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Hooligans, Group D a threat at WC '06

The weakest group could create the most trouble when Portugal faces former colony Angola in Germany.

india Updated: May 11, 2006 19:06 IST

Hooligans always are a threat at the World Cup.

Group D could provide trouble at this year's tournament, though the problems are not expected to come from the usual thugs and bullies.

Instead, the weakest group at the tournament in Germany could create the most trouble when Portugal faces former colony Angola, and Iran faces just about anyone.

Mexico is the seeded team in the group.

Iran is making its third World Cup appearance. With Tehran's nuclear ambitions and its president's verbal attacks on Israel, the off-field issues have led to calls for Iran to be banned from playing.

Angola gained its independence from Portugal in 1975, and has played its former colonial power only twice, losing 6-0 in 1989 and 5-1 in 2001.

At the last match in Lisbon, four Angolan players were sent off for brutal tackles and dissent, and the game was abandoned with 20 minutes to play.

Portugal, unbeaten in its World Cup qualifying campaign, will be more worried about redeeming itself.

At the World Cup four years ago, Portugal lost to South Korea and the United States and was eliminated in the first round. The Portuguese rebounded two years later by reaching the final at the European Championship, and has another strong squad heading to Germany.

Not to mention a Brazilian coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, who is trying to win the World Cup with his second team. "I have a shot at that. Let's see how things go and whether I deserve it," said Scolari, who led Brazil to its fifth title in South Korea and Japan.

Still, Scolari is wary of being overly optimistic. "There will be more hurdles and difficulties (in Germany) than at Euro 2004. We have to keep our feet firmly on the ground, especially the players," Scolari said.

Luis Figo, the team's top player, said Portugal always has had problems when in an "apparently easy group." But he seems ready to make amends.

"Smart people don't make the same mistake twice," the Inter Milan midfielder said.

Besides Figo, Portugal also can rely on Manchester United winger Cristiano Ronaldo, FC Barcelona's Brazilian-born midfielder Deco, dangerous scorer Pauleta of Paris Saint-Germain and a backline that boasts Chelsea defenders Ricardo Carvalho and Paulo Ferreira. But when African teams meet their former colonial powers, strange things can happen. Just ask France. At the last World Cup, Senegal upset the defending champions in the opening match. Angola coach Luis Oliveira Goncalves and the rest of the country will be hoping for a repeat.

"We have a saying in Angola that goes, 'Hope is the last thing to die.' But we know our limits," Goncalves said. "We don't have good training conditions and we don't have many players in big European teams."

Fabrice Akwa and Benfica striker Pedro Mantorras are the team's stars. Akwa scored the goal against Rwanda that helped Angola qualify for the World Cup for the first time.

Mexico, which reached the second round in 2002 but lost to the United States, looks to have its best team in decades. But the pressure to reach the quarterfinals could be troublesome for coach Ricardo Lavolpe.

"We are trying to reach new goals. We have been working hard and the objective is to rank among the top four in the World Cup," Lavolpe said.

Mexico twice has reached the quarterfinals, at home in 1970 and 1986.

Lavolpe has no shortage of reasons to be optimistic, however. Goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez of Chivas is one of the best in the world, and the defense is led by Barcelona winger Rafael Marquez. The team also has two star strikers _ Jared Borgetti of Bolton and Guillermo Franco, an Argentine who was naturalized a Mexican and plays for Villarreal.

"Expectations are very high and this makes things complicated," Marquez said. "I think we will have to work very hard to deal with that mentally ... sometimes we are our own worst enemy." Iran coach Branko Ivankovic is concerned only about soccer. "We want to surprise the world, because now we are capable of beating anyone and we are not going to Germany as tourists," Ivankovic said.

Iran has drawn once and lost four times in its two previous World Cups, with its only win coming against political nemesis the United States in 1998.

Now the team is anchored by veterans such as striker Ali Daei and Bayern Munich playmaker Ali Karimi.

European-based players such as forward Mehdi Mahdavikia of Hamburger SV, Vahid Hashemian of Hannover 96, Kaiserslautern midfielder Fereydoon Zandi, Bochum's Moharram Navidkia and Messina defender Rahman Rezaei are also expected to shine. "We have a great mix of experienced internationals and enthusiastic young players," Ivankovic said.

First Published: May 11, 2006 19:06 IST