Women of the World: The Class of '99

When the Women's World Cup kicks off on Saturday, the United States team enters as one of the favorites, playing intelligent, entertaining soccer and having done more for the public profile of U.S. women's sports than a whole year of Gabrielle Reece magazine covers.

But how good is the competition? At least four other teams are regarded to have the strength to challenge the U.S., while a number of others have the talent to leave Mia and Co. Hamm-strung. Here's a look at the Women's World Cup Class of '99:

Group A

class bully: North Korea One of the most aggressive teams in the competition: past performances suggest Korea will resort to strong-arm tactics (no political pun intended) if they can't control the game using their feet.

hall monitor: Denmark Strictly a B outfit, Denmark was undefeated in European qualifying but might struggle to outplay stronger opposition in the finals.

class showoff: Nigeria An explosive attacking team, Nigeria dominated African qualifying to make it to its third successive World Cup. The Super Falcons, who just beat a championship caliber China squad, will be duking it out with Denmark for a quarterfinal spot.

Group B

most improved pupil: Brazil After years of mediocrity, Brazil came on strong at the Atlanta Olympics, where they made the semifinals. This year, Brazil scored 66 goals on the camino de la copa with talent in depth featuring goalie Maravilha, and striker Pretinha and midfielder Sissi. Considered a good bet for the semis.

class ringer: Mexico Stuffed with U.S.­born Mexican Americans, including three-time Cal­Santa Barbara All-American Laurie Hil, the Mexican team catapulted itself into its first ever World Cup. Best chance of winning: drafting another ringer, Luis Hernandez wearing pigtails.

most committed to succeed: Germany Runners-up in the '95 World Cup, the German women demonstrate many of the qualities of their male counterparts: strong organization, discipline, and no-frills attacking talent. Could go all the way. One to watch: defender Steffi Jones, daughter of a U.S. serviceman.

most envious of their big brothers: Italy Though Italy won their European qualifying group, they are not considered strong enough to get out of the first round, despite the presence of Antonella Carta, one of the best midfielders in the Cup.

Group C

second-best north american team: Canada Even with striker Charmaine Hooper, who scored two goals against the U.S. two weeks ago, the Maple Leafs' chances are slim. They lack depth in all areas and have no past Cup successes to call upon.

class bully in waiting: Russia Fourteen members of the Russian squad weigh 140 pounds or more with midfield giant Tatiana Egorova acting as the enforcer at 5-10 and 165 pounds. At least now we know where those Russian Army rations have been going. Strength aside, the Russians are unlikely to trouble the real big girls but could pip Canada for a second round berth.

most likely to be picked on: Japan A very accomplished side, and a quarterfinalist in '95. Japan has the best- organized women's professional league in the world but this national team will struggle to control games against more physical squads. One to watch: midfielder Homare Sawa.

class valedictorian: Norway The defending World Cup champions, and still the ones to beat. Only the U.S. has stayed with Norway consistently through the '90s. Now, they might meet again in the finals and revenge their loss in '91 while striking a blow against the ugly long-ball game.

Group D

most likely to succeed: China With seven wins in World Cup warm-up games (two against the U.S.), the Chinese seem to be peaking at just the right moment. Could they meet the U.S. for a third time this year on July 10?

Worst Class Nickname: Australia Lisa Casagrande and Sharon Black drive this attacking minded side, which racked up scores of 21-0 and 17-0 against qualifying teams. Still, a suspect defense when facing top-notch opposition suggests they won't get out of the first round. Calling themselves the Matildas guarantees it.

Best Class Nickname: Ghana Official cliché of WWC '99: Ghana is the unknown force in this tournament. What is known is that they beat out South Africa and Cameroon to get here. They call themselves the Black Queens, how can they fail?

Sits Next To Norway In Class: Sweden has rebuilt its team since a disappointing showing as host in '95. It didn't lose a game in qualifying for WWC '99 and with a bit of luck could end up in the semifinal.

 
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