CHICAGO -- The world's most popular sporting event takes center stage today, complete with its passion, pageantry, sellout crowds and increased security.
World Cup '94 begins with Germany playing Bolivia at Soldier Field in what many believe is the beginning of a second straight march to the championship for the Germans.
But can Germany's fine technique and grinding, never-say-die offense outlast the flashy ball-handling and soft touch passing of Brazil? Can any team run with Nigeria? Does Argentina have enough left for one more World Cup title? Will Italy's offense click in time?
In the first round, each team plays the others in its group, %J earning three points for a victory and one for a tie. The top two teams in each group, based on point standings (with goal differential as the first tiebreaker), and the four third-place teams with the best records advance to the second round.
From then on, the tournament becomes single-elimination.
"I think it's wide-open," said Bora Milutinovic, the U.S. coach. "All the Latin teams are strong, and there is always Germany and Italy. Maybe we sneak in there somewhere, huh?"
There is little chance of the United States, with its questionable defense, becoming a force in this tournament, but a victory and xTC a tie should be good enough to get the Americans out of the first round. The shift to the defensive style of play in the 1990 World Cup also could provide for more Cinderella teams like Romania, Belgium and Colombia.
The games of the 1990 World Cup produced an all-time-low average of 2.21 goals. Fifteen of 52 games at Italia '90 ended in 1-0 scores. Five more games produced 0-0 scores, though some were decided on penalty kicks and were officially recorded as 1-0 scores.
The world is looking for another Pele or Maradona, someone who can do magical things with the ball. There's a short list, like Italy's Roberto Baggio, the Netherlands' Dennis Bergkamp, Brazil's Romario and Bebeto and Argentina's Claudio Caniggia.
But because of the new defensive strategy, the winner most likely will have to be disciplined and very organized.
"If there's anything that separates Germany from the front-runners it's that they're so methodical," said U.S. goalie Tony Meola. "They seldom are they caught out of position. They're always in great shape and they are relentless."
Said Paul Kennedy, an editor for Soccer America: "No team prepared better for the World Cup than the Germans did. The defending champs have the talent and the depth to go all the way."
Germany, which will compete in Group C, returns nine of 11 starters from its last World Cup team, including sweeper Lothar Matthaeus and strikers Rudi Voeller and Juergen Klinsmann.
"In long matches, the winner is often the one with the most endurance at the end," said Andreas Baingo, business office director for the Berlin Union football club. "Germans are famous for this. Second lungs."
Brazil, which along with Italy and Germany has won three World Cup titles, has its own heritage and style. A lot of the Brazilian players use one name.
Their country is the only one to have qualified for every World Cup. And the Brazilians remember with great fondness their Pele-led World Cup team of 1970, considered by some to be one of the greatest teams ever assembled.
The Brazilians are famous for their improvisation, too. They do neat little twists and turns with the ball and take shots with all kinds of bends on them.
"Talent- and skill-wise, there is no team that can compare with Brazil," said Soccer America columnist Paul Gardner. "Everyone likes watching them play, and if they're on, they could run away with this."
Former U.S. defender Desmond Armstrong says the Brazilians also have extra motivation. Brazil, which will compete in Group B, had a 3-0 lead over Germany last summer, but allowed the Germans to come back and manage a 3-3 tie.
Argentina will challenge Nigeria in Group D. Argentina has a rich history, but this could be a final run at greatness for the team that was runner-up in 1990 and champion in 1978 and 1986.
Maradona is 33, and his skills are no longer a level above the other players. Caniggia is a star, but returning from a year-long drug suspension. Defender Oscar Ruggieri is past his prime and goalkeeper Sergio Goycochea has been inconsistent.
If Argentina is to make a move, Maradona has to regain some of the old form, Caniggia must dominate quickly and help Gabriel Batistuta carry the scoring load.
Nigeria won the African Nations Cup this spring, and is led by striker Rashidi Yekini, who scored five goals in the event, and Emmanuel Amunike, who scored both goals in the final, a 2-0 win over Zambia.
Italy, the front-runner in Group E, has great potential, but coach Arrigo Sacchi has been criticized for not settling on a lineup, and especially for not sorting out the midfielders and forwards. He has sometimes used the brilliant Baggio as a striker and sometimes as an attacking midfielder, the role Baggio prefers.
Against Costa Rica in Italy's final tuneup match last Saturday, he replaced midfielders Nicola Berti and Dino Baggio (no relation to Roberto) with Daniele Massaro and Roberto Donadoni at halftime, and almost immediately the attack picked up; Italy won, 1-0.
Oddly, Sacchi says he wants to use a 4-3-3 alignment, but he has only two true forwards on his roster, Giuseppe Signori (who over his career has scored 60 goals in 88 games in the Italian first division), and Pierluigi Casiraghi, a center forward good in the air, who often does not start.
Colombia should be the leader in Group A, and the Netherlands is expected to win Group B.
Expect no surprises, says Franz Beckenbauer, who captained Germany's 1974 champions and coached its 1990 champions. "The traditional countries will get to the final of the World Cup," he said.
L * Germany vs. Bolivia at Chicago, 3:05 p.m., ESPN, Univision
NB * Spain vs. South Korea at Dallas, 7:35 p.m., ESPN2, Univision
* United States vs. Switzerland at Pontiac, Mich., 11:35 a.m., chs. 13, 7, Univision
* Italy vs. Ireland at East Rutherford, N.J., 4:05 p.m., ESPN, Univision
* Colombia vs. Romania at Pasadena, Calif., 7:35 p.m., ESPN, Univision
* Belgium vs. Morocco at Orlando, Fla., 12:35 p.m., ESPN, Univision
* Norway vs. Mexico at Washington, 4:05 p.m., ESPN, Univision
* Cameroon vs. Sweden at Pasadena, Calif., 7:35 p.m., ESPN2, Univision