The following players could make the difference in the pursuit of the World Cup.
PABLO MASTROENI (USA)
As a gardener, Pablo Mastroeni knows all about what its like to be uprooted and transplanted. As a soccer player, he knows the same thing.
As a gardener, Mastroeni knows the value of blooming at just the right time. As a soccer player, the 25-year-old United States national team defender has timed things perfectly.
Thats why he is here, at the World Cup, although the thought would have been unimaginable to him only a few months ago.
Mastroeni was playing in Major League Soccer, as a central defender for the Miami Fusion, when MLS folded the team. It was the low point in a budding career for Mastroeni, who was born in Mendoza, Argentina, of Italian heritage, came to the U.S. at age 4, and was raised in Phoenix, Arizona, where he later was taught soccer by a former Portuguese player.
But back to the gardening.
"My grandfather always had an amazing vegetable garden and wed just go out and pick the vegetables and make our own salads," Mastroeni said. "He brought it [a love of the soil] back from Sicily.
"It was something I was always interested in and I had so much down time that I figured I should be doing something more with my life."
So Mastroeni has a garden. He also has a guitar, because along with his love of soccer and his love of gardening, he also has a love of music.
"Just kind of folksy stuff," he said. "A little bluesy. Just my own stuff."
The U.S. national team has a precedent here, a former red-haired, red-goateed troubadour who made a name for himself before, during and after the 1994 World Cup.
"Im not that good," Mastroeni said, laughing, then added: "When I grow up, I want to be like Alexi Lalas. I want to play in the World Cup, I want to play in Italy, and I want to be in my own rock band."
One of those wishes might come true as early as June 5, when the U.S. opens against Portugal in Suwon, South Korea. Its a longshot, but Mastroeni could start in defensive midfield if Coach Bruce Arena elects not to start 20-year-old DaMarcus Beasley on the left flank and plays John OBrien there instead.
Playing in a World Cup game would be an incredible leap for a player who only received his U.S. citizenship early in 2001, who only made his national team debut against Ecuador last June 7 and who did not play in any of the U.S. teams 16 World Cup qualifying matches.
The key was the 12-nation Gold Cup, which the U.S. won at the Rose Bowl in February. Mastroeni literally played his way onto the World Cup team, but his teammates on the Colorado Rapids--the MLS side that uprooted him from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and transplanted him to Denver--are not surprised.
"I think Pablo is a quality player," said Scottish striker John Spencer. "I always found it very hard to play against him. Hes a good, tough competitor. Not dirty at all. Just 90 minutes of hard work and always fair. Hell be playing for his country for many years to come."
It is as much due to Colorado Coach Tim Hankinson as to anyone that Mastroeni could get a World Cup start. He moved Mastroeni from a central defender position to a defensive midfield role.
Robin Fraser, himself a former U.S. national team defender, said Mastroeni has taken the change in stride.
"Hes gotten better every game," he said. "Hes more and more confident with the ball at his feet, with people around him. Hes just brought a level of composure to our team thats been fantastic.
"I think he reads the game well, hes a great tackler, hes very, very tenacious and hes really good with his feet. Hes good in tight spaces, he doesnt panic, hes very composed."
It is Mastroenis composure, his unflappability, that Hankinson likes.
"Ive known about Pablos abilities since he was at North Carolina State, and when he was there he was a playmaker," Hankinson said. "Off the field, he is a very soft-spoken, easy-going, tranquilo type of guy. But on the field hes a lion. Its being able to turn that off and on that makes him special."
Theres a man who is responsible for Mastroenis versatility as well as his comfort-level on the ball. His name is Luis Dabo and he once played for Benfica, one of Portugals most illustrious clubs. It was Dabo who taught Mastroeni the game at the Santos Soccer Club in Phoenix and who showed him how it could and should be played.
"Hes been my mentor all along," Mastroeni said. "Through college, Id go back and train with him. Hes a great believer in having technically sound players and then shipping them off somewhere where tactics could be preached. Hes just an amazing guy."
Typical of Mastroenis "cool" was his reaction to making the World Cup team.
