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Strong Spain haunted by underachieving history

Posted: Friday May 31, 2002 4:39 PM

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  • By Mike Woitalla, Soccer America

    That SPAIN's soccer is the world's best is a widely accepted notion in that country -- and proof lies in its extraordinary success in European club competitions. But getting a Spaniard to rave about his national team? That would be futile.

    At best, fans believe Coach Jose Antonio Camacho's squad can reach the second round -- something Coach Javier Clemente failed to do after his team arrived in France '98 as a favorite to win it all.

    Theories abound as to why Spain has managed only one semifinal (1950) appearance in 10 World Cups. Outsiders speculate that the nation's intense regionalism invades the locker room. Spaniards keep it simpler: Their players lose their nerves once they arrive at a World Cup. And after each failure a scapegoat is anointed. (In 1998, it was keeper Andoni Zubizarreta. In 1994, Julio Salinas.)

    Still, one can't look at the Spanish offerings at 2002 and ignore the possibilities.

    Raul is one of the world's greatest scorers and has a fine deputy in Fernando Morientes. If dynamic and goal-dangerous midfielder Gaizka Mendieta can't shake off the disappointment of getting benched at Lazio, there's Luis Enrique and youngsters Xavi, Vicente and Joaquin.

    Camacho's central defense -- Fernando Hierro and Miguel Angel Nadal -- is old and slow, so he may move right back Carles Puyol into the middle.

    PARAGUAY contributed to Spain's early exit in France '98 and reached the second round, where it held the host to a scoreless tie until overtime. Its inspiration was Jose Luis Chilavert, the imposing keeper who will miss the first two games on suspension for spitting into Roberto Carlos' face. Paraguay will depend on Ricardo Tavarelli in goal until the third game.

    On the attack, Paraguay needs Bayern Munich's Roque Santa Cruz, 21, to blossom and provide the punch that was lacking four years ago, when it went scoreless in three of four games. The midfield is marshaled by powerful Roberto Acuna. The solid defense that leaked only two goals in France '98 returns: Celso Ayala and Carlos Gamarra flanked by Francisco Arce and Denis Caniza.

    Injury to a former MLS player hurts SOUTH AFRICA, which got two of its three goals in France '98 from Shaun Bartlett. Hope that the Bafana Bafana will shed its recent poor form lies in a former NASL player, Jomo Sono. The South African of New York Cosmos fame replaced the Portuguese Carlos Queiroz, a former MetroStars coach, in March.

    Sono has taken a hard look at veterans and can delight in Benni McCarthy's scoring feats at FC Porto. But his most intriguing decisions revolve around how much young blood he'll inject into the squad. His options include Sibusiso Zuma, Jabu Pule and Steven Pienaar.

    The smallest nation at the finals, SLOVENIA (population 1.9 million), gave notice two years ago by qualifying for the European Championship. Arriving with one star, Zlatko Zahovic, and a slew of players who sit on the benches of foreign clubs, Coach Srecko Katanec emphasizes defending -- a chore only Zahovic may neglect.

    Mike Woitalla is executive editor at Soccer America magazine.

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