British and Irish are made to wait in agonising marathon draw

Click to follow
The Independent Online

There will be those, as this afternoon's marathon draw for the qualifying rounds of the 2006 World Cup drags on, who will think Sting knew what he was doing when he withdrew from the ceremony. However, those who persevere to the bitter end will be rewarded when the pots for the European Zone are wheeled out and the British and Irish nations discover who bars their path to Germany.

There will be those, as this afternoon's marathon draw for the qualifying rounds of the 2006 World Cup drags on, who will think Sting knew what he was doing when he withdrew from the ceremony. However, those who persevere to the bitter end will be rewarded when the pots for the European Zone are wheeled out and the British and Irish nations discover who bars their path to Germany.

For five years, the Football Association has focused on the 2006 competition as England's best prospect of regaining the World Cup. History suggests competitions are won by teams from countries geographically close to the venue, whose players average 27 years of age and 40 caps apiece. In 2006 England should meet those criteria with the generation of David Beckham, Michael Owen, Paul Scholes and Sol Campbell in its prime. With 2010 destined for Africa, and 2014 for South America, it will be years before a similar confluence occurs.

The other home nations may have less elevated ambitions but they would also hope to prosper in a European World Cup, and their supporters would be able to attend en masse. First, though, qualification must be negotiated and even England, having failed to make the 1974, 1978 and 1994 competitions, will not be taking that for granted.

Sven Goran Eriksson, who flies to Frankfurt today, at least has the comfort of knowing that England are seeded. There are, though, dangerous floaters lurking among lesser-graded teams. As in Lisbon last week, Eriksson will again hope to avoid the Netherlands in Pot B. Romania look the threat in Pot C and Ukraine in Pot D. For logistical reasons he, and his Scottish, Welsh and Irish counterparts, will hope to avoid the likes of Russia (in B), Serbia and Montenegro (C), Ukraine and Bosnia-Herzegovina (D), and a raft of other former Soviet republics especially Armenia and Azerbaijan (both F). England, at least, will not have to travel to Kazakhstan (G) as they are guaranteed a six-team grouping.

Michael Schumacher, a keen footballer and fan of Cologne, and Pierluigi Collina, the Italian referee, will draw the European section, the latter being a late replacement for Sting. Other celebrities involved are Youssou N'Dour, the Senegalese singer, the American women's footballer Brandi Chastain, Pele and Franz Beckenbauer.

The Asian group will be drawn first, at 4.24pm GMT if we are running to schedule. This will be followed by Oceania, Concacaf (North and Central America and the Caribbean), Africa and, finally, at 5.38pm, Europe. This will be drawn in reverse order beginning with the lower seeds. Like leaving Europe to last, this is designed to maximise dramatic tension and advertising revenues as high-spending European audiences are kept watching to the end of the 105-minute farrago. What should the viewer be looking for to stay awake in the preliminary stages? In Asia, China could be drawn with Taiwan (described as Chinese Taipei by Fifa). Afganistan are already out, but Iraq could meet Iran.

In Oceania, American Samoa, despite losing by a record 31-0 to Australia last time, have entered again. In Concacaf, watch out for Montserrat, the tiny Caribbean crown colony, in last place, 204th, in the Fifa rankings (American Samoa are 202nd). In Africa, South Africa could be drawn with Morocco. This would add spice to the bidding campaign to host the 2010 World Cup which concludes in May and for which they are the co-favourites.

To Sam Allardyce's relief the streamlined African process means Jay-Jay Okocha will play only 12 internationals, far less than the 18 (potentially 20 with the play-off) facing Chelsea's Juan Sebastian Veron and other South Americans. Managers with Concacaf players (such as Tottenham's Kasey Keller) could also lose them for 18 fixtures. The heaviest workload falls to the Asian contenders. A country emerging from the qualifying round to win a place via the play-off would play 26 fixtures.

There was good news for any supporters so encouraged by the draw they begin planning a trip to Germany. A new, cheaper category of ticket will be introduced for the 2006 finals. It will be possible to watch group matches, except for the opening match, for as little as €35 (£24.50). Other group stage tickets will cost €24, €60 and €100. However, tickets for the final range from €120 to €600, so optimists should start saving now.

THE PATH TO GERMANY HOW QUALIFICATION FOR 2006 WILL WORK

AFRICA

(52 National Associations, 51 entries, five qualifiers): A preliminary round has already trimmed 21 entrants, the remaining 30, nine of whom were seeded, will be drawn into five groups of six. The winners qualify.

ASIA

(44, 39, 4/5): A preliminary round has reduced the entrants to 32, who will be split into eight groups. The winners will then be divided into two groups. The top two qualify. The third-placed teams go to a play-off for the right to represent Asia in the play-off with Concacaf.

CONCACAF

North and Central America and Caribbean (35, 34, 3/4): The winners of 10 two-leg ties between 20 teams enter a second knock-out round with 14 seeds, producing 12 teams to be divided into three groups. The top two go into a six-team group from which the top three qualify and the fourth contests a play-off against an Asian team.

EUROPE

(52, 52, 13 + Germany as hosts): The 51 contenders (Germany qualify automatically) will be divided into eight groups. The winners qualify along with the two best runners-up. The remaining six runners-up take part in play-offs to produce three further qualifiers.

OCEANIA

(11, 12, 0/1): Australia and New Zealand are seeded. The other 10 teams will be divided into two groups. The winner and runner-up join the seeds in a six-team group. The top two play off for the right to represent Oceania in a play-off. New Caledonia, though a provisional Fifa member, compete because the qualifying doubles up as the regional nations' cup.

SOUTH AMERICA

(10, 10, 4/5): There will be no draw today as qualifying has already begun. All 10 countries are competing in an exhaustive round-robin contest. The leading four qualify, the fifth-placed team will contest a play-off against the winner of the Oceania section.

PLAY-OFFS

Asia v Concacaf

Oceania v South America

Comments