Neither speed nor fitness nor a blitzkrieg offense will get South Korea into the second round. The only team from the Far East is far too short on experience; only Kim Joo Sung, a ponytailed striker from the German second division, plays in Europe. By qualifying for three straight World Cups, South Korea can lay claim to being the soccer colossus of Asia. However, no Asian team has won a Cup match in 28 years.
There is an old saying that an Argentine is an Italian who speaks Spanish, thinks he's French but who would like to be English; which is to say that he suffers from a mild identity crisis. But many more complexes get added to that one when Argentina slips on its cleats and hoists its flag.
Consider the deprivations and depredations Argentine soccer has suffered since losing the first World Cup final, to Uruguay, its poorer neighbor, in 1930. The country had to watch Italy win the next two Cups with teams that featured three native Argentines of Italian extraction. The two greatest Argentine players of all time, Alfredo di Stefano and Diego Maradona, made their marks playing for club teams in Spain and Italy, respectively. When Argentina finally won a World Cup, in Buenos Aires in 1978, the Argentines didn't let anyone forget it. Over the years they have developed a reputation as peacocks, bullies and the grandmasters of maladroit gall. Small wonder that they're as disliked as their stylish neighbors, the Brazilians, are loved.
If the human ego is, as Colombia's Gabriel García Márquez has written, "the little Argentine inside us all," right now the little Argentine inside Argentina is hurting. The gauchos were the runner-up in the last World Cup yet only made the held as the 24th and final team to qualify this time around—and then only in a wildcard playoff with Australia. In recent World Cup tune-ups, a distracted Argentina tied Chile and lost to Ecuador, two nonqualifiers. Claudio Caniggia, the chain-smoking striker, returned in May from a 13-month suspension for cocaine use. And Maradona spent the past year never showing up for practice.
Yet in the past four World Cups, Argentina has won twice and reached the final game a third time, sometimes after looking as unimpressive going in as this outfit has. The presence of Maradona could cut either way. Now 33, overweight, and sluggish in the midfield, he could wind up being a ball and chain. Or he could be a rallying point. When Japan refused to allow Maradona to enter the country for an exhibition last month, citing his own cocaine-related past, the entire team voted to boycott the game. Says coach Alfio (Coco) Basile, "Inside the group, everything; outside the group, nothing." Great. A siege mentality. Just what the Argies need—another complex.
Nigeria has a pool of players that's more talented than any other in Africa, and virtually every starter plays for a first-division team in some European country. Now they're ready to show why everyone believes Nigeria is the first African country that stands a chance to win soccer's biggest prize. Striker Rashidi Yekini, who scored nearly half his team's goals in qualifying, and forward Daniel Amokachi are among the few sure starters on a very deep team. Charged with blending all this talent is a blunt Dutchman named Clemens Westerhof. At one point last fall it was rumored that Westerhof was about to be canned by the country's sports minister, Alex Akinyele. But instead it was Akinyele who got sacked after a military coup, and Westerhof's job was safe.
Like all good Hellenic odysseys, Greece's first trip to the World Cup is structured around a hero's triumphant return home. Coach Alketas (Alkis) Panagoulias was born in Greece, attended Upsala College in East Orange, N.J., married a Brooklyn girl and has guided both Greece's national team (1971 through '81) and the U.S.'s (1983-85). Panagoulias, 60, has resided for the last 12 years in Vienna, Va. "In Greece they call me the American," he has said. "In America, they call me the damn Greek."'
Konstantinos Trivellas, president of the Hellenic Football Federation, just kept calling him—until Panagoulias finally agreed to take over the national team in 1992. Under him the team was undefeated in its eight qualifying matches, despite scoring only 10 goals. Its defensive orientation is encapsulated in Panagoulias's cryptic exhortation: "Back up carefully, with patience, craftiness and a constant chase forward."
On the day the 1992 European Footballer of the Year award was announced, a reporter went to interview Bulgaria's Hristo Stoichkov, a star forward for FC Barcelona. Such attention is usually reserved for the winner—in this case Marco Van Basten of Holland—but because Stoichkov is known for his incendiary temper, the writer wanted to witness his reaction to finishing second. Stoichkov disappointed him by acting calmly. Then in his very next game Stoichkov exploded, drawing two yellow cards for an expulsion in the first seven minutes. For Bulgaria to win its first World Cup game ever, Stoichkov will have to rein in his emotions while unleashing the power and speed that could make him a star on the sport's ultimate stage.