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Who looks good in the World Cup?

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Monday, June 8, 1998) -- Will all 12 teams from three regions -- Africa, CONCACAF and Asia -- be wiped out after the first round of the 1998 World Cup, which begins Wednesday?

That's a possibility. And if it happens, look for serious talk about their representation in future World Cups being reduced.

The African representation: Morocco, Cameroon, South Africa, Nigeria, Tunisia. The CONCACAF (North America-Caribbean-Central America) teams: United States, Mexico, Jamaica. The Asia (actually includes Middle East, too) field: South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Iran.

Europe is the dominant participant with 15 teams in the 32-nation field, including automatic host France.

South America has five, including automatic defending champion Brazil.

Group A: Brazil is the favorite, but what happens if it ties defensively rugged Scotland and loses to nemesis Norway, the darkhorse team of the tournament with its powerful attack? This apparently struggling team needs a victory in Wednesday's opener against Scotland. Morocco is dangerous with its counterattacks and figures to be competitive against Scotland and Norway. Likely to advance: Brazil, Norway.

Group B: Italy can win even if forward Alessandero del Pierro (hamstring) isn't ready. Don't look for many goals. Weak field. Chile has power at striker and on defense. Cameroon may have the best player is sweeper Rigobert Song. Too bad Austria is in and European mainstays Russia, Czech Republic and Portugal aren't. Likely to advance: Italy, Chile.

Group C: France should waltz, and hopefully a goal-scoring striker will emerge. Midfielder Zinedine Zidane is superstar. Good fight likely for second spot. Denmark relies heavily in aging goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel. Saudi Arabia is explosive with forward Sami Al-Jaber, while South Africa is led by goal-scorers Benedict McCarthy and Phil Masinga. Likely to advance: France. (Flip a coin for No. 2, and it comes up South Africa.)

Group D: Spain is the favorite but isn't apt to dominate. Raul Gonzales must score goals. Youthful Nigeria and aging Bulgaria figure to fight for No. 2. Defensively challenged Nigeria has been unimpressive but the pre-World Cup opposition -- Germany, Netherlands, Yugoslavia -- are all potential quarterfinalists.Bulgaria hasn't changed much from '94, when it finished fourth. Paraguay has little except extrovert goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert, who takes free kicks and penalty kicks and gets involved in goal-mouth confrontations. Likely to advance: Spain, Nigeria.

Group E: Netherlands is the clear No. 1, but may not be able to rest ailing forward Dennis Bergkamp (hamstring) in this tough group. Dutch team has explosive midfield. Mexico is an enigma, struggling both on offense and defense. Belgium is solid, particularly on defense. South Korea could play spoiler role. Likely to advance: Netherlands, Belgium.

Group F: Germany and Yugoslavia are the solid choices, though the order is uncertain. Germany has to make some tough personnel decisions -- who to start at striker? what sort of midfield alignment to use?. Yugoslavia has awesome firepower, led by playmaker Dragan Stojkovic and forward Predrag Mijatovic. The United States, a darkhorse, must get goals from the striker position and solid play from neophytes Brian Maisonneuve and Chad Deering in the defensive midfield. Iran has little chance except if star forward Ali Daei gets loose. Likely to advance: Yugoslavia, Germany.

Group G This rivals Groups B and H as the easiest. England solid favorite, but question is whether or not enough midfield creativity exists for team to advance much further. Who will set up feared striker Alan Shearer? Colombia is aging and has holes on defense. Romania is aging, period. Tunisia is decent in midfield but a longshot. Likely to advance: England. (Flip a coin for No. 2, and it comes up Colombia.

Group H: Argentina is the overwhelming favorite. Many think striker Gabriel Batistuta will outshine Brazil's Ronaldo. But the strength of Argentina is in the midfield. Croatia is struggling with the loss of forwards Alen Boksic (knee) and Igor Cvitanovic (discipline). Jamaica plays pretty in the midfield, but has no punch at striker, and gaps on defense. Japan has budding superstar in playmaker Hidetoshi Nakata. Likely to advance: Argentina. (Flip a coin for No. 2, and it comes up Croatia.)

Jerry Langdon is sports editor of Gannett News Service and can be e-mailed at jlangdon@gns.gannett.com.