James Lawton: Quest for excellence renewed on greatest stage of them all

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The Independent Online

It's too big at 32 nations, too political, too grossly commercial, and its seeding method might confound the combined de-coding resources of the CIA and MI5, but when the balls came out of the bowls last night there was one certainty: in six months' time the centre of the universe will unquestionably be Munich at the start of the 18th World Cup.

Heidi Klum was a ravishing hostess when the battle lines were drawn in Leipzig but a matron from some Bavarian church sisterhood would have been glamorous enough for no sports event on earth is in less need of the accoutrements of showbiz and fashion.

The World Cup, uniquely in all of sport, has the capacity to burn away all impedimenta as it seeks out, usually unerringly, the best football team of its time.

Last night it would have wished for a more alluring overture than an opening game between Germany, a pale Fatherland by its own relentless standards, and Costa Rica, but amid the dross we could be sure of another tumultuous symphony.

Sven Goran Eriksson, who has one last chance to redeem what many will consider a terribly lost opportunity when his team failed to exploit a man advantage against Brazil in Japan four years ago, was no doubt relieved to be given not a group of death but one of mild risk against Sweden, Paraguay and Trinidad and Tobago. In 1986 Ally McCoist complained: "I've heard of a group of death but this is the group of certain death." Scotland had been given the hosts Mexico, Uruguay and Germany.

Eriksson had reason to smile in Leipzig, and not just because of the irony that he will meet his native land for a second successive time - and hope for something more inspiring than the dispiriting draw of 2002.

Sometimes, it is true, the World Cup is stolen. It happened in 1974 and '78, when a stupendous Dutch team fell on both occasions, first to West Germany, then Argentina, but these were rare falls from the consistency of the tournament that has created its own aristocracy of achievement in Brazil, Germany, Italy and Argentina.

It means that at this point in the World Cup every nation on earth has two teams - its own, and Brazil.

This, too, is the glory of the World Cup. Along with patriotism it demands a cool appreciation of what is best in the world's most popular game, the one that has embedded itself in every culture, including that of America with the rise of the United States team which has been listed by Eriksson as a potential threat to the established order.

However, it is idle to pretend that all these superlatives we have come to heap on a tournament that in its competitive integrity has, despite all the political and commercial complications, outstripped the Olympics as the most legitimate focus of the world sports community, did not come under a certain pressure in the Far East in 2002.

There was the nag of concern that the imperatives of mega-club football were threatening the game's ultimate stage. The Portuguese and Poland trailed home in disgrace; the world and European champions, France, were shell-like in their apparent weariness, with Zinedine Zidane a virtual passenger a few weeks after volleying home one of the all-time goals in the Champions' League final at Hampden Park. The sense that club football had become paramount, that the need to secure the contracts at home had begun to challenge the classic imperative to announce yourself in World Cup football, could only be compounded by the news that an Italian club president had threatened to tear up the contract of a South Korean who was, suggested the president, more for his country than his club.

From the English perspective there was the worry that our two leading players, David Beckham and Michael Owen, were scarcely fit and that Gary Neville and Steve Gerrard, other vital components didn't even get on the plane. Was World Cup football being drained of its old impetus? It was a serious worry relieved only by one of the greatest World Cup stories of them all - the renaissance of Ronaldo, redeeming in Yokohama the mystery and disappointment of the World Cup final in the Stade de France four years earlier, when his coach, Mario Zagallo, was said to have been caught between the forces of reality and commerce when he prevaricated over the superstar's selection.

Ronaldo, of course, did play in Yokohama, to put his name in the legends of football - as Pele did in Mexico, and Maradona in the same place 16 years later, and Paolo Rossi in Spain in '82 and Geoff Hurst at Wembley in 1966.

The World Cup line was held by Ronaldo's Brazil, and supported by the brilliant work of Gus Hiddink on behalf of South Korea. One of Eriksson's unfulfilled fears last night was that he would be drawn against an Australian team now guided by the superbly motivating Dutch veteran. Eriksson said his fear was grounded in the old sporting rival between Australia and the mother country. More generously, he might have said the Socceroos will go into their first challenge against Brazil, brilliantly prepared by a master coach.

Any concerns of Eriksson about the first wave of opposition must centre on the threat of his Swedish compatriots, who have not lost to England in 11 collisions since 1968. Such considerations, however, dwindle against the weight of the central question: can he finally deliver the potential of a team which has never lacked good talent and now contains the force of Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard? The wider issue is a matter for more optimism. Unlike the situation four years ago, some of the best players are primed for glory. Brazil's Ronaldinho is a luminous example, and rivals like Argentina's Juan Requelme and Lionel Messi and, who knows, England's Rooney, must also believe in their chances of dominating world sport's most inspiring stage.

Last night another World Cup sprang to life. Nothing in sport is more guaranteed to both stir and intrigue the blood.

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