England's improvement under Sven Goran Eriksson, combined with the power of the Premier League, is likely to smooth the national side's passage to the 2006 World Cup finals when the qualifying draw is made tomorrow.
Four years ago, England drew Germany, the eventual 2002 finalists, having been among the second seeds. Tomorrow, when Michael Schumacher and Pierluigi Collina perform the draw for the European Zone, they will in the final pot to be selected, containing the eight top seeds. The Republic of Ireland, after a poor qualifying campaign for Euro 2004, have dropped into the second rank of seeds together with the most dangerous floaters, the Netherlands. Scotland are in the third pool. Wales, following a strong, if ultimately unsuccessful qualifying campaign, have climbed into the fourth seeds' pot with Northern Ireland in the fifth.
In theory the five nations could thus be drawn in the same group. Though the relevant police forces will doubtless be relieved the odds against such an eventuality are 4,096-1, David Davies, the Football Association's executive director, said: "We would relish that draw. It would be exciting for all of us. It would certainly not be a nightmare."
There are seven pots in total. With 51 teams in the European Zone (plus Germany who qualify automatically as hosts) the final pot contains only Andorra, Luxembourg and Kazakhstan. For various reasons, notably logistics, few teams will wish to draw Kazakhstan, a former Soviet Republic which has moved to Uefa from the Asian confederation.
Eriksson has frequently had reason to despair over the influence of Premiership clubs but in this case he should be grateful because there is no chance of England having to travel to Kazakhstan or meet the makeweights. In a concession to G14, a lobby group for leading clubs, England, Spain, Italy and France will be placed in one of the smaller, six-team, groups drawn from the first six pots only. This is because they have "more domestic clubs involved in international club competitions".
The concession is especially valuable as the larger groups will have to stage matches on dates earmarked in the international calendar for friendlies. National teams could then only call on their players 48 hours before the match, not the usual five days. Affected countries could face a repeat of the disputes Wales had with Birmingham and Newcastle over the release of players for Euro 2004 qualifiers. While this would apply to both sides, the chances of conflict are far greater with English-based players because of the congested fixture list.
Fifa also released the schedule for the 2006 finals which will start in Munich on Friday, 9 June and end in Berlin on Sunday, 9 July. There are several improvements including the later start which allows more rest after the domestic season. Each team has been guaranteed two or more rest days between matches and equal rest before the knock-out stages. The 12 venues will each host a minimum five matches featuring at least two seeded teams.
EUROPEAN POTS FOR 2006 WORLD CUP QUALIFYING DRAW
1 France; 2 Portugal; 3 Sweden; 4 Czech Republic; 5 Spain; 6 Italy; 7 England; 8 Turkey
1 Netherlands; 2 Croatia; 3 Belgium; 4 Denmark; 5 Russia; 6 Republic of Ireland; 7 Slovenia; 8 Poland
1 Bulgaria; 2 Romania; 3 Scotland; 4 Serbia and Montenegro; 5 Switzerland; 6 Greece; 7 Slovakia; 8 Austria
1 Ukraine; 2 Iceland; 3 Finland; 4 Norway; 5 Israel; 6 Bosnia-Herzegovina; 7 Latvia; 8 Wales
1 Hungary; 2 Georgia; 3 Belarus; 4 Cyprus; 5 Estonia; 6 Northern Ireland; 7 Lithuania; 8 Macedonia
1 Albania; 2 Armenia; 3 Moldova; 4 Azerbaijan; 5 Faroe Islands; 6 Malta; 7 San Marino; 8 Liechtenstein
1 Andorra; 2 Luxembourg; 3 Kazakhstan