"It was a sense of calm," he said. "It wasnt so much of a surprise as everyone believed it was. I thought Id played myself into a possibility. It was just a matter of the coach picking the players that would best fit his team. It was more of a tranquil, calming effect, knowing that theres another mountain to climb."
Claudio Reyna, the U.S. captain, believes Mastroeni is up to the challenge.
"If you look at the system were playing," he said, "Chris [Armas] was the most natural for the [defensive midfield] position. I think the next person who could do that particular job would be Pablo. The best thing would be if Pablo can fit right in and we dont have to move anything else around."
Just as in a garden.
MICHAEL OWEN (England)
Michael Owen was a mere lad of 18 when he scored Englands most celebrated World Cup goal since Geoff Hursts controversial extra-time winner in the 1966 final against West Germany.
Why, and how, it is celebrated says all one needs to know about Englands experience in the World Cup over the last 36 years.
In only his second World Cup start, in the 1998 second round against Argentina, Owen and the shot that made his reputation appeared to emerge from nowhere_just a blur of white against a sea of Argentine blue, darting past and around some of the most savvy defenders in the tournament, before Owen delivered on the run, driving the ball hard past a startled Carlos Roa, the Argentine keeper.
Londons Daily Telegraph described the goal as ``a golden footballing moment that had grown men on their knees howling, believing for a brief and shining instant that England was truly a great footballing nation again.
Two years later, Owen told the Telegraph that the shot ``changed my life, it changed the way people saw me. Every football fans remembers exactly where they were . . . They tell me exactly what they were doing at the time and how they will never forget that.
One thing about that goal and that game:
Without it, England would have lost in regulation, sparing itself the tease of extra time and the agony of being eliminated in a penalty-kick shootout.
Yes, the greatest English goal of the last eight World Cups came in a losing effort.
In a game that ended in penalties, the same way England lost to West Germany in the 1990 semifinals.
In a game against Argentina, the same country that ended Englands 1986 World Cup with Maradonas infamous ``Hand of God goal.
In a game that finished without David Beckham on the field. Beckham, Englands best midfielder then and now, was red-carded in the 47th minute, forcing his teammates to forge ahead shorthanded for 75 more minutes.
It was a gallant, lion-hearted performance in defeat, the kind of thing England has come to excel at. Four years on, England readies for another World Cup with Beckham questionable for the opener_hes recovering from a broken foot_and Argentina awaiting in the second group game, casting a dark shadow over Englands hopes of progressing far in the tournament.
In fact, the course of the 2002 World Cup could hinge on the June 7 England-Argentina match in Sapporo. To the winner of Group F goes a second-round match against the likes of Denmark or Senegal, followed possibly by a quarterfinal encounter with Turkey or Belgium. In other words, a berth in the final four is there for the taking.
Finish second in Group F, however, and this is the probable road ahead: defending champion France in the second round, Brazil in the quarters. In other words, dont unpack all your bags.
Until Beckhams return to the lineup, the captains armband has gone to Owen, all of 22 now. If the goal against Argentina announced his arrival as a striker with world-class potential, Owens 2000-2001 season removed all doubt. In leading Liverpool to a treble of championships_the English League Cup, the F.A. Cup and the UEFA Cup_Owen was named European player of the year and World Soccer magazines world player of the year.
At the same time, he helped trigger Englands bottom-to-top rise in its World Cup qualification group by scoring a hat trick last September against Germany in a 5-1 victory in Munich.
Owen is back at the World Cup, but he hardly recognizes the place. This time last Cup, he was little more than a rumor, used only as a substitute in Englands first two matches by a coach, Glenn Hoddle, who considered Owen too callow and_an opinion he will never live down_not a natural goal scorer.
Long gone is the element of surprise. Argentina wont be caught flatfooted again by the kid in the No. 10 shirt with the face going on 15. Today, Owen doesnt travel as lightly. He arrives in Japan toting a heavy piece of carry-on baggage known as expectation.
Talking with reporters before a recent tuneup match against South Korea, Owen acknowledged that ``When you come on the scene as an 18-year-old, you are not expected to do anything and you are in a win-win situation. You can make a name for yourself.
``Its a different type of pressure now . . . Its a difficult group we are in, and I dont think goals will be easy to come by. But as long as they are important goals, I dont mind.
