Don’t just look at Brazil, Germany and Italy as title contenders. Watch out for Nigeria, Yugoslavia and Romania, too.
The World Cup draw in Marseille, France, on Thursday has all the usual big names and former champions. But the field also includes some once-unknown teams that could upset the balance of power from June 10-July 12.
Defending champion Brazil appears even stronger than in 1994. And Germany, eliminated in the quarterfinals three years ago, rebounded to win the European Championship last year. But South America has produced a champion just once when the tournament was played in Europe, when Brazil won in Sweden in 1958.
“Brazilians are good, but when it gets cold, they start getting homesick,” Argentina defender Roberto Sensini said.
France hopes playing at home will help it reach the final for the first time. With an automatic berth, coach Aime Jacquet shuttled in many players during recent exhibition games.
“We lacked imagination and spontaneity,” Jacquet said after a 2-1 win over Scotland this month. “I have traumatized the team.”
Italy, which lost to Brazil in the 1994 final, just made it this time, beating Russia in a playoff for the final European spot.
The draw will divide the 32-team field into eight first-round groups, with two European nations in each of the seven groups and one in the eighth. Other continents can’t have more than one team in a group, meaning the United States can’t play Mexico or Jamaica in the first round.
With the field expanded from 24 to 32, only the top two teams in each group will advance to the second round.
At least three nations considered outsiders have decent chances to advance far.
Nigeria, which made its first appearance in ‘94 and nearly eliminated Italy in the second round, is the best bet from Africa. It won last year’s Olympic title.
Romania, which has never advanced as far as the quarterfinals, won nine of its 10 qualifying games and has the best record of the 32 teams.
Yugoslavia, banned from the last World Cup because of United Nations sanctions imposed during wars in Croatia and Bosnia, is another title contender.
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