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Tenacious Mexico a pleasant surprise in even World Cup field.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Friday, June 26, 1998) -- Mexico is the surprise of the World Cup.

No solid favorite has developed from the first two weeks.

Spain and Belgium are the flops.

Those are among the early highlights of France '98. On a regional basis, South America has four of its five entries in the second round. Europe advanced 10 teams, with five failing 00 including both Spain and Bulgaria in Group D.

The picture, however, was bleak in Asia, Africa and CONCACAF (North America-Caribbean-Central America). Asia drew a blank, all four teams eliminated, with the Iran victory against the United States the only success.

Africa, with five qualifiers, saw just Nigeria advance, though Morocco and Cameroon came very close to making the second round. CONCACAF took a hit as the United States and Jamaica lost five games, though Jamaica managed a victory against winless Japan.

But Mexico more than made up for it with three electrifying performances, rallying for a win against South Korea, and making up man-down and two-goal deficits to gain ties against favored Belgium and the Netherlands. It is a team that never lets up and is using its depth to wear down rivals.

Coach Manuel Lapuente took over the team in November after Bora Milutinovic was fired despite leading Mexico to first place in CONCACAF group qualifying for the World Cup. He dropped top veteran goal-scorer Carlos Hermosillo, a controversial move, and Mexico struggled for several months -- even losing to an under-23 South American club team.

But Mexico came into the World Cup primed -- and has been the most entertaining team to watch in France the first two weeks. The ride may not last long.

The second-round date is Monday against three-time champion Germany, one of five or six teams given a realistic chance of winning the World Cup. Mexico's hope: to stay close, and hope the aging Germans wear down in the closing minutes -- as did South Korea . . . Belgium . . . the Netherlands.

Favorites?

* The London bookmakers still like Brazil, but coach Mario Zagallo's team has not displayed championship form yet. The big question still remains the midfield. The famed striker, Ronaldo, needs the ball more.

* Germany has awesome scoring power with forward Juergen Klinsmann and Oliver Bierhoff, but its midfield play also has been erratic. A strength is its character; the Germans never stop playing.

* France displays terrific defense, and hopes it can get by the second round without red-carded star playmaker Zinedine Zidane. Lack of scoring punch up front is a problem.

* Italy has a habit of starting slow, then building to a peak as the tournament proceeds. But it is no sure bet to get past the second round. Serious problems exist on defense and at midfield.

* The Netherlands has the potential to go all the way, but must overcome periodic lapses of concentration. The return from red-card suspension of Patrick Kluivert will help the explosive offense.

* Argentina presents a magnificent 1-2 punch in record-scoring striker Gabriel Batistuta and attacking midfield Ariel Ortega, the heir-apparent to Argentina great Diego Maradona. Defense is the question.

Longshots?

* Yugoslavia. Hot and cold. Great for 70 minutes against Germany. Indifferent against Iran and the United States. Outstanding firepower from a lot of sources. Weak in goalkeeper.

* Nigeria. Deep in attack, with four world-class forwards. Key to the offense, though, is midfielder Sunday Oliseh. Defense is erratic, and the goalkeeping is shaky.

* Romania. How much longer can this aging team go? And this team fouls more than Cameroon.

* England. Where is the spark that cut midfielder Paul Gascoigne might have provided? Maybe David Owen, 18, at forward.

* Croatia. Splendid attack, but pre-tournament loss of striker Alen Bozic (knee) costly. Defense a problem.

Spain was a heavy favorite to reach the quarterfinals or beyond, but fell victim to an opening-game rally by Nigeria and never recovered. Belgium failed to hold leads against Mexico and South Korea, and didn't win a game. Scotland, with a golden opportunity for making the second round for the first time in eight tries, failed miserably, bowing 3-0 to Morocco.

Also flopping was South Africa, whose players apparently spent as much time night-clubbing as they did on the practice field. They went winless; two players were sent home early for breaking curfew.

Second round pairings, all times Eastern:

Saturday

Italy vs. Norway, 10:30 a.m. (Marseille): Neither team has jelled on offense. Norway capable of overpowering Italy defenders.
Brazil vs. Chile, 3 p.m. (Paris): Brazil has edge in mobility but must convert chances. Chile has dangerous pair of strikers, not much else.

Sunday

France vs. Paraguay, 10:30 a.m. (Lens): French had easy bracket, used a lot of players. Paraguay has strong goalkeeper in fiery Jose Chilavert.
Nigeria vs. Denmark, 3 p.m. (St. Denis): Nigeria diversified offense vs. Dane counterattacks by Laudrup brothers, Michael and Brian.

Monday

Germany vs. Mexico, 10:30 a.m. (Montpellier): Germany has edge in size and experience. Mexico must utilize ball-movement skills and quickness.
The Netherlands vs. Yugoslavia, 3 p.m. (Toulouse): Two high-octane offenses. Whichever team can be consistent long enough should prevail.

Tuesday

Romania vs. Croatia, 10:30 a.m. (Bordeaux): Romania has amazed the skeptics. Croatia would like to go further than Yugoslavia.
Argentina vs. England, 3 p.m. (St. Etienne): Big-time game, like Netherlands-Yugoslavia promises to be, but figures to be lower scoring.

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