PICKING BRAZIL to win next summer's World Cup is about as provocative as a Saturday Evening Post cover, and so you'll have a hard time finding any takers (SI included) to bet against the five-time champions. Just pick up the phone and call Franz Beckenbauer, the German legend and World Cup organizing committee chief, who argues that Brazil (model 2006) is in a class of its own. "If you see the Brazilian players, they're completely different," says the Kaiser. "They are not footballers, they are like dancers." So loaded are the Brazilians that at least one of their magnificent attackers--Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Adriano, Robinho or Kakà--will likely ride the bench.
The more suspenseful question: Which challenger will give Brazil the best competition for the garish 12-pound gold trophy? Not host Germany (too young). Not England (star striker Wayne Rooney is too combustible). Not Argentina (still haunted by the ghost of Diego Maradona). And certainly not Italy (fast becoming an Old Europe soccer relic).
No, the best bet to go toe-to-toe with Brazil is France. Les Bleus have hardly lorded over world soccer recently, needing a late surge just to qualify for Germany 2006 after the unretirement of midfield maestro Zinedine Zidane. But the French side is experienced, fabulously talented--see Zidane, striker Thierry Henry and midfielder Patrick Vieira--and eager to show that its first-round exit in '02 was a fluke. (Early-ending club seasons should allow top players to be more rested for the World Cup this time around.) Chuckling? Think back to the last highly skilled team to limp into a World Cup with low expectations. The year was 2002. The team was Brazil. It won the championship.
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NEXTEL NEXT NASCAR's Carl Edwards will perform plenty of his postvictory backflips as he charges to his first Nextel Cup championship.
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SILVIA IZQUIERDO/AP (ROBINHO)
FULL CUP Robinho will help Brazil to a record sixth.