METRO PLUS

The four-year fever

EVERY FOUR years, when the World Cup football championship is conducted, the majority of the world's population catches football fever. The epidemic spreads to all corners of the world. Even the international media, normally known to be very hard-headed and pragmatic, is no exception when affected. Everything remotely connected with football finds itself in the media limelight - being discussed, analysed and studied in minute detail. This time is it is no different. Topics range from speculations about the condition of David Beckham's injured foot to who will wear what number on his jersey.

As usual the Cup is again full to the brim - with superstars and super teams. And where there is so much fame, there is bound to be money. Players of winning teams stand to gain hefty bonus with different countries offering different incentives to its players not to mention gifts such as luxury cars, houses et al. Money and fame are ready to flow provided the players deliver the goods over the next few weeks.

France is the favourite of bookmakers. It is one of the few teams, which has shown some consistency in recent times. Much will depend upon its key players such as Thierry Henry, Christophe Dugarry (perhaps playing his last World Cup), Patrick Vierra and Zinedine Zidane the man whose superb strikes gave France the Cup on the last occasion. In the French goal there is the flamboyant Fabian Barthez. France is in Group A with the other teams being Senegal, Uruguay and Denmark.

Brazil, which has produced some of the world's best players in the history of the sport, has had a rough time in the early stages. It is yet to hit the kind of form that it is known for, despite the presence of several star players. However in the league stage, Brazil is not likely to have a tough time since its rivals in Group C are Turkey, China and Costa Rica.

The four-year fever

The Italian footballers are known for their flair and innovation. When in form, the players combine into a formidable outfit. This time the Azzurri are in Group G along with Ecuador, Croatia and Mexico. Much depends on how well coach Giovanni Trapattoni can mould his temperamental stars into a match winning combination.

One of the toughest groups is the F Group where the teams are Argentina, Nigeria, England and Sweden. Argentina and England have been great rivals. Their clashes have thrown up a lot of controversy in the past. England has a very experienced goalkeeper in David Seaman while the explosive scorer Michael Owens is rated by Pele as one of the best players in the world today. A lot will also depend upon David Beckham's fitness.

The four-year fever

Argentina has a good blend of youth and experience. They have two of their most accomplished players in the front line namely Gabriel Batistuta and Claudio Caniggia. In this group Nigeria is no push over. They are capable of pulling off an upset or two and cannot be taken lightly.

Among other strong teams are Germany, which also has not really lived up to its reputation so far, Portugal, Spain, Cameroon, Ireland and Belgium. The two hosts Korea and Japan are in Group D and H respectively. Korea's group rivals will be Poland, USA and Portugal while Japan has Belgium, Russia and Tunisia in its group.

Although Asia will be the host, it is unlikely that any of the Asian teams will have a major impact on the results list.

The four-year fever

However all eyes will be on China which has at last made it to the final stage of the world championship after failing to do so on six previous attempts. The man who has pulled China to this stage is the famed Yugoslav coach Bora Milutinovic who has a reputation for being able to turn humble teams into very formidable ones. He will be in action in this championship for the fifth successive time. How much China will benefit from the guidance of this extraordinary coach remains to be seen.

But despite the mediocre performance of their teams, Asian football lovers do not lack any fervour for the sport. Football generates as much fanatical following in Asia as in Europe and South America where the sport enjoys huge popularity. So from May 31 to June 30 there will be football frenzy throughout the world.

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