It's a small world... Premiership hogs the stage but Brazil have the best lines

Whatever the World Cup draw delivers, Sven's men know they will face very familiar foes
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The Independent Football

Like most 75-year-old institutions, the World Cup has come a long way; in this case from a scratch tournament of 13 countries, conceived in France but coming to life in Uruguay in July 1930.

A mere four European sides - Belgium, France, Romania and Yugoslavia - travelled, taking three weeks by boat, and the first-ever match, between the French and Mexico, was watched by 1,000 people.

Yet considering how much football has changed in three-quarters of a century, the format of that first competition was remarkably similar to the one in Germany next summer that will attract a billion or so television spectators. Not only were the teams divided into four small leagues, with the winners progressing to a knockout stage, but seeded countries were kept apart, as were the Europeans.

An identical process will take place in the Leipzig Trade Hall on Friday, when 32 qualifiers are split into eight groups of four, the intention being that each section should have an appropriate mix of abilities and continents.

These days, however, that has become a complicated task, one which necessitates a meeting of the World Cup organising committee on Tuesday to decide the seedings, before the actual draw - part showbiz, part sport, part circus - begins sometime after 7.30pm on Friday. Anyone feeling weary after a week's work should not feel too guilty about nodding off during what may appear arcane proceedings.

Tuesday's deliberations will produce four pools of eight, one of the eight then going into each group on Friday according to a formula that Fifa claim not yet to have determined. It is understood, however, that it will not differ greatly from the system used for the 2002 finals, which combined average world rankings over the past three years with performances at the previous three World Cups. While fine in theory, this produces inevitable anomalies: firstly, because the world rankings have always been deeply flawed; and secondly, because a World Cup played 12 or even eight years ago has little relevance to anything.

The rankings give unjustified reward to countries like Mexico (currently seventh), the United States (eighth), Japan (15th) and Iran (19th), who play most of their competitive games against weak opposition; conversely, Germany, forced to play friend-lies in the two-year build-up to the finals, are penalised. It is hardly surprising that the latter's coach, Jürgen Klinsmann, should describe the system as "a joke" when he sees his men one place below the Japanese.

Similarly, countries who tend to qualify easily because of their geographical position are given a huge advantage over those who occasionally miss out because they are drawn in a strong qualifying group. Thus Holland, currently third in the world, are not expected to be among the top eight seeds this week because they were edged out of the 2002 competition by Portugal and Ireland; Portugal themselves will suffer badly by not having qualified for the 1994 and 1998 finals; and even England, despite reaching the quarter-finals and second round at the last two competitions, have been left fretting about a seeding on account of their failure to qualify in 1994.

The Football Association's requests for more detailed information about the seeding process were in vain. Instead, Fifa's president, Sepp Blatter, caused mischief and confusion by suggesting: "With the selection procedures, I think the national teams of Holland and England have reason to be worried. Even Italy might not get a place."

It is impossible to work out the mathematics at present because Fifa will not say, either, how the balance will work between current ranking and past performance. Best guess, however, based on the criteria used last time, is that England, Italy and France will scrape into the top eight seeds, behind the holders Brazil, hosts Germany, Spain, Mexico and Argentina, leaving Holland out in the cold along with the Czech Republic (currently second in the world), as two teams whom no seeded countries will wish to meet.

Portugal, who performed poorly on the one occasion they did qualify for the finals recently, may even end up in the third-ranked pool, so that they could be drawn with, say, Brazil, Holland and Australia (no more than two of the 14 European sides will be placed in any one group).

The Australians, with their host of Premiership players, will be in the lowest pool, along with such dangerous African sides as Didier Drogba's Ivory Coast and Michael Essien's Ghana, both of whom also suffer from a low world ranking and no previous World Cup form. Those three countries all have the ability to achieve results above their station, and the top seeds would be pleased to avoid them and be paired with such genuine back-markers as Togo or Angola.

Thus the prayers of the England contingent in Leipzig, who include Sven Goran Eriksson, Brian Barwick and David Davies, might be for a group also involving, say, Japan, Ecua-dor and Angola; and avoiding combinations like Holland, Costa Rica and Australia or the Czech Republic, Tunisia and Ghana.

Whatever the outcome, do not expect Eriksson to emulate Sir Alf Ramsey 40 years ago by sticking his neck out to predict ultimate victory. There would be too many people ready to chop it off, as there were when he was cornered into saying that England could be as good as Brazil - the day before they lost horribly to Northern Ireland.

Despite the encouragement of recovering from the embarrassment of Belfast to win the qualifying group and then narrowly defeat Argentina on neutral ground, the strongest Eriksson will go at the moment is: "I always thought that we were going to do very well in the World Cup and I still believe that.

"Of course it's my dream to win it and we're going to try. I think we're one of six or seven who can do it, with Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Holland, Italy and France. I think one of those seven will win it. It's more difficult for the South American teams to play a World Cup in Europe, as statistics say they have only won it once, with Brazil in 1958 in Sweden."

That Brazilian team made an impression on a certain 10-year-old Swede, who would find their successors drumming his England side out of the competition 44 years later in Shizuoka. They are still the country everyone with serious ambition will want to avoid once the mysterious draw rituals begin on Friday.


How the seedings might work

POOL 1: Brazil, Germany, Spain, Mexico, Argentina, England, Italy and France.

POOL 2: Holland, United States, Sweden, Czech Republic, Croatia, Paraguay, South Korea and Japan.

POOL 3: Portugal, Costa Rica, Iran, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Switzerland and Ecuador.

POOL 4: Ukraine, Serbia & Montenegro, Ivory Coast, Australia, Ghana, Trinidad & Tobago, Togo and Angola.

Replay: 1950: 'Can't we play them again tomorrow?'

England, under Walter Winterbottom, took part in their first World Cup, in Brazil. After beating Chile 2-0, they faced USA in the cool Belo Horizonte hills. Their post-war record stood at 23 wins, four losses and three draws, and they were 3-1 to win the trophy.

The USA, who were 500-1, had lost their previous seven games by a combined score of 45-2. Alf Ramsey, who was to enjoy rather more success in 1966, said Joe Gaetjens ducked under the ball when he scored from Walter Bahr's cross-shot after 38 minutes. Others said it hit his ear.

Many myths surround the game, such as keeper Frank Borghi saving an imaginary Stan Mortensen penalty. Jimmy Mullen's header was said to have crossed the line.

A London editor thought the score was a misprint of 10-1. Only one US journalist was there, Dent McSkimming of the St Louis Post Dispatch, who was on holiday.

"Bloody ridiculous," said Wilf Mannion. "Can't we play them again tomorrow?"

The empire was crumbling, as England's cricket team lost to West Indies for the first time on the same day.

Stanley Matthews was at long last called up to face Spain, but England lost 1-0 and were on their way home.

England: Williams, Ramsey, Aston, Wright (capt), Hughes, Dickinson, Finney, Mannion, Bentley, Mortensen, Mullen.

Andrew Tong