Football: Pythonesque circus in a football desert: The draw for next year's World Cup finals will be made tomorrow. Joe Lovejoy, in Las Vegas, sets an unsettling scene

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The Independent Online
THE SOCCER draw? No problem, sir. Past the white tigers in the foyer, right at the volcano in the car park, keep the floating galleon on your left and you can't miss it.

No wonder Sir Bert is looking bemused. Subject him to much more of this Piccadilly on acid and we could have George Hamilton IV as the new England manager.

If there was ever any doubt why the World Cup is being staged in a footballing desert, it was removed with the decision to hold the draw in the middle of a real one, in a city purpose-built to cater for man's baser needs.

Mob money created Las Vegas and filthy lucre it is that bought one of sport's great events for a nation of philistines who continue to treat it with yawning indifference.

The United States has no football tradition and is not about to develop one, for all the talk of post-World Cup lift-off. A recent survey found 87 per cent of Americans had not heard of the competition. Tom Weir, writing yesterday's USA Today, would seem to be typical. 'The World Cup draw is Sunday and admit it, you don't care. And no matter how much this event gets crammed down your throat next year, you still won't care. But don't feel guilty. There's a good reason you don't care about soccer, even if it is the national passion of Cameroon, Uruguay and Madagascar. It is because you are an American, and hating soccer is more American than mom's apple pie.'

Depressing support was forthcoming from William Coffey, a local cab-driver, whose maternal grandfather, John Quinn, played for Celtic between 1906 and 1908. 'The World Cup? What's that, hockey?'

When he was put right, Old Bill was not really any the wiser. 'You from England? How many of your teams qualified? Will Celtic be here? Have America qualified?'

It is much the same everywhere. The Dutch delegation arrived to find sports shops selling England memorabilia with 'Holland' emblazoned across the bottom. An isolated aberration? Hardly. The identity crisis is spreading with the official hand-out on the Greek squad listing Binz, Buchwald and Doll, etc. For New York, read Germany. Anything that good had to be named twice. It gets worse. If tomorrow's draw ceremony is anything like the rehearsal, it will die a bigger death than the Bolshoi Ballet, whose residency down the Strip from Caesar's Palace comes as a culture shock akin to finding Chas 'n' Dave at Covent Garden.

Having prattled through a preliminary meeting which dragged on for two days and three-and-a-half hours, the American organising committee called a media conference for 12 noon, and arrived 65 minutes late.

What followed was truly Pythonesque, with Roy Post, of the US Mint, treating the world's football writers to a lengthy dissertation on his commemorative coin programme.

'We invite you,' the nattering numismatist said, 'to enjoy the beauty and artistry of these coins.' A coin artist if ever there was one, but he got small change out of the assembled hacks.

Football's hierarchy finally took over - with embarrassing results. The gerrymandering of the draw, once accomplished with hair-driers and table-tennis balls, is now so brazen that there was laughter in the auditorium when Sepp Blatter, Fifa's general secretary, attempted to justify it.

The principle, he said, was that teams from the same confederation, or continent, should not meet at the group stage. Impossible, of course, with Europe providing 13 of the 24 finalists, but they tried nevertheless.

The result was pure Mickey Mouse, with Blatter blundering his way through a 25-minute dry run. At least he had the good grace to blush when he said: 'I have had great difficulty explaining the draw to you, and you are specialists. Imagine what it must be like for the public.'

Derisive guffaws all round, and the suggestion from the floor that FIFA should abandon all pretence and follow basketball's example, where teams are not drawn but placed in groups, according to strength.

'That has not been our custom,' Blatter sniffed with absurd condescension. The response - 'It might as well be' - had Flustered of Fifa yearning for a change of subject. When he got it, he found himself even deeper in the mire. Was it true, demanded the voice of Vegas, that Pele had been banned from attending the draw because of a litigious dispute involving the son of Joao Havelange, the Fifa president?

Consternation on the dais, with officials shuffling and passing like Chris Waddle on speed. When the buck stopped, it was Blatter who was left with the microphone. 'What Pele's position will be, we will see on Sunday,' he squirmed.

Sanctuary was sought, and found, in the minutiae of that two-day meeting. A request from South Korea, who have qualified, to join with the North and field a combined Korean team had been rejected, but one proposal which found favour will see three points awarded for a win to encourage positive play.

It had been noted 'with a lot of pleasure' that all 88 dope tests carried out during the qualifying programme had proved negative, but vigilance required that two players would be tested after each game throughout the finals.

There were to be three new awards. The Lev Yashin Cup would be presented to the best goalkeeper, and an entertainment award would go to the most attractive team. At the last tournament, Blatter said, it would 'obviously' have gone to Cameroon. In addition, an All-Star XI would be nominated at the end of the competition.

An all-time best team is to be announced today, and no prizes for guessing why Gordon Banks is in town. What of The Legend with whom Banks' name is inextricably linked?

This being Las Vegas, he figures lower on the guest list than Ann-Margret, Barry Manilow and Dolly Parton, whose distinctive profiles will jut prominently tomorrow, but in gamblers' paradise the smart money is on Pele taking his bow.

The great man, you see, is sponsored by Mastercard, and here, more than anywhere, money talks.

(Photograph omitted)

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