Holders to lose World Cup slot

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The Independent Online

Until yesterday World Cup winners were been granted three perks: glory, riches and an automatic place in the following finals. From now on they will just have to settle for the fame and fortune.

Until yesterday World Cup winners were been granted three perks: glory, riches and an automatic place in the following finals. From now on they will just have to settle for the fame and fortune.

That is the consequence of Fifa, football's world governing body, withdrawing one of the fundamental benefits of World Cup success prior to this morning's finals draw in Pusan, South Korea. Whoever emerges from next summer's 32-team extravaganza will have to endure the agonies of qualification if they are to defend the trophy in 2006. Unless they are Germany, that is. The hosts will continue to gain automatic entry to their own party.

Although England and the Republic of Ireland, given their nerve-jangling qualification experiences, may regret the change, it has long been a double-edged bonus. Not having to qualify means the holders often begin their defence under-cooked, having had to prepare through friendlies instead of being battle-hardened by competition. Only twice have the holders retained the trophy, the last success, by Brazil in Chile, being 39 years ago. Only three times, in nine subsequent tournaments, have the holders even reached the semi-finals.

That said, Fifa has gambled that a holder will always be strong enough to qualify. It gains two rewards. Firstly, the move reduces the prospect of similar disputes to that surrounding France's decision to play friendlies in Australia and Chile, which raised tensions between Fifa and the big European clubs. Secondly, it frees up another qualifying place, giving Fifa room to manoeuvre in the scramble for representation by the confederations. With joint-hosting likely to return, possibly for 2010, this is particularly useful although, in the short term, the new place is likely to go to Asia or Oceania.

Fifa also announced that it will drug-test some players from each country before the finals, both in friendlies and training camps.

Sven Goran Eriksson, who arrived last night for the draw, reiterated his desire to avoid Argentina, France and Italy. The England coach added: "We have a young team which could be a problem but I don't think it will be a big one."

David Beckham, however, has suggested he would like England to draw his old foes, Argentina. "When you beat a team like Germany, the confidence you gain is immense," Beckham said. "So if we were playing a France, an Italy or an Argentina there would be no fear."

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