Football: World Cup 1998: The countdown to France's festival of football

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The Finals

The World Cup finals start on Wednesday 10 June. The final is at the new Stade de France in Paris on Sunday 12 July.

The draw for the World Cup finals will take place in Marseilles on Thursday 4 December. A record number of 32 teams will take part in the finals, which will feature 64 matches.

Finals format: First round: Eight groups of four teams. Second round: Last 16 (group winners and runners-up) knock-out. Quarter- finals: Last eight knock-out. Semi-finals: Last four knock-out.

Already qualified Hosts

France Holders

Brazil Europe Norway Bulgaria Spain Romania South America Argentina Colombia Paraguay Africa Nigeria Morocco Tunisia South Africa Cameroon

Still to qualify: Europe: 11 more teams (six to be decided today). South America: One more team. Concacaf: Three teams. Asia-Oceania: Four teams.

Europe

Qualification process: The first round of European qualification ends today with the nine group winners and the best runner-up (see runners-up standings) qualifying directly for the finals.

The other eight runners-up will be drawn on Monday in four pairs and play qualifying matches on a home and away basis on 29 October and 15 November. The four winners on aggregate will also qualify for the finals.

European Group One

P W D L F A Pts

Denmark 7 5 1 1 14 6 16

Greece 7 4 1 2 11 4 13

Croatia 7 3 3 1 14 11 12

Bosnia 8 3 0 5 9 14 9

Slovenia 7 0 1 6 4 17 1

Remaining fixtures: Today: Greece v Denmark; Slovenia v Croatia.

Denmark, who have recalled the Middlesbrough forward Mikkel Beck, travel to the cauldron of the Olympic stadium in Athens knowing that a draw will ensure qualification for France. A Greek win, however, would earn the home side top place on goal difference.

If the Greeks don't win they are likely to miss out altogether, though, because Croatia can be expected to gain maximum points away to their Balkan neighbours, Slovenia, the section's bottom team. That would be enough to earn the Croats a play-off place - unless Greece win.

One to watch

Brian Laudrup (Denmark)

After the Danes were crushed by Croatia at Euro 96, few would have expected Denmark to be where are now: four points ahead of the Croats. The outstanding Rangers forward can take much of the credit: he scored a late leveller in a 1-1 draw in Croatia and opened the scoring in a 3-1 home win over the Croats. When he was absent, the Danes were done 3-0 in Bosnia...

Group Two

P W D L F A Pts

England 7 6 0 1 15 2 18

Italy 7 5 2 0 11 1 17

Poland 7 3 1 3 10 9 10

Georgia 7 2 1 4 4 9 7

Moldova 8 0 0 8 2 21 0

Remaining fixtures: Today: Italy v England; Georgia v Poland.

In contrast to Group One, the qualification equation is simple. If England draw or win, their fans can start booking their Eurostar tickets. They might even qualify today if they lose - as long as the Scots do not win.

England have worries over David Beckham (heavy cold) and Gareth Southgate (thigh injury) while Italy's only known fitness worry, the experienced sweeper Ciro Ferrara, is on the road to recovery from a knee injury.

Italy's Gianfranco Zola has said that his countrymen are at their best when they are up against it. Tonight, we will find out if that is true...

One to watch

Teddy Sheringham (England)

Not, perhaps, the obvious choice as England's man of the qualifying series but, if Hoddle's team get a draw in Rome and top the group despite taking only one point off Italy, they can thank Sheringham, who scored in both Poland and Georgia to help England to away wins which were beyond the Italians against the same opposition.

Group Three

P W D L F A Pts

Norway (Q) 8 6 2 0 21 2 20

Hungary 7 3 2 2 9 7 11

Finland 7 3 1 3 10 11 10

Switzerland 7 2 1 4 6 12 7

Azerbaijan 7 1 0 6 3 17 3

Remaining fixtures: Today: Finland v Hungary; Switzerland v Azerbaijan.

Norway have won the group easily, so all that remains to be decided is the play-off place. With home advantage, Finland ought to be able to see off a Hungarian side who have nothing in common except nationality with the mighty Magyars of the early 1950s.

Jari Litmanen of Ajax is a class act, while all his Finnish team-mates have learned much from their coach, Richard Moller Nielsen, who steered Denmark to success in the 1992 European Championship. However, Rangers' Antti Niemi is injured so the Finns must choose between two inexperienced understudies in goal.

One to watch

Erik Mykland (Norway)

In winning their group, Norway have been untested by world-class opposition. In May, though, a full-strength Brazil were beaten 4-2 in a friendly in Oslo. Tore Andre Flo and Ronny Johnsen were both in fine form but after the game Romario wanted to know the name of the player who stole the show with some thrilling runs from midfield. The answer: Erik Mykland, who adds flair to a functional team.

