Football / World Cup 1994: Irish are drawn against Italy in New York: Republic face the tallest of orders as the Boston party is forgotten while Germany and Argentina enjoy kind selections

Click to follow
The Independent Online
FIFA whacked the first goal of the World Cup firmly into America's own net last night by snubbing the man who did more than anyone to take the tournament to the United States.

Glitter Gulch gave us more starry spangles than Liberace, who used to tickle the ivories just down the Strip, but all the schmaltz Las Vegas could muster was not enough to make up for the treatment meted out to Pele, the most celebrated footballer of them all.

It could only happen here. They star-trekked through William Shatner and James Brown, Stevie Wonder and Robin Williams, but there was no role in the draw for the player whose missionary spell with the New York Cosmos sowed the seeds of interest in America's 'other' football. The game they call soccer.

Vulgar to the last in the home of bad taste, the local television network said it was as if the Pope had not invited Jesus to Mass.

The draw should have been all about the opening match, between Germany and Bolivia in Chicago on 17 June or, on a more parochial level, the Republic of Ireland's placement in what they are calling the 'group of death', and their rematch with Italy, who knocked them out of the 1990 tournament at the quarter-final stage.

Instead, the toast was absent friends, with Johan Cruyff joining Pele on the missing list. Brazil's legendary exponent of the Beautiful Game is embroiled in a family feud with Joao Havelange, Fifa's all- powerful president, who allowed him no part in last night's proceedings.

The peerless Dutchman is also involved in a row, in his case with the Netherlands football federation, who want him to take charge of their team for the finals - but not on his terms.

Cruyff is demanding lucrative fringe benefits for the sportswear company he owns and wants to continue his own personal promotional activities. The Dutch spy a conflict of interest and have asked Dick Advocaat to continue 'for the time being'.

No Pele, then, and no Cruyff. The high rollers and a television audience estimated at 600m had to make do with the stand-in they billed as Marco Basten and good old Bobby Charlton.

English football's finest ambassador looked more lagubrious than ever when he told the world: 'I'm sorry my country will not be here, but I don't think for one minute that it will detract from the competition.'

As Las Vegas's latest lottery got underway, and President Clinton gushed about World Cup fever in the White House, the talk in the auditorium was still of Pele and his eyebrow- raising allegations of corruption in Brazilian football.

At a breakfast-time press conference he had said his row was not with Havelange, but with his son-in-law, Ricardo Teixeira, the president of Brazil's football federation.

Already facing a law-suit for defamation, he was not prepared to be specific, but said: 'I cannot accept corruption, and football has a big problem with that in Brazil.'

For speaking out, he had been given no part in the draw, where some much-needed footballing gravitas was provided by Van Basten, Eusebio, Beckenbauer and Platini.

Pele's absence was a sad state of affairs according to Charlton - an old friend. 'It definitely detracted from the event,' he said.

Bobby's brother, Jack Charlton, was another notable absentee, electing to stay in Dublin and discover the Republic of Ireland's fate via satellite. Never a man to worry about the opposition he is said to have accepted inclusion in the toughest group with equanimity.

Apart from the Italians, Jack and his jolly green army are drawn with Norway, who embarrassed England in June, and Mexico, who are regarded as one of the tournament's dark horses. The Mexicans, suspended from the last World Cup for fielding ineligible players, made a strong impression in finishing runners-up to Argentina in this year's Copa America - South America's equivalent of the European Championship.

The Republic will need to be at their very best to progress but, more than the quality of the opposition, their disappointment will be in missing out on playing in Boston - an Irish home from home. Instead, they must travel to and fro between New York / New Jersey and Orlando.

Germany, the champions, remain favourites, and will not be losing too much sleep over going in with Bolivia, Spain and South Korea.

It was the Argentinians, though, who were wearing the biggest smiles last night, their prospects enhanced as seeds in the group made up by Greece, Nigeria and Bulgaria.

(Photograph and graphic omitted)