World Cup will put familiar rivals in a new setting

Sunday, May 26, 2002

The World Cup becomes a truly global tournament on Friday when soccer's international championship travels to Asia for the first time.

Two nations will share the role as host, another first and perhaps the only time in decades Japan and South Korea have cooperated on a major event. And while security always has been a concern at the tournament, the Sept. 11 attacks have raised even more fears.

Once the soccer begins, however, the spotlight certainly should shift to the field.

"We are confident this will be the wonderful spectacle the world championship should be," FIFA president Sepp Blatter says.

France opens defense of its first world crown by playing Senegal on Friday in Seoul, South Korea, the first of 48 opening-round games.

First-round highlights include the renewal of the bitter Argentina-England rivalry and a difficult opener for struggling Brazil against Turkey.

For the United States, which finished last among the 32 teams in 1998, almost anything would be an improvement. After a formidable foe in Portugal on June 5 in Suwon, South Korea, the Americans face the Koreans in Daegu and Poland in Daejeon. How the U.S. team fares in the final two games of group play could determine if it advances to the second round.

"It's a clean slate in 2002," says U.S. coach Bruce Arena, who took over the national team after the debacle at France '98. "They're going to be a better team than we saw in 1998."

Team tough to beat

If the French are better than four years ago, it's unlikely any team will stop them from winning the final on June 30 in Yokohama, Japan. But they don't have the home advantage and have had some injuries.

They do, however, have a star-studded lineup led by Zinedine Zidane, Fabien Barthez and Thierry Henry. The French are a seasoned bunch, even if, as defending champs, they didn't have to go through the qualifying process.

"We have to try everything to win in South Korea and Japan," Zidane says. "It's not done yet, but we have the means."

So does Argentina, which brings its best squad since Maradona's heyday of 1986.

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