Group Four

P W D L F A Pts

Austria 9 7 1 1 13 4 22

Scotland 9 6 2 1 13 3 20

Sweden 9 6 0 3 15 9 18

Latvia 9 3 1 5 10 12 10

Estonia 9 1 1 7 4 15 4

Belarus 9 1 1 7 5 17 4

Remaining fixtures: Today: Austria v Belarus; Scotland v Latvia; Sweden v Estonia.

Austria are inconsistent, but they should be far too good for Belarus and thus win the group. If Scotland also win, at home to Latvia, they will reach the finals as the best of the second-placed teams. Sweden, who will surely beat Estonia, can snatch second place in the unlikely event of the Scots losing in Glasgow.

Scotland must not be complacent, though. Although their best player, Vitaly Astafyev, is suspended, the Latvians are a decent side who have benefited from the European experience of their top club, Skonto Riga.

One to watch

Andreas Herzog (Austria)

The best Austrian player of his generation. A midfielder who plays his club football for Werder Bremen in Germany's Bundesliga, he scored the only goal of a crucial qualifier in Sweden and repeated the feat at home to the Swedes - a game Austria won despite finishing the game with nine men. He will have a foot operation next week and will be out for up to five months.

Group Five

P W D L F A Pts

Bulgaria (Q) 7 6 0 1 16 5 18

Russia 7 4 2 1 15 3 14

Israel 8 4 1 3 9 7 13

Cyprus 7 2 1 4 8 15 7

Luxembourg 7 0 0 7 2 20 0

Remaining fixtures: Today: Cyprus v Luxembourg; Russia v Bulgaria.

Whatever happens today, the top two placings in this group will not change.Bulgaria have qualified for France with the nucleus of the team who reached the last four in 1994: Ivanov, Balakov, Lechkov, Stoichkov and Kostadinov. The new players, including Georgi Bachev and Georgi Ivanov, both just promoted from the Under-21 squad, are untested at top level.

Russia have rarely looked fluent in the qualifiers and have recalled two veterans for today's game: Igor Dobrovolski and the former Millwall striker Sergei Yuran, now with VfL Bochum in the German Bundesliga.

One to watch

Trifon Ivanov (Bulgaria)

The captain of Bulgaria is one of Europe's most-feared - and hairiest - defenders. He also scores vital goals, including the only goal of the game against Russia in Sofia last month, a victory which confirmed Bulgaria's place in France. A charismatic player who has become something of a cult hero in western Europe, Ivanov will make his mark on the finals in more ways than one...

Group Six

P W D L F A Pts

Spain (Q) 9 7 2 0 23 5 23

Yugoslavia 9 6 2 1 24 7 20

Slovakia 9 5 1 3 18 11 16

Czech Rep 9 4 1 4 13 6 13

Faroe Isles 9 2 0 7 9 28 6

Malta 9 0 0 9 2 32 0

Remaining fixtures: Today: Malta v Yugoslavia; Czech Republic v Slovakia; Spain v Faroe Isles.

Even if the unthinkable should happen and the Spaniards lose at home to the Faroes today and Yugoslavia beat the Maltese to win the group, Spain would still qualify for the finals as the best of the runners-up. As ever, Spain look a solid side but, because their clubs employ so many foreign players, some of their squad spend their weekends on substitutes' benches.

The Yugoslavs will be tough opponents for anyone in the play-offs - as long as they do not have to rely on Savo Milosevic to score their goals.

One to watch

Fernando Hierro (Spain)

For over a decade the Spanish team has been stronger in defence than in attack - which is not surprising because the top clubs in the Primera Liga always have forward lines filled with expensive foreigners. The best of the defenders is the durable and combative Hierro, an experienced Real Madrid man who can also play as a midfield enforcer.

Group Seven

P W D L F A Pts

Netherlands 7 6 0 1 26 4 18

Belgium 7 5 0 2 17 9 15

Turkey 7 4 1 2 21 9 13

Wales 7 2 1 4 18 18 7

San Marino 8 0 0 8 0 42 0

Remaining fixtures: Today: Belgium v Wales; Netherlands v Turkey.

The Netherlands will win the group unless they lose at home to the Turks tonight and Belgium beat Wales 14-0. The Welsh can be a bad side - but not that bad. The Turks could reach the play-offs if they win and so do Wales, but that is not very likely, either.

Marc Overmars has been recalled to the Dutch squad to replace the suspended Wim Jonk. Other English-based players are Overmars' Arsenal colleague Dennis Bergkamp, Nottingham Forest's Pierre van Hooijdonk and the Chelsea goalkeeper Ed de Goey. Despite injury problems, Belgium have dropped Newcastle's Philippe Albert.

