In a perfect World Cup, which this one is not, every one of the best available athletes in the sport would be kicking it in France, immune to the whims, idiosyncrasies and prejudices of the 32 ulcer cases assigned to bathe their respective countries in ultimate honor and glory.
Pressure does strange and twisted things to a man’s brain, which partially explains why Argentina Coach Daniel Passarella cut midfielder Fernando Redondo for wearing his hair too long.
Or why England Coach Glenn Hoddle cut midfielder Paul Gascoigne for his unique interpretation of the Denny’s Grand Slam breakfast--sizzling kebabs, washed down with foaming pints of stout ale.
Or why Japan Coach Takeshi Okada cut striker “King” Kazu Miura for--we’re only guessing here--scoring too many goals during World Cup qualifying.
Or how you could assemble a side capable of reaching the quarterfinals simply by stitching together the names of the unwanted, the uninvited and the disenfranchised.
The All-Not-At-The-World-Cup Team for 1998:
Forward--Gianfranco Zola (Italy). Scored the goal that sank England in last fall’s qualification death struggle at Wembley, scored the goal that lifted Chelsea to the Cup Winner’s Cup last month. Left off the Italian roster by Coach Cesare Maldini because, really, who needs the ability to score important goals in this tournament?
Forward--Nicolas Anelka (France). Good enough at the club level to knock Arsenal’s all-time leading scorer, Ian Wright, out of the starting lineup while powering the Gunners to both the English Premier League title and the F.A Cup, but he’s only 18, and that’s too wet behind the ears for France Coach Aime Jacquet.
Midfielder--Gascoigne (England). The most creative and imaginative English player of his generation, but too creative and imaginative a party hound for Hoddle’s tight-laced tastes. Funny, but a week after Gascoigne’s ouster, England forward Teddy Sheringham was photographed out on the town, wobbly-kneed, at 6:45 a.m., but Hoddle excused him, announcing all is well because “the lad has apologized.”
Midfielder--Redondo (Argentina). Quite possibly the best player on the field during last month’s Champions League final between Real Madrid and Juventus, Redondo knows Passarella’s no-long-hair club policy and refuses to adhere to it. Given the option of getting cut or getting cut, Redondo opted for the latter.
Midfielder--John Harkes (United States). It was either Steve Sampson’s way or the highway, so, starting at holding midfielder for the United States against Germany . . . Brian Maisonneuve and Chad Deering.
Midfielder--Juninho (Brazil). Heralded as one the world’s great midfielders when he signed with the English club team Middlesbrough in 1996, suddenly too small and too frail to make the cut with Mario Zagallo.
Midfielder--Eric Cantona (France). A candidate for world player of the decade, the tempestuous Cantona abruptly announced his retirement from pro soccer in 1997 when it became painfully obvious he was no longer a candidate for the French national team in 1998.
Defender--Christian Panucci (Italy). A starter for Champions League winner Real Madrid, Panucci must have been ninth on Maldini’s short list of potential World Cup defenders.
Defender--Mauro Galvao (Brazil). Vasco de Gama fullback was the people’s choice, but some nervous performances by Brazil in April and May prompted Zagallo to stick with the old--and getting older--backline favorites of ’94.
Defender--Phil Neville (England). Phil and Gary Neville could have become the first set of brothers to play for England in the World Cup since Jack and Bobby Charlton, but Hoddle has no sense of history or romance.
Goalkeeper--Andy Goram (Scotland). Actually, Scotland Coach Craig Brown is not to blame for this one. Goram handed in his resignation days before World Cup rosters were set because he didn’t want to spend a fortnight in France reading about his alleged womanizing and carousing in the British tabloids.
Not a bad side, that.
Certainly more attractive than the Mexican squad Manuel Lapuente throws against South Korea today, a team that has taken this World Cup concept of not bringing your best and running with it.
Faces you won’t be watching as the Green, White and Red are run ragged by the Eveready-equipped South Koreans:
Carlos Hermosillo, Mexico’s all-time leading scorer, now starring at a Los Angeles Galaxy game near you.
Benjamin Galindo, who combined with Hermosillo to score 18 of Mexico’s 23 goals during World Cup qualifying.
Zaguinho, scorer of 29 goals for the Mexican national team before, to his detriment, turning 32 in April.
Alberto Coyote, third on the team with 12 appearances during qualifying, not one of them a defeat.
Joaquin Del Olmo, hard-working midfield ball-winner whose career with the national team ended shortly after coach Bora Milutinovic’s did.
Is it any wonder why Mexico has gone from undefeated champion of the CONCACAF qualification region, winner of the 1998 Gold Cup, to consensus favorite to finish last in Group E in the span of barely four months?
Lapuente attributes the attrition to necessary rebuilding, to the need for a long-overdue youth movement.
Mexican fans and media attribute it to mental and/or emotional instability and/or a severe suicide complex on the part of the coach that ought to receive immediate clinical attention.
“The coach and the team are in dreamland if they think they can bring back the World Cup from France,” former Mexican great Hugo Sanchez said.
Mexican fans, at this point, would settle for a victory in three group games. In 11 previous World Cup appearances, Mexico has yet to win a match outside the Americas--going winless in three trips to Europe.
But Lapuente has given little cause for optimism, not in a group that includes the Netherlands and Belgium.
Lapuente has tried to diffuse the shower of criticism back home, maintaining that “the criticism is from people who don’t know anything about soccer. Brazil lost, 4-2, to Norway and lost, 1-0, to Argentina and it is still a favorite to win the World Cup.”
True, true and true.
Worth noting, however: Brazil did not book passage to France without first making sure Ronaldo, Bebeto, Rivaldo, Dunga and Aldair were present on the team plane and accounted for.