French feast to comfort soccer starved

IN THEORY, this competition has everything

IN THEORY, this competition has everything. It features the reigning World Champions, Brazil, complete with the most-talked-about footballer of the moment, Ronaldo. Some of the greatest talents on the contemporary scene - Italy's Gianfranco Zola, England's Alan Shearer, France's Youri Djorkaeff, not to mention "other" Brazilians such as Romario, Ald air, Roberto Carlos, Dunga, Leonardo, etc - are all scheduled to play. And to top it all, there's even "Gazza" himself, England's controversial midflelder Paul Gascoigne.

Yes, just when you thought the soccer season was over up pops "Le Tournoi De France", a four-nation tournament starting this evening and involving no lesser sides than France, Brazil, England and Italy. In theory, it might have everything, in practice, this warm-up for the World Cup finals in France a year from now may prove relatively meaningless.

Coming at the end of the long, hard European season, this is a competition which all the players would have gladly foregone.

This "Tournoi", of course, has not been staged for their benefit, but rather for that of soccer's bureaucrats. It is the brainchild of France '98 supremo, Michel Platini, who was keen to stage a sort of dummy-run for the World Cup finals themselves.

Unlike the players, international coaches are usually happy enough with a prestige tournament since it affords them an opportunity to experiment with formations and try out different players in a relatively meaningful context. Even here, however, the coaches are not in agreement since the current requirements of France's Aimee Jacquet and Brazil's Mario Zagalo, on the one hand, are diametrically opposed to those of England's Glenn Hoddle and Italy's Cesare Maldini.

France and Brazil, as host nation and reigning World Champions, are currently deprived of competitive soccer and there is no doubt that both Jacquet and Zagalo are looking forward to the chance to test their players and ideas in circumstances that should at least prove more demanding than the sort of friendly calendar which has seen Brazil pit itself against the "might" of Cameroon, Lithuania and Bosnia recently.

Inevitably, however, the other two coaches, Hoddle and Maldini, view the "Tournoi" with rather less enthusiasm and for the obvious reason that next October in Rome, Italy play host to England in a Group Two qualifier that, in the wake of England's 2-0 win against Poland in Chorzow on Saturday, has assumed a "Do or Die" quality.

In reality, England's good result on Saturday means that all will be at stake in the Olympic Stadium in Rome, with England capable of knocking Italy off the top of the table with an away win. All of which complicates the two coaches' tasks in preparing their sides for their confrontation in Nantes tomorrow night.

Whatever about England's currently ebullient mood, Italy and Maldini are likely to play their cards close to the chest.

Maldini could, in theory, name exactly the side which started in Italy's dramatic 1-0 win against England in that February Group Two qualifier at Wembley. He may start with the same side, but he will not be much concerned if the result is not the same.

Although traditional in his very "Italian" vision of soccer and although he has used basically the same squad for his five games in charge since taking over as Italian coach just before Christmas, Maldini proved more flexible than some might have expected when naming Inter Milan goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca and three uncapped players - 25-year-old Vicenza midfielder Giampiero Maini, 27-year-old Piacenza midfielder Eusebio Di Francesco and 26-year-old Bologna defender Stefano Torrisi - in his squad this week.

From the strictly footballing viewpoint, perhaps "Le Tournoi" will at least offer some insight into the sort of Brazil with which Mario Zagalo would like to defend the world title. How does the "dream attack" of Romario (Flamengo) and Ronaldo (Barcelona this week) function? Can the midfield hold Lenoardo (Paris SG), Giovanni (Barcelona), Mauro Silva (La Coruna) and Edmundo (Vasco Da Gama) all together? Does "old man" Carlo Dunga, 33, and now playing with Jubilo in Japan, still have a critical role in the side.

Perhaps, we may get some indications, starting this evening, when France open the "Tournoi" against Brazil in Lyon. We may also get some indications about the host country, beaten European Championship semi-finalists in England last summer, but not that impressive in going so far.

French coach Aimee Jacquet is handling arguably the most talented collection of French players since the 1984 European Championship-winning squad of Michel Platini himself.

However, what is his optimal blend? Didier Deschamps (Juventus), Christian Karembeu (Sampdoria), Youri Djorkaeff (Inter Milan) and Zinedine Zidane (Juventus) looks unbeatable on paper as a midfield formation, but do they gel?

How good is the "revelation" of the French season, Bordeaux's Ibrahim Ba, soon to become an AC Milan player? How do you find room for Marcel Desailly (AC Milan), Lilian Thuram (Parma), Bruno N'Gotty (Paris SG), Vincent Candela (AS Roma) and Laurent Blanc (Barcelona) in the same defence?

If your soccer appetite is still strong, even in this first week of June, then tune in to the "Tournoi" for some answers.