One to watch

Dennis Bergkamp (Netherlands)

He has been scoring great goals for Arsenal all season and he has also been prolific for his country in the qualifiers - as Wales remember to their cost. Bergkamp hit a hat-trick when Bobby Gould's side were humiliated 7-1 last year. He is more than just a classic goalscorer, though, he also makes goals for others. His all-round play is outstanding, a coach's dream.

Group Eight

P W D L F A Pts

Romania (Q) 9 9 0 0 36 3 27

Rep of Ireland 9 5 2 2 21 7 17

Lithuania 9 4 2 3 9 7 14

Macedonia 9 4 1 4 21 16 13

Iceland 9 1 3 5 7 16 6

Liechtenstein 9 0 0 9 3 48 0

Remaining fixtures: Today: Iceland v Liechtenstein; Republic of Ireland v Romania; Macedonia v Lithuania.

Even if Romania win in Dublin to go through the campaign without dropping a point, the Irish will finish second unless Lithuania win 11-0 in Macedonia.

Ireland are without the injured Keane and Townsend and have left out Staunton and Irwin so that neither collects their second yellow card of the tournament and misses the first match of the play-offs. Several players in the squad are unlikely to start for the same reason. Romania still have the stars of USA 94: Gheorghe Hagi, Ilie Dumitrescu and Gheorghe Popescu.

One to watch

Bogdan Stelea (Romania)

He was dropped during USA 94 and he flopped at Euro 96, but the colourful Stelea is still in goal for Romania - and he has played a big part in his side maintaining a 100 per-cent record during the qualifiers. Not least during the 1-0 home win over the Republic of Ireland, when he brought down Ray Houghton to concede a penalty but got up to save Roy Keane's spot-kick.

Group Nine

P W D L F A Pts

Germany 9 5 4 0 19 6 19

Ukraine 9 5 2 2 8 6 17

Portugal 9 4 4 1 11 4 16

Armenia 9 1 5 3 8 15 8

N Ireland 9 1 4 4 6 9 7

Albania 9 1 1 7 4 16 4

Remaining fixtures: Today: Germany v Albania; Portugal v Northern Ireland; Armenia v Ukraine.

Germany should beat Albania, whose players seem more interested in seeking political asylum than striving for points away from home, to win the group. If Ukraine win in Armenia they will be in the play-offs, but if they draw they will be overtaken if Portugal beat Northern Ireland at home.

Germany will be without the injured Matthias Sammer, Jurgen Klinsmann and Ulf Kirsten, while Portugal's injured absentees are the defender Jorge Costa and goalkeeper Vitor Baia. Their midfield playmaker Rui Costa is suspended.

One to watch

Sergei Rebrov (Ukraine)

Reaching the play-offs by finishing above the talented Portuguese would be a tremendous achievement for a Ukraine side who have made an impact in international football quicker than expected. Much of the credit must go to the 22-year-old Rebrov, a predatory striker who scored valuable winners away to both Northern Ireland and Albania. He will not stay with Dynamo Kiev for long...

Runners-up standings

Runners-up will be ranked according to the following criteria: 1 Points gained in matches against teams coming top, third and fourth in group. 2 Goal difference in these games. 3 Goals scored in these games. 4 Goals scored against these opponents in away games. If the best runner-up still cannot be identified, there will be a play-off between the best two runners- up on a neutral ground on 19 October. The standings of current second- placed teams, plus England's record in the relevant games, are as follows:

P W D L F A Pts

England 5 4 0 1 8 2 12

Italy 5 3 2 0 5 0 11

Yugoslavia 6 3 2 1 7 5 11

Scotland 5 3 1 1 6 2 10

Belgium 5 3 0 2 8 9 9

Russia 5 2 2 1 8 3 8

Ireland 5 2 1 2 7 5 7

Greece 5 2 1 2 6 4 7

Ukraine 5 1 2 2 3 5 5

Hungary 5 1 2 2 3 6 5

In the highly unlikely event of Spain losing at home to the Faroe Isles on Saturday, and Yugoslavia winning in Malta to finish first in Group Six, Spain will qualify for the finals as the best runner-up. Assuming Spain beat the Faroes, as expected, to win Group Six, Scotland will top the runners-up table if they beat Latvia.

If Scotland fail to win and England lose in Italy, England will finish top of the runners-up table with 12 points - unless results in Group Seven allow Belgium (or the Netherlands) to finish above them. For example, if England lose 2-0 and Belgium beat Wales 5-0, Belgium would be the best of the runners-up.

If Scotland fail to win and England draw in Rome, Italy will top the runners-up table - barring unlikely results as above.

