THE FINAL WORD: Name your price for a Polynesian play-off

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The Independent Online
It was all happening in Paris last week and we're not talking about revolting citizens, burning barricades and French phlegm. We're talking war and peace.

First to the Louvre where, with the Mona Lisa looking on, Fifa came up with a draw for the World Cup that had horrible overtones of war. Yes, out of the blue tin helmet came Bosnia and Croatia in Group 1 of the European qualifiers.

Now to the Elysees Palace where, with Bill Clinton looking on, Bosnia and Croatia agreed to a goalless draw after nearly four years of fighting. Or were the two events transposed? Anything's possible in the World Cup and such is the scale and complexity of the operation that it may not be a bad idea for Fifa and the UN to swap roles.

When the draw that people could die for was announced, there was a gasp from the audience of 2,500, most of whom thought they had bought a ticket for the museum. It was even suggested that Ms Lisa raised her eyebrows. Actually, she did better than that. Fifa had a film of her lunging out of her frame to head a football.

"The situation is a bit bizarre, but it changes nothing," said Faruk Hadzibegic, who sounds like a country but is, in fact, the Bosnian team representative. "We will seek victory each time." A few steps away Branko Miksa, who sounds like a kitchen utensil but is, in fact, a Croatian football official, admitted: "The draw does have symbolic significance."

In the same group with Denmark and Greece is Slovenia (another former Yugoslav republic) while in Group 6 the Serbia-based Yugoslav team (known as Rump Yugoslavia to avoid confusion) makes a return to the World Cup after missing the 1994 championship because of the war.

Hadzibegic added that Bosnia would not play their home games at home. They'll play them in Bologna instead. The Italians have also offered the use of a hall for practice.

Now none of this is to be confused with yesterday's draw for next year's European Championship finals which (the first team out of the hat became the fourth team in the first group and the second the fourth team in the second group etc) was a piece of cake compared to the World Cup.

Staying with the European group for the World Cup for a minute, only one team will automatically advance while the runner-up has a chance to progress based on their record compared to other runners-up in the nine groups. In all, there will be 172 teams and thousands of matches played all over the place, from Aruba to Zimbabwe, taking in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kirghizistan. There are, of course, some mouth-watering local derbies. For example, the African zone throws up Guinea-Bissau versus Guinea. Put a sovereign on the home team.

The latest betting has Brazil 4-1 favourites, the United States 200-1 and you can name your own price for the winner of the Melanesian-Polynesian play-off. Nor is there a lot of money on Bosnia. They are playing in Bologna because some of their stadiums are war-ravaged and others are in Serb territory. A Bosnian professional league was started two months ago but bad weather has suspended play until next February. Another factor is diet. Our man in Sarajevo says that players from Tuzla and Zenica have been able to eat regularly and are in better shape.

Meanwhile, Terry Venables was grateful that England avoided the four six-team groups and are in a group of five. "It's still very complex," Tel said. "I don't know why they didn't just have seven groups of seven." Scotland were grateful for avoiding Vietnam and Vanuatu, but worried about playing 12 matches from the end of the European Championship, which is when the World Cup begins.

The picture is much clearer in South America. Argentina, Colombia and Uruguay know which other South American teams they have to meet. All of them. All nine teams will play each other in a round-robin format with four joining Brazil in the last 32. And who did Pele pick to win the whole damn shooting match when it finally reaches Paris in 1998? "Brazil," he said, "with my son in goal." This is what he told reporters at a bar in London instead of at the draw in Paris. The great striker couldn't get to France because of the strikes.

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