England, Argentina and the rest of the world will be settling in to see what the kid comes up with for an encore.
``When you have come back and just score a great goal, Owen said, ``the next question is: Are you going to do something else, or will it be just that goal?
``I wouldnt change that goal for the world. It was a great moment and something I will never forget. But if you want to get to the top of in any profession, you do not just score one goal in a World Cup against Argentina. You have got to keep going.
Take a poll of the United States players and ask them which single player they are most worried about facing in the World Cup and the answer is unanimous: Luis Figo.
As reigning FIFA world player of the year and soccers second-most expensive player of all time behind Zindedine Zidane, Figo is to Portugal what Zidane is to France. In a word, indispensable.
If anyone can lead the Portuguese to the world championship they so desperately desire, its the 29-year-old millionaire from a working-class suburb of Lisbon. He has done so twice already, so why not on the biggest stage of all?
In 1989, the same year the U.S. qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 40 years, Figo inspired Portugal to victory in the FIFA Under-17 World Championship.
In 1991, the same year the U.S. brought Bora Milutinovic aboard as coach to improve its soccer fortunes, Figo was part of Portugals victorious team in the FIFA World Youth [Under-20] Championship.
A wide-ranging player who is happiest on the flanks, Figo has pace, stamina, strength, excellent close control and a deadly shot. Add to that exceptional dribbling skills and a crossing ability that puts him on a par with Englands David Beckham, and you have the complete player, one equally at home as a forward, playmaker or winger.
Small wonder that former Dutch national team coach Louis Van Gaal once said that if he could draft any player in the world, his first choice would be Figo.
"Figo is a great player, with great mentality and desire to win," Van Gaal said. "He is simply fantastic."
Portugals World Cup coach, Antonio Oliveira, goes even further. "Figo is to this team what Eusebio was to the team of 66 [that reached the World Cup semifinals]," he said.
Having made his debut for Sporting Lisbon in 1989, it wasnt long before the teenage Figofull name Luis Filipe Figo Madeira Caeiro--was being tracked by even more famous clubs outside Portugal.
The Italian clubs Parma and Juventus both sought Figo, but it was Johan Cruyff, then coach of Barcelona, who lured him to Spain in 1995, the year before Figo helped Portugal reach the quarterfinals of the 1996 European Championship in England.
Figo became an instant fan favorite at Nou Camp, Barcelonas famed stadium. In his five years and 172 games for Barcelona, he was a vital contributor to teams that won two Spanish championship, two Spanish Cups, the European Cup Winners Cup and the European Super Cup.
But he made one major mistake. He promised that he would never leave.
"I want to reassure fans that Luis Figo, with all the certainty in the world, will be at the Nou Camp on July 24 to start the season," he told Barcelonas Sport newspaper on July 9, 2000.
But Figo had not taken into account the resolution of a man named Florentino Perez, who made bringing Figo from Barcelona to Real Madrid the central plank of his campaign for the presidency of Real Madrid.
July 24 duly arrived and it turned out to be the very day that Figo was whisked into Madrid by private jet, having agreed to wear the all-white uniform of Barcelonas fiercest rival, which paid the Catalan club a then-world record transfer fee of $56.1 million, the amount specified in the buy-out clause in Figos contract.
With the stroke of a pen, Figo had become the worlds most expensive player and the most despised man in Catalunya.
Figo found the sum almost obscene.
"Its the law of the market," he told the Spanish sports daily Marca at the time. "I didnt ask anyone to pay it and its not my fault that they did. If you ask me if Id pay that amount for any player, then Id say no. Its an outrage."
Outrage or not, the record didnt last long. One year later, Perez brought Zidane to Real Madrid from Juventus for a staggering $64.45 million.
The arrival of the French World Cup winner took some of the onus off Figo, who had edged out Zidane in becoming European player of the year in 2000, the same year he helped Portugal reach the semifinals of the European Championship in Belgium and the Netherlands.
In the season just ended, Figo and Zidane both added to their honors when Real Madrid celebrated its centenary year by winning the European Champions Cup. Along the way, however, Figo picked up a right ankle injury that has cast doubt over his World Cup.
