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In the first few weeks of the last World Cup, France reverberated with hundreds of thousands of excited football supporters. Kilted, blue-faced Scotsmen roared merrily along the Champs Elysées, and expatriate Iranians descending on Lyons could barely contain their pride at making the finals. Orange-draped Dutchmen in full march and samba-stepping Brazilians in canary yellow clashed only in tempos and hues as they passed one another, each figuring they were on the way to victory.
Only the French seemed bored by the event?until, that is, France beat Italy to arrive in the semifinals. Perhaps the nation was merely expecting inevitable disappointment, as had befallen the superb French team of 1986. But the 1998 équipe de France proved unbeatably special. A defense without a chink, and a midfield without peer, led by the incomparable Zinedine Zidane.
This time, in the first World Cup ever held in Asia, the French will have millions of fervent supporters back home. And France, led again by Zidane, are 4 to 1 favorites to win. But an almost desperate Argentine team figures to challenge, as does Brazil, eager to avenge its 3-0 humiliation by France in '98. Among the Europeans, Italy's rejuvenated attack makes them a threat. But the smarter bet may be Portugal?brilliant in midfield, and efficient enough elsewhere to stand a real chance of reaching the final four. As for the Eastern Europeans: Croatia's too old; Slovenia's too young; Poland's come on too fast; and Russia's too hard to figure. Meanwhile, Asian fans can expect a rough?and most likely short?ride for Japan, South Korea and China, which is appearing in the World Cup finals for the first time.
This Cup will be different on two counts: Japan and Korea. Here we have cultures that seem perpetually in collision serving as the first ever co-hosts?a compromise brokered amid epic politicking among FIFA's 24-man executive committee. So far, there's been little co-anything between these two longtime nemeses. They have bickered about whose name should be first. (It's Korea.) They have bickered about the names of the mascots Ato, Nik and Kaz?too Japanese, say the Koreans. They have bickered about the shape of the goal.