World Cup at point of overload

The 1998 World Cup will be the biggest yet. So too the qualification headaches, says Glenn Moore
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The Independent Online
It will not start for the English, Scottish and Irish until the weekend, but, for some countries, the 1998 World Cup is already over. Antigua, who have never qualified for a World Cup despite playing Viv Richards in one campaign, were the first to go, hit for six goals by Dominica back in March. The Caribbean island has since been joined in the land of broken dreams by more than two dozen of the original 173 entrants. They include 1982 finalists Algeria (which will be a relief to Germany).

Algeria's defeat by unfancied Kenya is the shock of the tournament so far, but bigger ones will come as the qualifying tournament unfolds over the next 15 months. Argentina, for example, are already struggling in the South American qualifiers.

The main surprises will, however, be in Europe, where places are once more at a premium. Although Fifa, the world's governing body, has again succumbed to elephantitis, expanding the World Cup to 32 countries, there are only 15 available to Europe - including the hosts, France.

That may seem plenty, as recently as Argentina in 1978 there were only 16 finalists in total. Yet Europe had 11 finalists even then and, though African football in particular has improved enormously (note Nigeria's Olympic win), Europe maintains an unrivalled strength in depth. Brazil may have won the last World Cup, but the other seven quarter-finalists were from Europe (and only three of those also made the last eight of Euro 96).

Several leading European countries are thus in danger of missing the party in 1998, among them England. They have been drawn in arguably the strongest of Europe's nine groups. Italy, despite failing in Euro 96 and the Olympics, have a lot of quality at their disposal, and trips behind the former Iron Curtain will not be easy.

It is on those journeys, beginning with the weekend visit to Moldova, that England's progress will be decided. Only the group winners qualify automatically along with the best of the nine runners-up. The other eight runners-up pair off into play-offs with the four winners going through. If England fail to top Italy, they will need to do very well against Poland, Moldova and Georgia if they are to gain that best runners-up spot.

Scotland - the only Euro 96 finalist in their group - and the Republic of Ireland, paired with ageing Romania, can harbour genuine hopes of winning their groups. For Northern Ireland and Wales, the aim may be more prosaic.

It would take an exceptional performance for Northern Ireland to head either Germany or Portugal, while Wales, who have already begun their campaign, seem ill-equipped to beat the Netherlands or Belgium.

If they do not qualify, it is important that they do well. Such has been the explosion in European nations (50 entrants this time, against 36 in 1994) there is a very real chance that, come the next European Championships or World Cup, pre-qualifying will be introduced to reduce fixture overload.

Such a move would be welcomed - possibly forced - by the big European clubs. Roy Evans merely articulated the thought of many managers when he said, at the weekend, that football must be the only industry in which companies (ie, Liverpool) lend their assets (Jamie Redknapp) to another (England) and get them back broken without compensation.

The club-country argument is an old one, but, in the wake of the big clubs' growing commercial involvement and muscle, the balance is changing. Fifa has been keen to enforce national powers by such measures as the five-day rule (which forces clubs to release players), but Uefa's capitulation over Champions' League places shows the way the financial wind is blowing.

At present, it is a problem exclusive to Western Europe - in other areas the national side takes pre-eminence. South American countries still put their players into national camps for months on end while Algeria reacted to their World Cup exit by suspending their domestic league.

A similar response by the Premiership is inconceivable. Indeed, there will be those in the Premiership who would be pleased if England lost in Moldova. As a Scotsman, Alex Ferguson would find it hard to suppress a snigger anyway, but the thought that half his team would be resting in the summer of 1998 is a tempting one. There were few tears at Old Trafford over the absence from Euro 96 of Eric Cantona, Ryan Giggs and Roy Keane.

International coaches retort that club players benefit from being involved in international football - Glenn Hoddle said as much about David Beckham this week. A similar argument is usually put forward about European club football - that experience of it improves players' international performances.

And yet, would Steve McManaman, Alan Shearer, Gary Neville, Stuart Pearce and Paul Gascoigne have been as impressive in Euro 96 if their clubs had been involved in draining European competitions until the end of May? English clubs were regular trophy-winners in Europe in the 1970s yet failed to qualify for two World Cups. In 1986 and 1990, when they were banned from Europe, they reached a quarter-final and a semi-final.

It is the usual problem of too many matches and it is one reason why, despite the ease of air travel, the logical extension of World Cup qualifying to be truly global is unlikely to happen. While a qualifying group of England, South Africa, Thailand, Tahiti and Chile is an attractive one, the logistical problems appear insurmountable. As far as the people who pay the wages - the clubs - are concerned, Moldova is far enough.