Sport: Best of all worlds when the draw scores

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The Independent Online
For connoisseurs of the draw this has been a week made in heaven. On Thursday, the great and the good - and a few others besides - gathered in the Stade Velodrome in Marseilles to celebrate the start of trading in the casino otherwise known as the 1998 Coupe du Monde.

Tonight comes the rather more time-honoured and parochial matter of the draw for the third round of the Football Association Challenge Cup, which heralds not just the New Year (third-round ties will be played on Saturday 3 January, Sunday 4 January or whatever daft time the executives of ITV and Sky decide enough armchairs will be filled) but the first use of the words "magic" and "romance" in association with football this season. The Premiership is about as romantic as the National Lottery these days.

I have to confess to being a sucker for draws. And I don't really care whether they are made by the captain of the United States women's team, Franz Beckenbauer or Pickles the Dog, from FA velvet bag, a plastic drum or an upturned top hat, the anticipation, the sense of destiny is still thrilling. More often than not, the moment of climax is accompanied by a dull thud of disappointment. Your beloveds have not got a home tie against Manchester United (they usually get Torquay United at home), but are away to Peterborough, which promises neither romance nor magic but only the lingering fear of an early ignominious exit. Only after an hour or two's spin doctoring have Peterborough been taken to the cleaners and a home draw against Manchester United assured for the next round. Until the day of the match, draws have no grounding in reality. They are just two balls with numbers on whirled around in a plastic drum and massaged by the fingertips of Nat Lofthouse and Alan Shearer - tonight's drawers - and translated from number into team by the lugubrious tones of Graham Kelly. Both teams really are equal in the plastic drum. That is why it is called a draw, presumably.

But the real fun of the draw begins later, a couple of rounds later when, against all expectations, your team has waltzed into the fifth round. (It happens about once a decade to every team.) By and large, that will probably be the end of the road because the chances of getting Hartlepool at home are remote. So the draw assumes greater significance; it is the moment of fulfilment, the great achievement, totally harmless and beautifully exclusive. "Oh," you can say nonchalantly to a friend, "has your team been knocked out. Shame. Anyone at home would be fine for us." And then for three hazy weeks you can bask in the glory without having to worry a nanosecond about the impending drubbing. Nothing to lose, as the cliche says.

The next six months will be the best and worst of times for the England coach. Too much time to contemplate, tinker, fiddle and worry. Now that form has been put to his dream, Hoddle's homework will begin. He knows dates and places, times and teams. He can spend hours doodling with names on his jotter at Lancaster Gate, wondering whether Colombia will play a sweeper and whether to go for a morale-boosting victory against Tunisia in the opening match or settle for the traditional stalemate. He will study videos, formations and tactics, knowing all along that all his best-laid plans will be ruined by injury, earthquake or suspension.

The trick is to find the middle ground so that his England team are critically prepared, yet not weighed down by detail. Somewhere there has to be a happy medium between the inch-thick dossiers of Don Revie and the "goodness I didn't know they could play that well" chaos theory of Ally Macleod and his Tartan Army. World Cups are usually won by spontaneous combustion - by a Rossi, Romario or Hurst - not a slow burning fuse. Patience will be a key virtue over the next few months and luck the key element in success. As a coach, Hoddle is entering new ground already and contrary to the opinions of the popular press, Group G is not a doddle for Hoddle, but a nasty, trappy little number which will test England's nerve to the full.

Besides the simple task of allocating teams to matches, the draw in Marseilles marked the beginning of the end of an era. Joao Havelange has turned the simplest of games into a billion-dollar business and it was richly ironic that the great despot's idea of a handsome legacy should be measured in dollars. He will pass on, he said, contracts worth $4bn to his successor, a sum bigger than the GDP of at least two of the nations participating in his final World Cup. According to the rumblings last week, his last will and testament would be fulfilled if South Africa hosted the 2006 World Cup and not, by extension, the home of football.

Havelange, never much of an Anglophile, would enjoy the symmetry: the newest of the sporting brotherhood snubbing the oldest. Privately, the FA believe their case is strong and will become stronger over the next two years as the social and political dangers of selecting South Africa mount and the solidity of their own bid in the wake of Euro 96 is recognised. For all their recent whingeing about everything from seeding to ticketing, boring old England has the virtue of being a safe bet.

By then, heaven knows what ballyhoo will accompany the draw. pounds 5m was the tab for Thursday night, mere pocket money for the bigwigs at Fifa or the organisers of the 1998 World Cup, but a hefty injection of bread for the backstreet economies of Havelange's native Brazil. It was all very impressive. If the tournament can rise above the petty bureaucracy of the French, it promises to be a cracker. In the meantime, I'll make do with the real draw, with the plastic drums and the velvet bag, with the balls and the eggboxes, with Nat and Alan and the promise of an awayday to Peterborough.

The sight of John McEnroe, video only marginally slowed from the old days, matching volley and groundstroke with a familiar foe beneath the organ pipes of the Royal Albert Hall showed how speedy can be the journey from pariah to character. McEnroe was once refused the membership of the All England Club usually accorded aWimbledon champion because his behaviour was so outrageous. But this last week has seen Superbrat feted as a cherished relic, a quaint old character in an age of automatons, a suitable case for nostalgia.

Sport has a redeeming capacity for healing. Only last summer, D K Lillee, bat-thrower, umpire-baiter and general cricketing bad boy was welcomed heartily into the box of the Test Match Special team, all his sins exorcised in a welter of TMS-style jocularity. "Good old Dennis, once attacked Javed Miandad on the field. What a laugh. Don't make chaps like that anymore, do they?"

Seamlessly, without any discernible effort, McEnroe has become a character, a television pundit and self-confessed tennis dinosaur. He cannot really be serious about the Seniors Tour - it is still not his scene - but the warmth of the applause at the Albert Hall signalled an emotional acceptance never won during his years at Wimbledon. Mac has mellowed. What next? Linford Christie discovering a career in public relations? He was on our television screens last week, all smiles and bonhomie. The metamorphosis has begun.