The first shots were fired back on May 2, 1984, in sunbaked Makarion Stadium in Nicosia, where Austria defeated Cyprus 2-1. Some 1½ years later, on Dec. 4, 1985, desperate Scotland held Australia to a scoreless tie in Melbourne. Between those two games, teams representing 121 nations, from Albania to Zimbabwe, battled throughout the globe, each hoping to earn one of the 22 available berths in the 24-team final field of the 13th World Cup soccer tournament, which begins this week in Mexico. (Italy, the defending champion, and Mexico, the host, received automatic berths; the U.S. failed to qualify for the spot eventually won by Canada.) The Cup final, one of the world's great sports events, will be played on June 29 in Mexico City's Azteca Stadium before 114,000 spectators and an estimated two billion television viewers. In the U.S., NBC will broadcast seven games, ESPN will carry 15 games and the Spanish International Network (SIN) will supply coverage of all 52 games of the tournament, with commentary in Spanish, to a dozen over-the-air and some 350 cable outlets.
The actual World Cup may represent the ultimate honor in international team sports, but it is not the world's ultimate objet d'art. Designed in 1971 by Italy's Silvio Cazzaniga, the 18-karat solid-gold trophy is a little over a foot tall, weighs 11 pounds and looks like something that grew from a spore that drifted in from outer space. Nevertheless, the Cup once caused a war (between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969) and has influenced governments. (Argentina's dismal showing in 1982, coming just after its defeat in the Falklands War, contributed to the downfall of president Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri.)
The event will be a major boon to the Mexican economy, which is struggling with a 64% inflation rate, vast poverty and unemployment. Only eight months have passed since a devastating earthquake left some 4,600 Mexicans dead and tens of thousands homeless. One of the first pieces of cheerful news following the quake was that none of the 12 stadiums in nine cities to be used for the World Cup had been damaged, which meant that the games would go on as planned. As of last week, 80% of the three million tickets had been sold and Cup officials were anticipating a sold-out tournament. Some 50,000 tourists were expected to check into Mexico's hotels, many of them Americans who canceled plans to visit Europe this summer for fear of terrorism. Nevertheless, security around the World Cup sites will be considerable, with FBI, CIA, Interpol, French and Spanish antiterrorist police and security officials from the International Olympic Committee all helping Mexican federal and municipal authorities. There will be metal detectors and antiriot police in place at all stadiums.
Neither political nor esthetic considerations mean anything, of course, to the 24 teams that are gathering in Mexico. Each will play three games in its round-robin group (see box, page 50), after which the two top teams from each group plus four wild-card teams will advance to the round-of-16 elimination phase that begins on June 15. Fourteen days later the destination of that ugly, precious little statue will be known.
London's legal bookmakers, who cannot afford to be chauvinistic, leave no doubt about the way they figure this World Cup: The first three favorites are from Latin America. The bookies know that no team from Europe has ever won a World Cup played in the Western Hemisphere. As always, the banana-yellow shirts of BRAZIL cast their spell. The Brazilians are the 3-to-1 favorites in spite of the fact that those yellow shirts got muddied during a disastrous European tour in March, when the team lost to West Germany 2-0 and Hungary 3-0. But those games were played in what, to the South Americans, was arctic weather (the boys from Brazil wore gloves). And a few of the country's best players did not compete because they were serving with clubs in Italy. Critics point out that some of Brazil's stars, notably Falcao, Socrates and Zico, are over 30. But there are new stars rising—Casagrande, for example, who scored two of Brazil's six goals in the qualifying round.
Next on the form chart is ARGENTINA, at 4 to 1. Once again, a bad-news pre-Cup tour in Europe that included a 2-0 beating in Paris suggests that the team might be overrated, as do reports that Diego Maradona, at 152 pounds, is carrying too much weight for his 5'4¼" frame. Nevertheless, with Maradona at his peak and joined on the attack by 21-year-old Claudio Borghi, Argentina and not Brazil should take the Cup. URUGUAY is a 7-to-1 choice, based on the brilliance of 24-year-old striker Enzo Francescoli, who plays for the River Plate Club in Buenos Aires. On May 11 a French club agreed to purchase Francescoli's contract for a reported $4 million. MEXICO is a 12-to-1 shot, and the odds would be even longer if in the 12 previous World Cups the host nation had not won five times. Because the economically troubled country could use the victory, Mexico had its national team members released from all domestic competition for an entire season so that they could train together. If a bruised left knee slows down world-class striker Hugo Sanchez, Mexico will be in trouble. Without him, Mexico lost 3-0 to England in a warmup game in Los Angeles on May 17. Even if Sanchez gets healthy, Mexico will probably not make it past the quarterfinals.
Of the European teams, ENGLAND and ITALY have the best hope. Humidity, altitude and temperature will work against the Europeans, as will the absurdity—for the sake of television—of kickoffs in the noonday sun. Italy has a magnificent World Cup tradition, with three wins including 1982, and the team boasts such excellent new players as Aldo Serena. Only two teams have won back-to-back Cups: Brazil, in '58 and '62, and Italy, in '34 and '38. Look for Italy to make it to the final. England is coming off a 1-0 tune-up victory over the U.S.S.R. in the Georgian city of Tblisi. It was the first time since 1980 that a foreign team had won—or even scored—in the Soviet Union. If midfielder Bryan Robson and striker Mark Hateley are fit, England will make a strong run.
France, the current European champion, has Michel Platini, one of the most talented players in the world, though away from Paris the French are not terribly convincing. DENMARK, with fine players like winger Jesper Olsen and striker Michael Laudrup, could be the surprise of the tournament. A contender, as always, is WEST GERMANY, which is now managed by Franz Beckenbauer, who took over from Jupp Derwall after the team's poor showing in the 1984 European championship.
Belgium, which had to win a playoff against the Netherlands to qualify for Mexico, and SPAIN, which failed to win a second-round game when it hosted the last Cup, in 1982, lead the long shots, along with PARAGUAY, the lowest-rated of the Latins. Paraguay, though, has a fine goalie in Roberto "El Gato" (The Cat) Fernandez and—names that will be familiar to followers of the late lamented Cosmos—Roberto Caba√±as and Julio Cesar Romero. IRAQ, CANADA and SOUTH KOREA provide the longest odds at 500 to 1. South Korea, though, has a feisty midfielder, Kim Jong Boo, who made a hit in the 1983 World Youth Cup. African representatives MOROCCO and ALGERIA are each 250 to 1, even though the former provided the shock of 1982 by beating West Germany, and both nations can draw on experienced players seasoned in France.
Northern Ireland will have difficulty running in the Mexican heat, as will SCOTLAND, BULGARIA, POLAND and HUNGARY, although the latter, at 25 to 1, seems like the bargain of the competition. The Hungarians are coming on strongly at just the right time, with powerful, fast young players like 23-year-old midfielder Lajos Detari. The U.S.S.R., meanwhile, was made to look disorganized in its home loss to England, and PORTUGAL seems entirely unpredictable.
The World Cup, though, has a history of making nonsense of too many assumptions, as evidenced by scores such as U.S. 1, England 0 (Brazil, 1950); North Korea 1, Italy 0 (England, 1966); and Algeria 2, West Germany 1 (Spain, 1982). Not even the wisest prognosticators know whether some unknown 17-year-old is ready to burst upon the scene, as happened in Sweden in 1958 when that Brazilian kid made his debut. Uh, what was his name? Edson Arantes do Nascimento? That's it. But he liked you to call him Pelé.