Giants' sigh of relief as the French accent rules

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The Independent Football

After the drums, Anastacia and the dignitaries came the news that England feared. It was the day Sven Goran Eriksson's luck ran out, not just a group of death, more a group of annihilation. The sighs of relief from other major nations could be heard in distant lands, partly a celebration of England's fate, partly an acknowledgement of their own good fortune. There is nothing like another's discomfort to highlight your own luxury.

"Like mission impossible," said Bora Milutinovic, the coach of China, who is guiding his fifth team through the finals. He was referring to his own side's inclusion in Group C with Brazil. But he could have been echoing the response of Eriksson, who has to navigate England through the minefields of Group F with the bookmakers' favourites, Argentina, old foes Sweden and the former Olympic champions, Nigeria. The Swede is not one for the instant sound bite, but his claim that there are no easy groups in the World Cup for once rang true with the force of hammer on anvil. "Very interesting," said Eriksson. Where to begin?

It will take all the Swede's famed pragmatism not to play "what if" games in the first-class cabin back to Football Association headquarters. What if England had swapped with Turkey in Group C or with Belgium in Group H where a place at the top would most probably ensure a last- 16 match against Turkey? Tunisia, Colombia and Romania, England's group opponents in 1998, was a draw made in heaven in comparison, but England under Glenn Hoddle still managed to make hard work of qualifying for the knockout stages. If England progress as far this time, it will seem like winning the World Cup, though their joy might be overshadowed by the prospect of a meeting with the champions, France. Little point in speculating beyond that, even for the most ardent flag-wavers.

England's misfortune is compounded by the obvious slack in the draw. This World Cup, like the last, is bloated with mediocrity. Since Fifa, the world governing body, extended the draw from 24 to 32 teams in 1998, the result of commercial and political pressures, the competitiveness of the tournament has been diluted. Tourism is an essential attraction for the host countries, but too many of the sight-seers are liable to be footballers. Fifa can mount a coherent counter- argument on the back of the fairytale pairing of France and Senegal in the opening match of the tournament. Senegal, a former French colony, taking on its former masters as a curtain-raiser to the biggest spectating and commercial extravaganza in world sport. Quelle surprise.

There could be no more meaningful illustration of the footballing authorities' determination to spread the word into every corner of the globe. It will more like French A v French B; Senegal are coached by a Frenchman, Bruno Metsu, and a majority of their players ply their trade in the French league. Only the harshest critic, though, could deny Senegal (pop: 8.5 million) their 90 minutes of footballing fame on 31 May in Seoul or El Hadji Diouf, the 21-year-old striker born in Dakar whose goals have launched Lens to the top of the French league, a rightful stage for his considerable talents.

A French accent will extend way beyond the opening match. Besides Roger Lemerre, coach of the world and European champions, and Metsu, Henri Michel, who took France to the 1986 semi-finals and earned the wrath of one Eric Cantona, is the present occupier of the hot seat with Tunisia, the fourth coach of their World Cup qualifying campaign, while another coaching veteran, Philippe Troussier, will be in charge of Japan. Zinedine Zidane has already anticipated the nature of what could be classified as a linguistic local derby. "It will be a very physical game," said the Frenchman. "We know how the African teams play."

Lack of organisation, corruption, in-fighting and the drain of talent away from the continent has hindered Africa's progress to the pinnacle of international football. Nigeria and Cameroon have become Olympic champions, but Cameroon's thunderous march to the 1990 quarter-finals remains the most significant contribution by an African nation to the history of the World Cup. For Roger Milla read the much travelled 31-year-old Patrick Mboma or the mercurial Samuel Eto'o. Cameroon, always talented, ever chaotic, might prove the surprise package on territory not far removed from their triumph in Sydney. Past champions, Uruguay, the last of the 29 teams to qualify, Poland and Turkey are others with the potential to damage some fancy reputations. France will not relish a rendezvous with the rugged Paolo Montero and the quicksilver Alvaro Recoba of Uruguay in Pusan on 6 June.

From afar, Argentina are worthy favourites after an impressively assured qualification. Any side which can afford to leave Gabriel Batistuta on the bench has to be respected, quite apart from a central defensive pairing of Roberto Ayala and Walter Samuel, a midfield orchestrated by Juan Sebastian Veron, Javier Zanetti and the revived Ariel Ortega, Kily Gonzalez, a left-sided midfielder who would walk into the England side, and Hernan Crespo, scorer of nine goals in qualifying. This is a combination of awesome experience and depth. "Argentina are not going to the World Cup just to make a good show, but to come out as champions," said Carlos Bilardo, Argentina's 1986 World Cup winning coach. "But we haven't done well out of the draw. England is a historic rival and Nigeria has become a team to be reckoned with."

Of the European challengers, Italy and Spain look more likely champions than Germany, though Michael Ballack has begun to emerge as the midfield playmaker the three times champions have so sadly lacked in recent years. The format and the humid conditions will reward teams who can pace themselves and keep hold of the ball, neither exactly strengths of English football. Rarely have Brazil entered a major tournament with so many question marks hanging over them. Their qualifiying campaign was a shambles, but the thought of a World Cup without the ultimate representatives of the beautiful game was still unthinkable.

Whether Brazil can muster a coherent tactical system under Luiz Felipe Scolari is another matter. The neutrals will hope so. A fluent Brazilian side defines a tournament; the last World Cup suffered from Mario Zagallo's pragmatism and from the absence of a dominant team or an outstanding individual. It was a World Cup played out on the blackboard. Television and organisers will demand more personality next summer, will demand that a Rivaldo, Ronaldo, Beckham, Owen, Raul or Totti step forward to claim their birthright. For all its complexity, the draw has whet the appetite. Some 777 qualifying matches were played between 193 countries to produce 29 qualifiers. It is the next 64, spread over 30 days and two countries, which really count.