Filippo Inzaghi and Christian Vieri, so, of course, they will be used as decoys as Italy packs it in and advances on scores of 1-nil, 1-nil and 1-nil. Chile takes second as striker Marcelos (The Matador) Salas eclipses Rios as the greatest Marcelo in the country.
Having finally discovered a way to qualify for the World Cup--host it--France will advance to the second round by simply showing up on time against South Africa, Saudi Arabia and Denmark. In the weakest group in the draw, Denmark will take second as glowering goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel will have Saudi and South African strikers quivering in their boots--to say nothing about Danish defenders.
The Bora-Nigeria experiment is blowing up big time, weeks ahead of schedule, so Spain will win the erstwhile "group of death," which ain't what it used to be, since rechristened the Group of Uncomfortable, Fitful Sleep. Bulgaria got old all at once and Paraguay's top goal-scoring threat remains goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert, so Bora's no-longer-Super Eagles will limp into the second round.
A brisk warmup for the Netherlands, who should go 3-0 and be primed for a run deep into the tournament, provided the Dutch midfield hasn't throttled any Dutch defenders by then. Mexico is a mess, Belgium is spent, so South Korea, plucky and dangerous (if also winless] in 1994, will surprise for second place.
"Remember Colombia!" the underdog Americans cry as they stare into the gauntlet of Germany and Yugoslavia. Except that in '94, the Colombians were playing under the specter of death threats and gamblers angling for a U.S. upset--and in '98, Germany and Yugoslavia are both potential semifinalists. Germany takes first, Yugoslavia takes second, the United States takes solace in that it plays soccer better than Iran.
Glenn Hoddle torpedoed England's chances of winning the Cup by jettisoning his only playmaking midfielder, Paul Gascoigne, days before the tournament. England will still win the group because no one can bloody score on them. Romania's aging heroes of '94 make one last stand, creak past Colombia for second.
Jamaica's Reggae Boyz in the second round would be the great early story of this World Cup, but, sorry, Boyz, the ride ends here. Argentina is easily the class of the group, with Croatia eager to keep pace with Yugoslavia.
Brazil-Chile: Once, Chile was good enough to play Brazil in a World Cup semifinal. But this isn't 1962, although the scoreline could be similar: Brazil 4, Chile 2.
Spain-Denmark: Schmeichel would wreak havoc in any penalty-kick shootout, so the Spaniards had better score during the first 90 minutes. They will.
Netherlands-Yugoslavia: A second-round matchup worthy of a semifinal. It will be tulips in Toulouse, the Dutch by a goal.
Argentina-Romania: A rematch of the most exciting game of the '94 World Cup, won by Romania, 3-2. Argentina gets its revenge.
Italy-Norway: This one has 0-0 written all over it. Italy advances on penalties.
France-Nigeria: Bora got this far with the United States in '94, too. Could be goals aplenty, except that Bora's coaching Nigeria. France sneaks one past Nigeria's seven-man defense, Bora looks for another team to take to the round of 16 in 2002.
Germany-South Korea: South Korea scared the adidas' stripes off Germany in 1994, rallying from a 2-0 deficit and pushing the Germans to the nervous brink before relenting, 3-2. This game won't be nearly as much fun--stakes are higher, the Germans will be sufficiently warmed up by then--but Germany will still win by a goal.
England-Croatia: England's defense logs its fourth straight shutout, Alan Shearer bangs in the winner 10 minutes from time and all of England, despite knowing better, is waylaid by The Lads Can Do It fever.
Brazil-Spain: Not long ago, Ronaldo starred for Barcelona, lighting up Spanish defenses all over the Iberian peninsula, so he knows the territory. Brazil, 2-nil.
Italy-France: At this point, World Cup matches are won more on verve, mental toughness and heart than fanciful finesse. France, your checklist seems to be lacking. Italy, as always, 1-nil.
Germany-England: World Cup semifinals, 1990: Germany over England on penalties. European Championship semifinals, 1996: Germany over England on penalties. World Cup quarterfinals, 1998: Germany over England on penalties.
Netherlands-Argentina: Gabriel Batistuta could be the most dangerous striker in the tournament, but will he still be in Daniel Passarella's starting 11 by this late stage? Netherlands, looking the very bastion of stability compared with the Argentine camp, advances on a goal by the ever-steady Dennis Bergkamp.
Brazil-Netherlands: Every World Cup has its signature upset and this is 1998's. The Dutch, with a much less experienced team, lost to Brazil on a disputed goal in the '94 quarterfinals, 3-2. Holland now has the defensive quickness to seal off Ronaldo and too many weapons up front not to pierce the uncertain Brazil defense once or twice. Call it twice--Netherlands 2, Brazil 1.
Italy-Germany: Oliver Bierhoff led Italy's Serie A in scoring with 27 goals for Udinese, then moved to AC Milan for a $15-million transfer fee. They will love him in Milano, someday, but not this one. Bierhoff's goal in extra time sends all of Italy into hand-wringing despair, 1-0.
Netherlands-Germany: Ten years ago, when Holland upset Germany in the semifinals of the European Championships, delirious Dutch fans in Amsterdam threw their bicycles in the air and shouted, "Hurray! We've got our bikes back!" The reference was to World War II, when Germany confiscated all Dutch bicycles during its occupation of Holland. This is serious business when these two meet--security in Paris will be army-sized, provided there isn't a strike. And when Bergkamp scores the only goal of the match, bicycles will be flying over Amsterdam again.