Twenty-two of the 24 teams in the final World Cup draw had to negotiate a qualifying competition that encompassed 141 national teams and 491 matches over 20 months. Here's a look at those 22 survivors, along with the two countries FIFA exempted from that daunting gantlet: the defending champion, Germany, and the host, the United States.
Thanks to his hairstyle, United States coach Bora Milutinovic is readily identifiable: As someone once said, he looks as if he has just gone for a motorcycle ride facing backward. But look beyond the coif, and Bora, as he likes to be called, is almost impossible to comprehend. Born in Serbia and a resident of Mexico, he speaks four languages, but has yet to master English—or at least reveal that he has—in the three years he has lived in the U.S. His remarks can be enigmatic (e.g., "American people are like American people"), and it's impossible to pin him down on tactical matters in any tongue. Even his players aren't sure which way they're pointed as they ride into the '94 World Cup. "When you play for Bora," says defender Alexi Lalas, "it requires an unbelievable leap of faith."
It's a leap that's worth taking, however. In 1986, when Mexico was the host nation, Bora guided the Tricolores into the quarterfinals of the Cup; four years ago he took tiny Costa Rica to the round of 16. The U.S. team's desultory 5-4-9 record in '94 is no Borameter: He has been tinkering with playing styles and juggling personnel with the aim of making the team more versatile.
The most disturbing aspect of the team's play recently has been its disorganization on D, but the arrival of 6'1", 190-pound Cle Kooiman should help. Kooiman starts in the Mexican first division for Cruz Azul, which means Blue Cross, which is appropriate: Kooiman is a grizzly enforcer who provides full coverage. With him patrolling the right side in a June 4 tune-up at the Rose Bowl, the U.S. shut out Mexico 1-0. Said Tony Meola, the likely U.S. starter in goal, "Defensively it's the best we've played in six months."
The U.S. will probably feature an alignment of four defenders, five midfielders and one forward. One reason for that is because the U.S. has its greatest concentration of depth and ability at midfield, especially if Bora deploys Tom Dooley (SI, May 30) there rather than at sweeper. Up front, forward Eric Wynalda should be the team's top scoring threat and the pivotal figure in the attack.
The U.S. players have made it their minimal goal to advance to the second round, a feat that will probably require at least one win (worth three points) or three ties (worth one apiece) in the first round. The U.S.'s best hope for a victory may be against the Swiss in the team's opener, at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich. With Bora's scheme based on ball possession, the U.S. will certainly be more fun to watch than it was in the '90 World Cup, when it played defensively in three straight losses. "We used to run after everybody else," says Tab Ramos, one of six U.S. veterans from that tournament. "Now the other team has to run after us a little bit."
Colombia was voted the world's most improved team in 1993, and no less a figure than Pelé (page 86) has reckoned it the best team in the '94 World Cup. Its one-touch passing game should run the opposition ragged in the steamy climes of Los Angeles, and the Colombians have momentum going for them, too: Since the start of 1992 they are 18-1-13, including a 5-0 victory over Argentina in Buenos Aires.
But in Cup play the championship seldom winds up in hands connected to feet as callow as Colombia's, so coach Francisco (Pacho) Maturana is trying to scale down the Andes-sized expectations among soccerphiles. "I don't agree that we should be considered the favorite," he says, "but you can count on one thing: Even if we don't win, people will enjoy watching us play."
Says Cesar Luis Menotti, who coached the Argentines to the '78 World Cup: "The Colombians represent the revival of football as spectacle. They're the antidote for the antifootball that has dominated the last World Cup competitions."