World Cup Draw: 'Dump Truck' drops a heavy load

European powers England and Germany found themselves grouped in World Cup 2002 preliminary qualifying. The United States will wait until later to find out whom - and, most important, when - it will play in the semifinal stage of qualifying.

Outside Japan, few soccer fans would have heard of Ozeki Konishiki before the World Cup 2002 preliminary draw.

The Hawaiian-born Konishiki made a name for himself as a top-ranked sumo wrestler in the 1980s. Japanese gave the star yokuzuna the nickname "The Dump Truck" for his wide girth.

Well, Konishiki dropped a heavy load on Germany and England, placing the two European powers together in same qualifying group for the 2002 World Cup.

It took 90 minutes to place the record 198 entrants for the first World Cup of the new millennium, and it went off without much suspense Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Day, at the Tokyo International Forum until Konishiki's final two picks.

Konishiki, one of several Japanese sports celebrities who were enlisted to participate in the draw, had the honor of drawing Europe's top seeds from a bowl.

When the Hawaiian pulled the ball containing Romania's name, putting the Romanians in Group 8, that meant the last ball was Germany, which went into Group 9, where England - a second seed because of its poor record in Euro 2000 qualifying - had already been placed.

Germany and England aren't just two of soccer's historical powers - they have won four World Cups between them - they are currently engaged in a bitter campaign to win the right to host the 2006 World Cup.

By the time they meet in World Cup qualifying, one of the two European nations might have won the 2006 bid, leaving the loser with the opportunity to knock the 2006 host out of the 2002 finals.

(They will both have to overcome the strong South African candidacy, which has the support of FIFA president Sepp Blatter.)

Only the winners of the nine European groups earn automatic berths into the Korea/Japan finals, making the Germany-England group so competitive. The nine runners-up face playoffs.

Germany's Erich Ribbeck and England's Kevin Keegan took a light-hearted look at the draw, which placed their teams in Group 9 with Greece, Finland and Albania.

"Last night I had a beer with Kevin Keegan with the Finnish and Greek coaches sitting near us," Ribbeck said, "and we joked that we would get drawn against each other today. I knew this was going to happen."

Keegan knows Germany well.

"We've got an advantage, I suppose, because I speak the language and had three great years in Hamburg and am the best of friends with some of them," the England coach said. "But for these two games, we'll have to be the best of enemies."

The teams have met four times in the World Cup finals - and played a memorable semifinal at the England-hosted Euro 96 - but they have never met in World Cup qualifying.

No death sentence for Brazil

With his election as FIFA president, Blatter has retired as master of ceremonies at FIFA's World Cup draws.

In center stage was Michel Zen-Ruffinen, Blatter's successor as FIFA general secretary. (Close your eyes for a moment, and you'd swear you were listening to French chef Jacques Pepin on one of the PBS cooking shows.)

Zen-Ruffinen, the former Swiss international referee, had a lot of work supervising the drawing of 152 balls.

All the drama came at the end when Konishiki and former Mexican star Hugo Sanchez took turns emptying the five European pots.

The England-Germany group isn't even the toughest.

Group 6 contains three France '98 finalists - Belgium, Scotland and Croatia, which finished third at the '98 World Cup.

Euro 2000 finalists Yugoslavia and Slovenia are in Group 1 along with World Cup '94 teams Russia and Switzerland. Italy was a No. 2 seed in Group 8 behind Romania. Ireland was a No. 3 seed in Group 2 behind Euro 2000 finalists Netherlands and Portugal.

By contrast, there was little suspense surrounding the draws in the other confederations.

The top seeds are separated in Africa, Asia and Oceania for the first round. The attention will be on the draws for the second stage.

CONMEBOL, the South American confederation, had long since drawn up the 18-game schedule for its 10 teams. They have raised millions of dollars from the sale of escalating television rights for the marathon campaign, which begins March 28, 2000.

Blatter squashed rumors that Brazil, installed as the 4-1 favorite to win the 2002 World Cup, would be kicked out of the tournament for using three overage players in the last two under-17 competitions.

A decade ago, Mexico was handed a death sentence for using three overage age players in an under-20 CONCACAF tournament and missed Italia '90. A rule change now limits sanctions for abuse in a FIFA competition to that competition.

"I can tell you definitely that Brazil will not be suspended from the World Cup, whatever the outcome of the investigation," Blatter said hours before the draw.

Brazil is the only team to have played in all 16 World Cups, winning four times.

Trump Towers schedule-makers at work

By far the most complicated draw took place in CONCACAF. Zen-Ruffinen warned the Tokyo crowd that they wouldn't know what was going on, adding that he had a "rough idea."

A record 35 teams are entered in CONCACAF. But a huge gap separates giants like the United States, a 200-1 longshot to win the World Cup, and Mexico, which opened at 66-1, and the tiny islands of the Caribbean.

There's a lot of sentiment for newcomer Turks & Caicos in its first-round battle with Leeward Islands champion St. Kitts & Nevis.

Besides Mexico and the United States, first and third in this summer's Confederations Cup, Costa Rica and Jamaica, World Cup finalists for the first time in 1990 and '98, respectively, are through to the semifinals.

After that, the schedule-makers at the Trump Towers, headquarters for CONCACAF, got imaginative.

The other six Central American teams had to be placed into two preliminary groups.

Nineteen Caribbean teams were drawn with regional seeds Trinidad & Tobago, Cuba and St. Vincent & Grenadines and Bahamas and Bermuda, technically "North America" entrants, into 12 first-round pairings.

It will take three rounds before three Caribbean teams are through to the semifinals. The three runners-up get a second chance when they face two Central American runners-up and Canada, all but forgotten, in what have been dubbed "Interzone Playoffs."

(A Caribbean team can play as many as 24 games and still not make the 2002 World Cup.)

From the American perspective, the big question concerns not whom the United States will face next year in the CONCACAF semifinals - three groups of four teams like in 1996 - but when.

In 1996, MLS's inaugural season, U.S. Soccer managed to schedule all six U.S. games after the MLS playoffs. It may not be so lucky this time. (CONCACAF president Jack Warner, for his part, has a particular interest arranging his native Trinidad & Tobago's schedule around that of star Dwight Yorke's Manchester United.)

Complicating matters is that the 2000 Olympics take place in the second half of September. If the United States qualifies, U.S. Soccer may have to choose between fielding certain players - under-23 players like D.C. United star Ben Olsen and potential Olympic wild-cards - for the Olympic team and the national team.

The critical semifinal draw should be held next summer.

Konishiki, the Hawaiian sumo legend, is not expected to be available to assist the American effort.

by Soccer America managing editor Paul Kennedy

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