Players to watch this summer

 

DO THE NAMES Davor Sukor, Oliver Bierhoff, Yuri Nikiforov, Rui Costa, Zinedine Zidane, Enrico Chiesa and Karel Poborsky say much to Irish soccer fans? For the time being, probably not. In two months time, however, one of the above may well have written his name into both headlines and the record books when making the leap from `understudy' to `star' at this summer's Euro 96 finals in England.

Major championship finals regularly throw up previously unknown (at least internationally) stars. Italy's Paolo Rossi at Argentina 78, Spain 82, Germany's Bernd Schuster at Italia 80, Holland's Marco Van Basten at Germany 88 and Italy's Toto Schillaci at Italia 90 are just some famous names who burst on to the international scene at tournaments where they had not even been certain to make the national team squad.

Paolo Rossi had played in just two friendlies before being chosen to partner Juventus striker Roberto Bettega in Italy's 1978 World Cup finals' opening game against France. Rossi scored in a 2-1 win for Italy (in a game famous for a first minute opening goal from French striker Bernard Lacombe) and went on to score two more goals at those finals. A new star had arrived.

Bernd Schuster was a promising 20 year old, playing his way into the German team prior to the 1980 European Championship finals.

By the end of the tournament, he had established himself as arguably the outstanding European playmaker of his day, inspiring Germany to the title at the same time.

Marco Van Basten almost walked out on the eve of the 1988 European Championship finals in Germany. Because of his infamous ankle problems, Van Basten had only returned to competitive soccer just weeks before those finals and doubts about his fitness prompted coach Rinus Michels to tell Van Basten that he was by no means guaranteed a team place. After being dropped for the opening match, Van Basten won his chance, scored six goals and inspired Holland to the title.

"Toto" Schillaci had just one cap in a friendly three months before the tournament when he exploded on to the international scene at Italia 90, coming on as a substitute for Andrea Carnevale to score the winning goal in Italy's opening game, a 1-0 defeat of Austria. From then on, Schillaci retained his place to end up the tournament's leading goalscorer with six goals.

It is worth remembering, however, that although all of the above proved a huge surprise to international audiences, all of them had already done enough at club level to merit their chance.

Rossi had been a "revelation" with Vicenza, Schuster the discovery of the Bundesliga season, Van Basten had already moved to AC Milan in Italy and Schillaci had been the leading Juventus goalscorer before their respective international affirmations.

So, if careful analysis of the form book can identify potential stars, then players like Sukor, Bierhoff, Zidane, Chiesa, Rui Costa, Poborsky and Nikiforov clearly have the right stuff.

At 27 years of age, striker Davor Sukor of Croatia and Seville is no youngster, but until now he has had no international opportunities since the qualifying rounds for Euro 96 represented the first competitive outing for newly independent Croatia, formerly part of ex Yugoslavia.

As this column has regularly pointed out, Croatia could be one of the tournament dark horses and in such a side where more media (and opposition) attention may be concentrated on names such as Zvonimir Boban (AC Milan), Alen Boksic (Lazio) and Robert Prosinecki (Barcelona), Sukor could do very well indeed. His two goals in a 2-1 humiliation of Italy in Palermo in November 1994 will be long remembered.

Germany and Udinese striker Oliver Bierhoff is also 27 years of age and late to arrive on the international stage. Capped just twice, Bierhoff appeared to take his chance with both feet when scoring both goals in a 2-0 friendly win against Denmark two weeks ago.

Tall and very useful in the air, Bierhoff is also sharp on the ground as evidenced by 14 goals so far this season with Italian relegation battlers Udinese. His Euro 96 prospects are obviously enhanced by playing for one of the strongest sides in the finals - if he is selected of course.

When Bordeaux recently sprang a major surprise by eliminating AC Milan from the UEFA Cup, former French great Michel Plating singled out 23 year old Zinedine Zidane for praise. In what has been a bright period for French soccer, with Nantes, Bordeaux and Paris St Germain all through to the semi final stages of the three European club competitions, Zidane has the class to crown it all with a bright showing in England.

Czech midfielder Karel Poborsky's role in the Slavia Prague UEFA Cup run this season, libero Yuri Nikiforov's captaincy of both Russia and Spartak Moscow (in particular in the first half of the Champions League programme). Portuguese schemer Rui Costa's important contribution to Fiorentina's good run in Serie A and the uncapped Enrico Chiesa's 16 goals so far for Sampdoria are all reasons why they too could bring off major "surprises" at Euro 96. Don't say we didn't warn you.