History favors sleepers

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From Roger Milla and Cameroon’s “Indomitable Lions” in 1990 to South Korea’s Red Devils four years ago, upsets abound at the World Cup. At least one sleeper almost always emerges.

In a sport where the margin of victory can be as little as a blown call, a shot off the goalpost or an own goal, some of the less-heralded countries might wind up this year’s surprise and knock off one of the game’s powerhouses.

“Anything can happen in football, so if we’re among the 32 best teams in the world, at some point we will get the opportunity to reach the quarterfinals or the semifinals or the final,” Ivory Coast striker Didier Drogba said. “Or we will be eliminated in the first round because the level of the competition is really high and the teams that reach this far are the best.”

The Ivorians, one of four African teams making their debut at the World Cup, have a tough draw with Argentina and the Netherlands in their first-round group. They also have the talent to pull off a shocker or two.

Along with Drogba, who stars at Chelsea, the team also will have European-league veterans Bonaventure Kalou, Kolo Toure, Aruna Dindane and Didier Zokora.

Ivory Coast is not alone as a potential sleeper.

Guus Hiddink, who coached South Korea to a stunning run to the semifinals in 2002, is at the helm of an Australian squad making only its second World Cup appearance. Led by a contingent of English-based players, the Socceroos are hoping to advance from a group that features Brazil, Croatia and Japan.

“I know that the team is not settling down and just participating. This team is so eager to get a surprise to get into the second round,” Hiddink said.

Other teams that should not be overlooked: Ukraine, led by AC Milan’s star striker Andriy Shevchenko and Paraguay with Bayern Munich striker Roque Santa Cruz.

Ukraine, coached by former Soviet star Oleh Blokhin, lost only once in qualifying for its first World Cup. Ukraine needs Shevchenko, considered one of the best goal scorers in the world, to be fully recovered from a knee injury to make a long run in the tournament.

While the final is usually dominated by a few traditional powerhouses – Germany, Brazil, Italy, Argentina and the Netherlands have accounted for all-but-one appearance in the title game since 1970 – it’s often what happens before the last match that is so memorable.

And that’s what gives hope to some of the tournament’s biggest underdogs.

“Every weekend all over the world, smaller, so-called weaker teams beat stronger teams,” said Trinidad and Tobago coach Leo Beenhakker. “If Northern Ireland beat England, why can’t Trinidad. We have the right to the same ambition on the field as any other team.”

Consider these teams in the past five World Cups:

2002: South Korea hadn’t won a single match in five World Cup appearances before co-hosting the tournament with Japan four years ago. Decked out in their fluorescent red jerseys and supported by their singing fans, the South Koreans shocked European powerhouses Portugal, Italy and Spain on the way to a fourth-place finish, the best result ever for an Asian team. The South Koreans weren’t alone. Senegal rode a tournament-opening win against defending champion France all the way to the quarterfinals in its first World Cup appearance. The United States also posted its best showing since 1930, beating Portugal in its first match and making to the quarterfinals before falling to Germany.

1998: There were few shockers in this tournament, with host France, four-time champion Brazil and two-time finalist the Netherlands making the semifinals. Past champions Argentina, Italy and Germany also made it to the quarters. The one outsider was Croatia, playing in its first World Cup after the breakup of Yugoslavia. Led by Davor Suker’s two goals, Croatia beat Germany 3-0 in the quarterfinals before falling to eventual champion France in the semis.

1994: Brazil was joined by seven European teams in the quarterfinals, but there were still a few surprises. Bulgaria, winless in 16 previous World Cup matches, made it to the semifinals behind the great play of Hristo Stoitchkov, who scored the game-tying goal in a 2-1 quarterfinal win against defending champion Germany. Sweden also made it to the semifinals before losing to eventual champion Brazil. Even the host United States and Saudi Arabia provided surprises by making it to the second round.

1990: Cameroon, led by the 38-year-old Milla, provided a breakthrough performance for African countries, beginning with a 1-0 win against defending champion Argentina. Milla became the oldest player to score in the World Cup at the time and had four goals in all. He scored twice in extra time against Colombia to send Cameroon to the quarterfinals, where it lost 3-2 to England. Ireland also made a surprising run without winning a game. The Irish tied all three first-round matches and advanced on penalty kicks in the second round before falling to Italy in the quarterfinals.

1986: Belgium finished third in its group, beating out only winless Iraq, but made it all the way to the semifinals as the tournament switched to a knockout format in the second round. The Belgians got goals in extra time from Stephane Demol and Nico Claesen to beat the Soviet Union 4-3 in the second round, then surprised Spain and advanced to the semifinals on penalty kicks. Belgium fell to eventual champion Argentina. Morocco also became the first African nation to qualify for the second round.

AP-ES-05-17-06 1143EDT


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