"Im not a goal scorer or a defender," he said. "Im not a passer. Soccer for me is speed. Quick on the ball, quick thinking, quick to move."
A bad ankle will slow Figo down, but the U.S. players fear him all the same. On June 5, they will find out if those fears are justified.
Think of it as a warning shot fired across the bows. Thats certainly how the other 31 World Cup teams viewed it.
The shot in question was unleashed on the evening of May 15 at Hampden Park in Glasgow, Scotland. It flew off the raised and outstretched foot of Zinedine Zidane and crashed into the back of the Bayer Leverkusen net to earn Real Madrid its ninth European Champions Cup.
More important, from Zidanes standpoint, was the fact that with one almighty swing of his left leg he had repaid the $64.9 million that the Spanish club had spent on acquiring him from Juventus only 10 months earlier and, at the same time, added a coveted Champions Cup winners medal to his own glittering collection.
Reaction to the goalseen worldwide because it came in a showcase game, a European Cup finalwas instantaneous, and nowhere was the excitement greater than at Frances World Cup training camp in Clairefontaine, south of Paris.
"It was magic," said midfielder Christophe Dugarry. "His movement was magnificent, the precision of the shot incredible."
Rob Hughes, perhaps the most perceptive of commentators on the worlds game, described it perfectly in the next days International Herald Tribune:
"If there was any doubt that Zinedine Zidane, the son of an Algerian janitor, has grown into one of a handful of men throughout history who can turn soccer into art, he dispelled it [with that goal]," Hughes wrote.
Zidane argued that he had "simply slammed at the ball without thinking," saying that it was "pure instinct." If so, it is a feral instinct, the same kind he showed four years ago at the Stade de France outside Paris, where his two headed goals in the 1998 World Cup final sent Brazil spinning to a 3-0 defeat.
Hughes, again, on the marvelous May 15 goal:
"In the split seconds that it takes for three opponents . . . to lose a yard of positioning, Zidane had anticipated every option. Just inside the penalty box, 18 yards from the net, he balanced his weight expertly on his right foot, with which he has scored many of his great goals, and almost from behind his own body hooked the left foot toward the flight of the ball.
"He struck it on the volley, almost a meter off the ground. He hooked it with such beautiful timing, such brutal power, that Joerg Butt, the Leverkusen goalkeeper, did not have a prayer of a chance of intercepting it."
The same though must have crossed the minds of all 31 goalkeepers who could come face to face with Zidane at the World Cup, and especially those of Senegal, Uruguay and Denmark, who will see him in the first round.
The scary thing about Zidane is that, at 29 and having won just about everything there is to win, he still is hungry for more. "Zizou," as the two-time world player of the year is nicknamed, earns $12 million a year as the worlds highest-paid player and has hardly taken it easy since winning the World.
First came the European Championship in 2000, where he again was head and shoulders above every other player, moving Pele to remark that, "Zidane is even better now than two years ago."
Then came the FIFA Confederations Cup in 2001, where France again prevailed. And now, just this month, the European Champions Cup, a trophy he had twice seen slip from his grasp while he was playing for Juventus.
"I have my best footballing years ahead of me," he warned in an interview with Agence France-Presse. "Maybe not five years, but I hope at least another two or three years at the highest level."
But there is another side to the man from Marseille, or, to be more precise, that Mediterranean port citys largely immigrant district of La Castellane. For one thing, he is a husband and father.
He and his Spanish wife Veronica have three sons, the first named Enzo in honor of Ziadanes own soccer hero, Enzo Francescoli of Uruguay. His latest son was born only last week.
Then there is Zidane the off-field leader, the Legion dHonneur winner and United Nations goodwill ambassador, the quiet man who speaks up when he believes it is necessary.
Such a moment came during the recent French presidential election, when Zidane, along with many other French World Cup players, called on voters to reject National Front candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen because, in Zidanes words, his party "has nothing in common with the values of France."
That brought a snarl from Le Pen, who said, "Zidane is nothing special. . . . I would say to him as well, I will give you part of my votes if you give me a proportion of your wages. "
Le Pen was crushed in the election.
