Lone Stars provide welcome escape from reality

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The Independent Online

With 137 countries still involved in the 2002 World Cup qualifiers, demand for tickets is likely to be high when they eventually go on global sale, but few applications are expected from supporters of the most unexpected contenders.

With 137 countries still involved in the 2002 World Cup qualifiers, demand for tickets is likely to be high when they eventually go on global sale, but few applications are expected from supporters of the most unexpected contenders.

With even the cheapest tickets costing several weeks wages for the average Liberian, only a small, wealthy élite have any hope of being in Japan and South Korea, but that has not dimmed the excitement the Lone Stars are creating in the West African state.

Liberia may be troubled by war and is desperately poor, but the football team is providing a welcome relief from daily reality. It has for some years been part-financed by George Weah, the only Liberian with a global profile, but recent results suggest it is no longer a one-man team. Africa's qualifying Group B was thought to be a straight fight between Nigeria and Ghana for the solitary qualifying place, but Liberia have beaten both these regional powerhouses.

Christopher Wreh, once of Arsenal and now playing in Saudi Arabia, scored both goals in the win over Nigeria, and he and Weah are joined by a clutch of players making a living in Europe. "I had five of them playing for me at Monaco," the Arsenal manager, Arsÿne Wenger, said. "They are good players and have a good team. Their results have not been freak ones."

While Liberia's campaign resumes at home to Sierra Leone next Sunday, another troubled African nation this week withdrew from the competition. Congo Republic, who were bottom of group D, which is led by Tunisia, pulled out when the government refused to underwrite their costs. Problems, too, with Titi Camara's Guinea, unexpected leaders of Group E. Fifa, football's world governing body, has set a deadline of today for the government to rescind a decision to dissolve the country's football federation or face a ban that would lead to their disqualification. The federation was dissolved because of "poor results" the day after a home draw against Malawi.

Expulsion would make Guinea the 58th team to lose interest in the qualifying process, with Canada, Haiti and El Salvador - all previous finalists - among those already knocked out. Their central and north American region is the most advanced, with six teams left from 35 starters. The survivors include two teams who kicked off the whole campaign, on 4 March last year - Dwight Yorke's Trinidad and Tobago, and a Honduras team which sees a lot more of Milton Nuñez, than Sunderland supporters do. They are joined in the final round, which will produce three qualifiers, by Paolo Wanchope's Costa Rica, Darryl Powell's Jamaica, Claudio Reyna's United States and Mexico. With each team playing 10 more games (making a total of 22 for Trinidad and Tobago), expect plenty of club v country rows.

Because of the internationalisation of the Premiership, this will be a regular theme over the coming year. Oceania begins the campaign in April and Australia may well feel confident enough about winning a qualifying group featuring American Samoa, Samoa, Fiji and Tonga not to recall the likes of Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka. However, it would probably want them for the expected regional final against New Zealand and, should they win that, a play-off against a South American team.

That region's tortuous campaign restarts next month. Argentina look safe and Brazil and Paraguay will probably qualify with them but Colombia are nip-and-tuck with Ecuador and Uruguay for the fourth automatic spot. Aston Villa's Juan Pablo Angel is thus likely to be a regular transatlantic traveller. The surprise is the poor form of the 1998 finalists Chile.

With Asia only just starting their campaign - only three of the 10 groups have played a match, with Peter Withe's Thailand beginning in May - that brings us to Europe. Double-headers in most groups late next month should be a strong indication which major nations are in danger of missing one of the continent's guaranteed 13 qualifying places. A 14th is on offer via a play-off against an Asian team. This raises the prospect of England playing Iraq or Iran.

First, England have to reach the play-offs.

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