World Cup soccer final is intriguing `Battle of Hemispheres'

In host country Mexico, soccer's month-long World Cup tournament is known as ``Mundial,'' which sounds like a good name for a new line of mod wristwatches. Time, however, is something that has run out for all but the two teams in Sunday's championship game -- Argentina and West Germany. They will play for the title in what is often referred to as the world's most popular sport. A worldwide TV audience of more than 2 billion people is expected to tune in the action (NBC, 1:50 p.m. EDT in the United States), while 110,000 eyewitnesses jam Mexico City's spectacular Azteca Stadium, which has been likened to a gigantic, rectangular chafing dish.

The final should be a sizzler, with two hot teams trying to uphold the soccer reputations of their respective continents.

Europe and South America have each produced six winners in this quadrennial event, which means that Sunday's game amounts to a grand, inter-hemispheric rubber match.

South American teams have historically been noted for their artistry and inventiveness, European teams for being well conditioned and more physical. The delineation is now often blurred, with the two ``schools'' coming together somewhat.

Still, the distinct styles and rhythms of play should be fairly evident in the cup final.

The Argentines rely heavily on the genius of striker Diego Maradona, a wondrously creative player whose flair with the ball is a joy to watch, and a nightmare to defend against. He has accounted for all of Argentina's scoring in a 2-1 victory over England in the quarterfinals and a 2-0 shutout of Belgium in the semis.

The Germans, on the other hand, utilize a more balanced, if uninspired, attack and a stingy defense anchored by veteran goalkeeper Harald Schumacher.

Soccer fans are certainly familiar with such front-line German players as Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Pierre Littbarski, but some observers feel the most brilliant German soccer talent paces the sidelines. He is the team's coach, Franz Beckenbauer, or ``Kaiser Franz,'' as he was called in leading his country to the 1974 title in Munich.

West Germany also won the cup in 1954, and has been one of the sport's most consistent powers since World War II. It is making its fifth appearance in the final, a record, and its second in a row. Italy won the 1982 championship game 3-1, a memory several veterans on the West German squad are eager to erase.

Of the two current finalists, Argentina owns the more recent cup triumph, having secured its lone championship in Buenos Aires in 1978 before a highly partisan throng.

Maradona, only 17 at the time, was left off that team, but was hailed as the game's next Pel'e four years later when he arrived in Spain to lead Argentina's title defense. He was a marked man on that occasion, and eventually struck out in frustration, fouling a Brazilian player in a manner that led to his ejection from a second-round loss, which eliminated Argentina from the tournament.

Since then he has played professionally in Italy, where he is reverentially called ``San Diego,'' reportedly makes $2 million a year, and is such a charismatic, international celebrity that he has served as a UNICEF ambassador for the world's children. His popularity is such that a souvenir vendor once produced 15,000 look-alike wigs of Maradona's curly black hair and sold them all.

Now a more mature and complete player at 25, he has practically taken over this year's World Cup tournament. In fact, he went a little too far against England, removing a field marker to line up a corner kick, a freedom not even superstars enjoy. In one of the more humorous moments of the competition, the referee turned ``sidewalk supervisor'' as Maradona first reinserted the flag stick and then replaced the flag.

Motoring in the open field, the dangerous little Argentine (he's only 5 ft. 5 in. and 152 pounds) can be absolutely dazzling, slipping through traffic with the ball hopping at his feet like a Mexican jumping bean.

Bobby Robson, England's coach, admires Maradona for his courage, noting that ``he gets chopped down more than any player I've ever known.''

The West Germans, it should be noted, are masters of the sliding tackle, a skill they put to great use in disrupting France's vaunted midfield maneuvers. Up to that point, France, the reigning European champion, had been playing what some called the tournament's most ``beautiful soccer.'' The French, however, had never reached a World Cup final, and perhaps lost their edge after defeated defending champion Italy and then Brazil.

The West Germans, meanwhile, looked lethargic, scoring only four goals in the their first five games. They have a knack, though, for rising to the occasion, and did so by beating Mexico in the quarterfinals and then the frustrated French in a rematch of an '82 semifinal clash. Now comes their biggest test as they attempt to become the first European team to win a World Cup in the Western Hemisphere.

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