Frances World Cup foes are anticipating the same fate.
The picture is worth a thousand tears, telling the sad story of 50 years of Spanish soccer exasperation in a single snapshot.
It was taken two years ago, inside Jan Breydel Stadium in Bruges, Belgium, site of the 2000 European Championship quarterfinal between Spain and France. The camera lens succeeded where Raul Gonzalez had just failed, zeroing in on its target and capturing the star child of Spanish soccer after he had launched a last-minute, potential game-tying penalty kick high into the Belgian sky.
Raul, as he is simply known through Spain and his sport, is frozen in despair, standing alone, his head buried in his hands as the final seconds tick off on Frances 2-1 victory.
The ball is off somewhere in the distance, contemplating re-entry into the stratosphere.
Spain_forever supremely talented, forever extremely disappointing_had found another way to lose in a major tournament.
Two years earlier, touted as a serious challenger for the 1998 World Cup, Spain didnt get out of the first round, losing to Nigeria and failing to score in a 0-0 draw with Paraguay.
Four years before that, Spain fell in the World Cup quarterfinals on an 88th-minute goal by Italys Roberto Baggio.
Four years before that, Spain went out in the second round against Yugoslavia, on a goal in the 93rd minute, after hitting the post twice in regulation.
And so it has gone, for more than half a century, for Spain, which hasnt advanced beyond the World Cup quarterfinals since 1950, when it finished fourth. Even when it hosted the event, in 1982, Spain lost to Northern Ireland in group play and was quickly ousted in the second round by West Germany.
Here we are again, at the outset of another World Cup, and a lot of people who ought to know better are touting Spain for the final four. Why? Because of ((startital)) La Liga, ((endital)) the countrys prestigious professional league and its recent run on European trophies.
Earlier this month, Raul and Real Madrid won the European Champions League_for the third time since 1998. Valencia finished runner-up in the same competition in 2000 and 2001. Alaves was a UEFA Cup finalist in 2001. Barcelona, home of Rivaldo, is one of the most famous clubs in the world.
Its an impressive resume, yet success on the club level has never translated for Spain on the world stage. One reason: Many of the top names that populate ((startital)) La Liga ((endital)) from September to May will be trying to take out Spain in June. Rivaldo starts for Brazil, Real Madrids Figo and Zinedine Zidane are the midfield leaders for Portugal and France, respectively. Valencias Pablo Aimar, Roberto Ayala and Cristian Gonzalez belong to Argentina for the next month.
But a bigger reason is the state of the Spanish teams psyche, after so many decades of underachievement. In short, its shot.
Coach Jose Antonio Camacho sounds as if hes already cushioning the floor for another fall, noting how Spain has traditionally struggled in World Cup openers against lowly regarded opponents_Spain opens this one against Slovenia_and talking about resigning if Spain is eliminated early again.
He has also set up Raul as most valuable scapegoat, telling reporters in Madrid recently, ``I told Raul that while a few years ago I thought he was being given too much responsibility, now is the time for him to start pulling the cart. With Real Madrid, Raul has won just about everything there is to win, and now whats left for him is to win with the Spanish team.
After scoring just once in both the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 European Championship, Raul knows the pressure is on him to produce in Asia.
``Its about time we did well, he told World Soccer magazine. ``Spain have never got the results they deserved at the World Cup. I dont know why. Bad luck at critical moments and a lack of confidence.
Group B, which also includes Slovenia, South Africa and Paraguay, is Spains to lose. Should it win the group, Spain would most likely face Ireland or Cameroon in the second round, with Portugal looming in the quarterfinals. The final four is reachable, but Paraguay goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert, never afraid to stir the pot, predicts further calamity ahead for the Spanish.
Referring to the weak opponents Spain played during World Cup qualification, Chilavert told Paraguay radio, ``Its really easy to get through if you are playing teams like Andorra, Liechenstein or Israel. If Spain had played in the South American qualifiers, I am sure they would not be going to the World Cup.
On one hand, the Spaniards can shrug that off as Chilavert, who loves the sound of his own voice, just being Chilavert. On the other hand, Spain just lost its starting goalkeeper, Santiago Canizares, for the tournament after Canizares dropped a bottle of aftershave and severed a tendon in his foot.