Europe's World Cup finalists 1974-94

1974 1978 1982 1986 1990 1994 Total

Italy Y Y Y Y* Y= Y 6

Germany** Y= Y Y Y Y Y* 6

Scotland Y Y Y Y Y N 5

Spain N Y Y= Y Y Y 5

Belgium N N Y Y Y Y 4

Netherlands Y Y N N Y Y 4

Poland Y Y Y Y N N 4

Sweden Y Y N N Y Y 4

Austria N Y Y N Y N 3

Bulgaria Y N N Y N Y 3

England N N Y Y Y N 3

France N Y Y Y N N 3

Hungary N Y Y Y N N 3

Yugoslavia Y N Y N Y - 3

Soviet Union N N Y Y Y - 3

Czechoslovakia N N Y N Y N 2

N Ireland N N Y Y N N 2

Rep of Ireland N N N N Y Y 2

Romania N N N N Y Y 2

Denmark N N N Y N N 1

Greece N N N N N Y 1

Norway N N N N N Y 1

Portugal N N N Y N N 1

Russia== - - - - - Y 1

Switzerland N N N N N Y 1

Y - Qualified. N - Failed to qualify.

* Qualified as holders. = Qualified as hosts.

** East Germany qualified in 1974; West Gemany qualified from 1974-90 inclusively; unified Germany played in 1994 finals.

== Russia did not compete separately from Soviet Union until 1994 finals.

SOUTH AMERICA

Qualification process: Top four in league qualify for finals.

P W D L F A Pts

Argentina (Q) 14 8 4 2 22 12 28

Colombia (Q) 15 8 3 4 22 14 27

Paraguay (Q) 14 8 2 4 20 13 26

Peru 14 6 4 4 18 16 22

Chile 14 5 4 5 25 18 19

Ecuador 14 5 3 6 18 16 18

Bolivia 14 4 5 4 18 17 17

Uruguay 14 5 2 7 13 18 17

Venezuela 15 0 3 12 8 40 3

Remaining fixtures: Tomorrow: Argentina v Uruguay; Chile v Peru; Ecuador v Bolivia; Paraguay v Venezuela. 16 Nov: Argentina v Colombia; Chile v Bolivia; Peru v Paraguay; Uruguay v Ecuador.

CONCACAF

Qualification process: Top three in final-round league qualify for finals.

Final round

P W D L F A Pts

Mexico 6 4 2 0 18 2 14

Jamaica 8 3 3 2 5 10 12

United States 7 2 4 1 10 7 10

El Salvador 8 2 3 3 7 10 9

Costa Rica 8 2 2 4 7 8 8

Canada 7 1 2 4 2 12 5

Remaining fixtures: Tomorrow: Canada v Mexico. 2 Nov: Mexico v United States. 9 Nov: Canada v United States, El Salvador v Jamaica, Mexico v Costa Rica. 16 Nov: Jamaica v Mexico, Costa Rica v Canada, United States v El Salvador.

AFRICA

Qualification complete: Nigeria, Morocco, Tunisia, South Africa and Cameroon have qualified for finals.

ASIA

Qualification process: Winners of two second-round groups qualify for finals. Runners-up in each group qualify for play-off at neutral venue on 16 November. Play-off winners qualify for finals, play-off losers meet Australia home and away (draw to decide order) on 22 and 29 November for place at finals.

Second round: Group A

P W D L F A Pts

Iran 4 2 2 0 9 4 8

* Kuwait 3 1 1 1 4 3 4

* China 3 1 1 1 4 5 4

Saudi Arabia 3 1 1 1 3 3 4

Qatar 3 0 1 2 1 6 1

Remaining fixtures: Friday: Kuwait v China. Today: Saudi Arabia v Qatar. 17 Oct: Iran v China; Kuwait v Saudi Arabia. 24 Oct : Saudi Arabia v Iran; Kuwait v Qatar. 31 Oct: China v Qatar; Iran v Kuwait. 6 Nov: Saudi Arabia v China. 7 Nov: Qatar v Iran. 12 Nov: China v Kuwait; Qatar v Saudi Arabia.

Group B

P W D L F A Pts

South Korea 4 4 0 0 10 2 12

UAE 4 2 2 0 7 5 7

Japan 4 1 2 1 8 6 5

Uzbekistan 4 0 1 3 7 12 1

Kazakhstan 4 0 2 2 2 9 2

Remaining fixtures: Today: Kazakhstan v South Korea; Uzbekistan v Japan. 18 Oct: Uzbekistan v South Korea; Kazakhstan v United Arab Emirates. 25 Oct: Uzbekistan v Kazakhstan. 26 Oct: Japan v United Arab Emirates. 1 Nov: South Korea v Japan. 2 Nov: United Arab Emirates v Uzbekistan. 8 Nov: Japan v Kazakhstan. 9 Nov: United Arab Emirates v South Korea.

OCEANIA

Australia won preliminary qualifying competition and will play off against an Asian team (see above) for place at finals.

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