The teams to watch in World Cup '94

Among the 24 national teams competing are the perennial favorites, some unpredictable squads, and a dark horse

SIT back. Settle in. Get ready to watch the world's most-watched single-sport event. The quadrennial World Cup finals kick off June 17 in Chicago with a match between Germany, the 1990 defending champion, and Bolivia. The 24 national teams in the finals will play at nine sites across the United States, culminating in the championship game July 17 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.

To reach the finals, each team had to survive a grueling qualifying round, a process that took up to two years. Germany and the United States received automatic berths as defending champion and host.

Here's a rundown of the teams with the best shot at winning:

* Germany is a model of consistency, having reached the championship game in the last three tournaments: It lost to Italy in 1982, to Argentina in 1986, and won 1-0 in 1990, also against Argentina. Many of the players who helped Germany win the World Cup in 1990 are still on the team, including captain Lothar Mattaeus, Juergen Klinsmann, and Andreas Brehme. Helping Germany's chances this year is a relatively easy first-round grouping that also includes Bolivia, South Korea, and Spain. Working against the Germans is age. This is a veteran team with plenty of players over 30 - considered old by soccer standards. Some experts question their ability to stay fresh in the heat and humidity of the American summer.

* Brazil is a perennial favorite. But the three-time world champions are nevertheless coming to the US with something to prove. The last time the Brazilians reached the World Cup championship game was 1970, when the legendary Pele led them to a 4-1 win over Italy. Always a great offensive team that combines daring with creativity, the Brazilians will depend on Romario, Bebeto, and Muller to score goals this year.

* Argentina has reached the championship game in the last two tournaments, winning in 1986 and losing in 1990. Most of the attention will likely focus on Diego Maradona, soccer's Wunderkind-turned-bad boy. But this year, Maradona - once a player without equal who has battled drug problems - may be more of a hindrance than a help. If the team is to do well, it must get steady goaltending from Sergio Goycochea. Argentina, too, could benefit from a relatively weak first-round grouping that includes Greece, Nigeria, and Bulgaria. Both the Greeks and the Nigerians are making their first appearances in the World Cup finals.

* Italy is one of those teams that seems to go far in the World Cup finals. In 1982 they won it all, and they made the semifinals in 1990. The Italians are led by Roberto Baggio, recently named European soccer player of the year. Franco Baresi anchors the defense, always the strength of the Italian squad. The Italians are in a tough first-round grouping, with Ireland, Norway, and Mexico. But the Italians should enjoy a virtual home-field advantage as they play two of their first-round games in the metro New York area, where they can draw on legions of Italian-American fans for support.

* Colombia has never finished better than 14th in the World Cup finals, which it achieved in 1990. Nevertheless, some soccer aficionados say the Colombians should be considered a dark horse to win the Cup in 1994. The Colombians have an offense - led by Carlos Valderrama and Faustino Asprilla - that can overwhelm an opponent. Their biggest enemy, however, is inconsistency.

* Holland has had a recent track record of underachievement. In 1990, the Dutch were one of the favorites, but played poorly and didn't get far. This year's team features some aging stars - including Ronald Koeman - who are still capable of producing brilliant performances. Holland's best scoring threat is Dennis Bergkamp.

As for the United States, don't hold your breath. The host team will be a surprise if it makes it out of the first round. Their group includes Colombia, Romania, and Switzerland. If the Americans are to go anywhere, they'll need great performances from their top players: Alexi Lalas and goaltender Tony Meola on defense; Thomas Dooley, John Harkes, and Eric Wynalda on offense.

* The Best of the Rest: Those teams that may make noise during the World Cup finals include: Belgium, led by Enzo Scifo; Romania, led by Georghe Hagi; and Spain, anchored by goaltender Andoni Zubizarreta.

Unproven teams that could advance include Sweden, led by Martin Dahlin; Norway, led by Jostein Flo; Bulgaria, led by Hristo Stoichkov; Greece, Switzerland, and Mexico.

The long shots are Ireland, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Cameroon, Morocco, Bolivia, Nigeria, and Russia, riven by dissension.

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