No. But it smells like the same old story.
Its an older Hidetoshi Nakata who comes into this World Cup, but is he any wiser? The next four weeks will tell.
Certainly, Japans best known, highest paid and potentially most influential soccer player has had lessons aplenty since he sprang onto the international stage at the France 98 World Cup. The question is: did he learn anything?
The answer is vital to Japans chances of advancing to the second round from a modest group that also includes Belgium, Russia and Tunisia.
Before the 98 World Cup, Englands World Soccer magazine talked about Nakatas "excellent vision, dribbling and possession skills, rounded off with bold, well-timed passes" and described him as "the joker who brings out the best in his teammates."
Well, then-21-year-old Nakata and his teammates did not fare too well in their initial World Cup foray. The were ousted in the first round after single-goal losses to Argentina, Croatia and Jamaica.
It was a humbling experience for Nakata, even though his own performance led to a second consecutive Asian player of the year award.
More important, his playnot to mention his shock of dyed-red haircaught the eye of several European clubs. In the end, it was Perugia that splashed out $3.5 million to bring him to Italy from Bellmare Hiratsuka of Japans J-League.
Nakata flourished in Serie A. It did not hurt his cause when he scored twice against Juventus on his debut for Perugia, and his stock continued to rise so that by January 2000 Perugia was able to realize a healthy profit on the midfielder when it sold him to AS Roma for $16 million.
The year 2000 marked the beginning of tougher times for the player known as "Hide," whose rebellious outlook and rock-star dress style had made him the idol of millions of young Japanese. One indication of his popularity is his personal web site, which receives more than one million hits a day.
At Roma, however, life became more complicated, not least because there already was someone occupying Nakatas midfield playmaking positionItalian national team standout Francesco Totti. Japans idol suddenly found himself on the bench.
Then there was his relationship with Philippe Troussier, Japans no-nonsense French coach. It was prickly at the best of times because of the distance separating them. Troussier was in Japan trying to build a team that could avoid the embarrassment of becoming the first host nation in history not to reach the second round of the World Cup. His star player, meanwhile, was concentrating on building a career in Europe.
"I dont know him," Troussier told World Soccer earlier this year. "He comes back just one day before each [national team] match. I think Nakata has trained with me, in four years, maybe a maximum of 20 days."
The distance between coach and player grew even greater during the 2001 FIFA Confederations Cup, a tournament co-hosted by Japan and South Korea as a sort of trial run for the World Cup. Japan did well in the eight-nation event and reached the final, along with world champion France.
Thats when Nakata said he would rather go back to play for Roma in its Serie A title-clinching match than stick around to play for Japan against France. Troussier argued in vain, and Nakata, always stubbornly individualistic, flew back to Italy.
As it turned out, Japan, without Nakata, lost to France, 1-0. In Rome, meanwhile, AS Roma clinched the Italian championship for the first time in 18 years, but Nakata spent the game on the bench.
Troussier, unhappy at Nakata putting his own interests ahead of those of the Japanese team, suggested pointedly that Nakatas place on the 2002 World Cup team was anything but secure. "Nakata is not God," he snapped angrily on one occasion.
Nor was he an AS Roma player by the time the 2001-2002 Italian season rolled around. Roma sent him to Parma for $26 million. Again, he spent more time on the bench than on the field, leading to the cruel joke that Japanese fans who follow Parma wear Nakatas Parma jersey more often than he does.
But this year has seen a turnaround for the 25-year-old. Earlier this month he scored a vital goal that helped Parma win the Italian Cup over Juventus. He also scored for Japan in a 2-0 victory over Poland in Lodz. It was Japans first victory in Europe in 31 years and it marked a visible thaw in Nakatas icy relationship with Troussier.
"Before, he came with five managers, two doctors and a helicopter," Troussier observed wryly. "Now he comes with a bicycle."
If Nakata is more humble, he is also taking more of a leadership role at Japans training base in Fukuroi, southwest of Tokyo, working with younger players and helping the team achieve the camaraderie that will carry it into the second round.
The lessons, apparently, have been learned.