Meanwhile, both the Argentine and English players were feeling the kind of stress that would do little for their chances, which, in England's case, were regarded as minimal only a few months back. The English had played so poorly in preliminary rounds that they barely qualified for the trip to Spain. A change had come about since then, beginning with the appointment of Don Howe as assistant coach to Ron Greenwood. With Howe's hand tightening the defense, England has won six straight games in international warmup competition, conceding only one goal, and should make it to the second round in Spain. England's first-round competition in Group Four includes France, Czechoslovakia and Kuwait.
Argentina, despite the calamity of its first-game loss, could still advance. The Argentines' main worry, apart from their preoccupation with the South Atlantic, was the performance of Diego Maradona, soccer's wunderkind, the vaunted New Pelé, who will stay in Spain after the World Cup. Maradona, a forward, signed with F.C. Barcelona last week for a reported $7.5 million.
Mercifully, the tournament is so constructed that it seems unlikely that England and Argentina will meet, except perhaps in a playoff for third. The same isn't true of Scotland, which could play Argentina in the next round. But, though better than in '78, Scotland will have a tough time getting past the first round.
Thankfully, the World Cup's other problems have more to do with soccer itself. One of them is the daunting size of the field, which has been enlarged to include 24 national sides rather than the traditional 16.
In the next four weeks there will be 52 games in no fewer than 17 stadiums all over Spain, from Bilbao in the north to Malaga in the south. The first round will be contested among six groups of four teams each. In each group one team is seeded so that it will have the great advantage of playing each of its three round-robin games in the same city. Thus Italy, the seed in Group One, is based in Vigo and will play Poland, Peru and Cameroon. In Group Two, Germany, based in Gijon, takes on Algeria, Austria and Chile. Group Three has seeded Argentina playing in Alicante (except for the Barcelona inaugural) with Belgium, Hungary and El Salvador. In Group Four, England is the seed and thus will get to sit tight in Bilbao. Spain, the seed in Group Five, is based in Valencia, where it will play Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland and Honduras. In Group Six, seeded Brazil will meet the U.S.S.R., Scotland and New Zealand in Seville. In each group the unseeded teams will play each other in different cities. When the first round ends, the leading pair of teams in each group will be placed in four groups of three sides for Round 2, also a round robin. When that concludes, the leaders of each group will go on to conventional semifinals and then the final.
The oddsmakers believe Brazil will ultimately reign in Spain. London bookies have the Brazilians as 4-to-1 favorites. For soccer fans, the good news is that Brazil means to be Brazil again—exuberant, intuitive, inventive, as in the great days when the banana-yellow shirts of Pelé, Garrincha, Didi, Jairzinho and Rivelino swept dazzlingly across the grass in Sweden, Chile and Mexico to win the World Cups of '58, '62 and '70. In Argentina in '78, even Brazil's shirts had seemed pallid. Its coach then, Claudio Coutinho, had tried, with unhappy results, to force his players into a European mold with structured plays and a high work rate. As a result even the genius of a player like the renowned striker Zico was stifled.
But Zico is still only 29, and Brazil's new coach, Tele Santana, means to give him free rein to dispute ownership of Pelé's mantle with Maradona. The whole team, Santana says, will be allowed to play its natural game. Alongside Zico in midfield will be the lanky, bearded—are you ready?—Dr. Socrates B. Oliveira, known in the Brazilian convention simply as Socrates. Yes, indeed, he's an M.D. and, yes, unarguably, he's the tactical brains of his team. Another Brazilian apparently destined for fame is Junior, a brilliant attacking fullback.
Oddly, the team that may turn out to be the Brazil of Europe is the Soviet Union. Traditionally a dour, drilled side, it has sparkled in recent seasons after an infusion of imaginative, warm-blooded players from Soviet Georgia who have blended amazingly well with the cooler heads from Kiev and Moscow. Given a solid start in Round 1, it's conceivable that' the Soviets could find themselves taking the field on July 11 in the final at Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu Stadium.
By contrast, the likes of New Zealand, Cameroon, Algeria, El Salvador, Kuwait and Honduras are mere footnotes, it would seem, in the Mundial—though one should never forget the humiliation of England by the U.S. in 1950 and the shame of Italy's losing to North Korea in '66. Perhaps, then, they are entitled to their own footnotes right now.
The New Zealanders, declared The Times of London, casting about for something nice to say, "have the endurance of mountain goats." Cameroon is said to employ a witch doctor and to have brought its own cook, while the Algerians won't be permitted to eat during daylight hours because this is the month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast. El Salvador has proclaimed that it's furious at being regarded as a bunch of pushovers by the haughty Argentines. Said Coach Mauricio Rodriguez, "We know we are a modest team, but it is annoying to hear them always say so."