|Profiles - World Cup Teams - Argentina|
Argentina, rather than four-times champions Brazil, are set to lead South
America's challenge at the 2002 World Cup.
They swept through the marathon qualifying competition with 13 wins in 18 games, a record which makes it clear that they must be considered among the title favourites.
Argentina played the same fluent, attacking football whether they were in the tropical heat of Venezuela's oil capital Maracaibo, the thin air of Andean cities such as La Paz, the hostile surroundings of Paraguay's Defenders of the Chaco stadium or at home in Buenos Aires.
A midfield inspired by Juan Sebastian Veron, one of the world's most complete footballers, and the snarling Diego Simeone provides the ammunition for a lethal attack headed by Lazio's Hernan Crespo, who scored nine of their 42 goals in the tournament.
Coach Marcelo Bielsa's biggest problem may be deciding which of strikers Crespo and Gabriel Batitusta to leave out.
He remains convinced the pair, two of the world's best forwards, are incompatible, meaning that one will have to take an unfamiliar place on the substitutes' bench.
Batitusta, who is set to quit the national team after the World Cup, began the qualifiers as first choice but lost his place to Crespo due to a knee injury and was unable to win it back.
The intrigue is likely to continue in the run-up to the Cup.
Argentina's squad are nearly all seasoned campaigners based with major European clubs, so much so that locally-based stars such as Boca Juniors' sublimely gifted midfielder Juan Roman Riquelme have not managed to force their way into the squad.
Eleven individuals do not make a team, however, and one of Bielsa's most important attributes is to have found his base and stuck by it, installing an close-knit atmosphere that would be the envy of many clubs.
Argentina have twice won the World Cup, in 1978 and 1986, but their history has a dark side.
The infamous quarter-final against England in 1966, Diego Maradona's Hand of God goal 20 years later and a tendency for violence and gamesmanship have often made them unpopular with neutrals.
When they hosted and won the competition in 1978, it was under the sinister shadow of one of South America's most notorious military dictatorships. In 1990, they became the first team to have two players sent off in a World Cup final and four years later, the team was rocked by the Diego Maradona doping scandal.
But times have changed.
Apart from the theatricals of Ariel Ortega and the menacing presence of Simeone, a player who seems instinctively to know how much he can get away with without being sent off, Argentina are no worse than any other modern, professional team.
They even picked up the Fair Play trophies at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta and the 2001 World Youth championships, which the country hosted - and won in great style - earlier that year.