Football / World Cup 1994: Republic miss comfort zone: Germany's easy group ride makes them clear favourites

Click to follow
FOOTBALL may be a closed book, but Las Vegas knows a good bet when it sees one, and the high rollers are on Germany for the World Cup.

Sunday's draw also had some big bucks going on Argentina, and saw Brazil consolidate their position as third favourites.

What about the Irish? ventured Optimistic of Boston. 'You nuts, son? Their luck just ran out.'

Cruel, but true. The Republic had feared the worst, and premonition translated into reality when they were bracketed with Italy, Norway and Mexico in the toughest group of the six. American television, leaving no cliche unturned, promptly christened it 'the group of death'.

Even Boston, their second home, was denied Jack Charlton and his dad's army of a team. Instead, they must shuttle between New Jersey, where they play the Italians (18 June) and Norway (28 June), and Florida, for their match against Mexico in Orlando on 24 June.

At least they were prepared for their fate. The World Cup draw produces more gerrymandering than any boundary commission, and it was an open secret before the event that Argentina had dug their heels in over playing in Florida's midsummer heat, and had got their way.

The South Americans will be in the comfort zone, in Boston. It is the Irish who must sweat it out in the Sunshine State, where Mexico and Italy will have a pronounced advantage.

Group of death? Those of less melodramatic bent could call it the Charles Hughes group: the high priest of the long ball and the percentage game will be looking to the Republic and Norway for more of those infernal statistics with which he seeks to justify his heretical theories. Italy and the resurgent Mexicans will provide contrast and counter- balance.

The Italians must be favoured to win the group, but second place is anybody's guess. Norway were energetically impressive in qualifying at England's expense, but the heat could melt Egil Olsen's ice men. The Irish, too, will struggle to maintain their high-tempo game in 90 degrees-plus, and Mexico are probably worth a modest wager.

Banned from the 1990 World Cup for fielding over- age players at intermediate level, they are said to have come on in leaps and bounds over the last two years, and were widely praised for the quality of their football when they finished runners-up to Argentina in the South American championship.

The Irish, without the talismanic Niall Quinn to create havoc in the air, will be hard- pressed to keep out their clever, insidious runners.

Elsewhere, the Germans should make short work of Bolivia, Spain and South Korea, and Argentina ought to have little difficulty in justifying their seeds' status against Greece, Nigeria and Bulgaria, none of whom have ever won a match in the finals.

Brazil look too good for Russia, Sweden and Cameroon, for whom Roger Milla is contemplating a comeback at the age of 42.

In the two remaining groups, both the top seeds are highly vulnerable. Belgium will need to play above themselves to finish ahead of the Netherlands, who have the potential to go all the way - Cruyff or no Cruyff.

The wrangle over the great man's contract could yet see Dick Advocaat stay on to finish the job he started, and it would be a mean spirit that begrudged him the chance.

Hard-hearted is how the Dutch are, however, and already Ronald Koeman and Ruud Gullit are threatening not to play if Cruyff is not in charge. A case of deja vu. It would not be the World Cup without the men in orange arguing over something.

As sixth seeds, the United States are clearly in a false position. The English should be the last to belittle them, after what happened in Boston last summer, but it is easy to see them trailing in fourth, behind the Colombians, who were good enough to trounce Argentina 5-0, Roy Hodgson's Switzerland and Romania.

Were that to happen, domestic interest in their World Cup would vanish quicker than quarters in the Strip's bloated slots.