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Argentina - A Favorite in World Cup With Many Challenges Ahead - 2002-05-14

Argentina ranks third in world football behind France and Brazil as it enters its 13th World Cup finals, this year co-hosted by South Korea and Japan. The two-time champion is again among the favorites to lift the trophy.

Argentina breezed through World Cup qualifying by scoring 13 wins, one loss and four ties against nine other South American teams. Argentina now finds itself in Group "F," perhaps the toughest because it includes England, Sweden and Nigeria.

Despite the difficult opening round in Japan, international football commentator Derek Rae says Argentina still has to be a top pick to win the tournament.

"Argentina, along with [defending champion] France, are most people's favorite to win the World Cup finals," he noted. "And I would probably go along with that, but for the fact that looking down the road a little bit, the draw could be quite tricky for Argentina. In fact, they may run into France sooner than they would like."

Argentina's roster is filled with experienced players, many who are based with major European clubs. According to Mr. Rae, there is so much talent that the biggest problem Argentina may face is who plays and who sits on the bench.

"Argentina is blessed with so much talent," he said. "The question marks really are up front, what does [coach] Marcelo Bielsa do? Does he decide to play Hernan Crespo, who sometimes comes into criticism but seems to be his first choice striker. Will there be room for Javier Saviola, the young Barcelona "boy wonder?" [He has] so many options, perhaps too many options."

In 1990, Argentina became the first team to have two players sent off during the World Cup. Four years later, the team was rocked by the Diego Maradona doping scandal. But Argentina now appears to have overcome some of its unpleasant history as gets ready for its first round games in Japan and perhaps a third World Cup title.