Saturday, December 10, 2005

ATH: World Cup Draw Ouch

Oh my, we open with the Czech Republic! And they're not even the top seed in the group! That's Italy -- our second opponent. Then it's Ghana, an unknown on the world stage -- which may mean, as has been traditional, that they'll surprise everyone.

Not sure how things could have been worse. Unless you consider that if we get past the first round, the likely second round opponent would be Brazil.

Or maybe the group with both the Dutch and Argentina, unless you're the Dutch or Argentina.

Draw Done, World Cup Stage Is Set for the Elite
By MARK LANDLER, The New York Times, December 10, 2005

FRANKFURT, Dec. 9 - In an elaborately choreographed ceremony featuring Pelé and the German supermodel Heidi Klum, 32 national soccer teams and hundreds of millions of fans worldwide were put through an exercise in high anxiety as the draw for next year's World Cup was determined Friday in Leipzig.

The event, which was broadcast live in 145 countries, was a potential foretelling of whether teams would sprint to glory in the 2006 World Cup, or exit early in ignominy.

The matchups were drawn six months before the World Cup kicks off in Munich with a game between Germany and Costa Rica. A three-time winner of the World Cup, Germany is host of the tournament for the first time since the country was reunified in 1990.

Brazil, the defending champion and five-time winner, will play Croatia in its first game of the tournament, while the United States will face the Czech Republic, which is ranked second in the world.

The 32 teams were parceled into eight groups of four. The two top teams in each group will advance to the round of 16. The final will be played in Berlin on July 9.

"There is no really weak and no really strong group," said Franz Beckenbauer, the head of Germany's World Cup organizing committee and a former star player who led the country to a World Cup title in 1974. "It's rather well balanced."

Inevitably, though, some countries felt more relief than others. Germany's coach, Jürgen Klinsmann, said his team could have fared worse than being placed in a group with Costa Rica, Poland and Ecuador.

The United States, which reached the quarterfinals in 2002, faces daunting competition in the first round. In their opener, the Americans face the Czech Republic, which nearly won the European championship in 2004. They will then play Italy, a perennial power, and Ghana, a first-time qualifier and one of five African teams in the tournament.

If the United States finishes second in its group and Brazil is first in its group, they will meet in the round of 16.

"I'm not disappointed," said Bruce Arena, the United States' coach. "I expected us to be drawn into a difficult group."

Arena said he was grateful that the United States, which is ranked eighth in the world, was not placed in a group with Brazil, Argentina or Germany. And he said he relished the prospect of playing an African team. "We know it will be difficult," he said.

Among other potentially treacherous groups is one that comprises Argentina, the Netherlands, Ivory Coast, and Serbia and Montenegro. Also in the first round, three nations will play against their former colonial powers: Trinidad and Tobago against England, Angola against Portugal and Togo against France.

The draw is the unofficial kickoff for the tournament, and the German organizers used it as a kind of road test for next summer's festivities. On Thursday evening, about 30,000 people braved rainy weather to form a human chain, stretching from the center of Leipzig to the stadium. The former tennis star Boris Becker was among the German sports luminaries who participated.

By all accounts, Germany is as well prepared as any recent host country for the month-long tournament. Ten of its 12 stadiums are ready, and construction on the remaining two - in Stuttgart and Kaiserslautern - will be finished by January, according to the organizing committee.

But Germany's road to the World Cup has not been without bumps. Last month, a referee was sentenced to prison for his role in a match-fixing scheme. The scandal cast a shadow over German soccer for much of the year as it was preparing for the tournament.

Soccer's world governing body, FIFA, has also come under sharp criticism for its ticket-sales practices, particularly for charging a nonrefundable fee to people who enter a lottery for tickets.

Members of the European Parliament protested that people must pay the price of the ticket, plus the fee of 5 euros, or $5.87, to enter a lottery, which will not be held until February. Saying that amounts to an interest-free loan to FIFA, they have asked the European Commission to investigate.

"Complaints about tickets will follow us until five minutes before the kickoff of the final match," said Wolfgang Niersbach, executive vice president for the German organizing committee.

Security is another potential problem. German authorities are planning a significant police presence in and around the stadiums, but some officials express fear that they will not be able to prevent violence, like the hooliganism that erupted during the 1998 World Cup in France.

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