Unfair slant to World Cup draw

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The Independent Online

Germany play in South Africa on Friday, with England likely to follow in May. In recent months, Nigeria, Colombia and Japan have all played at Wembley; Romania have played in Brazil and the Japanese hosted Ecuador, Scotland and Saudi Arabia.

Modern jet travel has so shrunk the world that international teams are truly international. Yet Fifa, the game's governing body, remains locked into a regional mentality and tonight's 1998 World Cup draw in Paris will again be split into continental groupings.

This is unnecessary, even unfair. If the 171 competing countries were thrown, seeded, into the same hat, there would be no need of the politicking that accompanies the division of regional spoils. Nor would the finals have to be inflated into a grotesque 32 teams to accommodate the deals.

If the groups were global, Africa's well-founded claims for more qualifiers could be justified in competition - as could Europe's case for pre-eminence. Some regionalisation would be sensible. The likes of San Marino, the Soloman Islands and Macao could play regional preliminaries, just as the FA Cup's early rounds are divided into north and south sections. Money ought not be a problem, selling the marketing and television rights to the 2002 competition is expected to realise $2bn (pounds 1.3bn).

Maybe if Lennart Johansson succeeds in toppling the autocratic Joao Havelange from the presidency of Fifa, the system will change. For now we are stuck with the old and Europe will be a qualifying minefield.

Back in the days of velvet bags, England's draw could be predicted: Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, Albania and Azerbaijan - all places beyond the reach of the hooligans. Now, however, Fifa are not even planning to make provision for keeping the former Yugoslav nations apart. In the week, and the city, that Bosnia, Crotia and Serbia (known as Yugoslavia in football terms) are due to sign a peace agreement, they may find themselves drawn together.

England, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland are pooled in the second group of seeds and cannot play each other. Europe will have 14 qualifiers from 49 entrants plus France, who qualify as hosts. They will be divided into nine groups, five of five teams and four of six. Winners qualify along with the best second-placed team. The other eight second-placed teams will be involved in two-legged play-offs. It could mean playing 12 matches to qualify.

"I am a little bit surprised," Terry Venables, the England coach, said yesterday, "that teams would still have to go into a play-off after all that."

1998 WORLD CUP European Qualifying Section: Pool A: Germany, Spain, Italy, Russia, Norway, Denmark, Netherlands, Sweden, Romania. Pool B: Bulgaria, Switzerland, Portugal, Czech Republic, England, Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Belgium, Greece. Pool C: Turkey, Poland, Slovakia, Austria, Croatia, Israel, Finland, Lithuania, Northern Ireland. Pool D: Iceland, Latvia, Wales, Hungary, Cyprus, Ukraine, Slovenia, Georgia, Yugoslavia. Pool E: Albania, Belarus, Malta, Macedonia, Luxembourg, Moldova, Armenia, Faroe Islands, Estonia. Pool F: Azerbaijan, San Marino, Liechtenstein, Bosnia.