- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 19, 2005

The long journey to the 2006 World Cup in Germany, which began in September 2003 when South American teams began qualifying games, is over. The 32-team lineup is finally set, and the next big event leading up to the June9 tournament openers is the World Cup draw in Leipzig, Germany, on Dec. 9.

At the blind draw, the 32 finalists will be divided into four pots based on seeding. Then, eight groups of four teams will be drawn for the opening-round games.

An argument could be made that the U.S. team deserves to be one of the top eight seeds at the draw, and thus avoid playing big guns Brazil, Germany, Argentina, France, Italy and England in its opening three games. The Americans won the CONCACAF region qualifying group in 2005 above Mexico — the team it beat to reach the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup in Asia — and are ranked seventh in the world.

Mexico is certain to be one of the top eight seeds since it is only one of four teams, including Brazil, Italy and Germany, to have advanced out of the opening round in the last three finals. But it would seem unlikely for FIFA, soccer’s governing body, to choose two seeds from the CONCACAF region (including North and Central America and the Caribbean), despite the success of CONCACAF teams at recent finals.

At the draw for the 2002 World Cup, the top seeds were determined based on results in the last three World Cups and its rankings during the last three years. But FIFA has sent mixed signals on how the seeding will be decided this time around. More emphasis might be placed on a team’s ranking. The process will be decided on Dec. 6, three days before the draw.

Despite advancing to the second round in 1994 and the quarterfinals in 2002 (eighth place), America’s dead-last finish in France in 1998 counts against it, if FIFA uses its traditional seeding formula.

A study on how the seedings might look using the 2002 system, done last month by a leading British newspaper, had the U.S. team listed at No. 10 behind Holland, with Mexico seeded No. 4.

It’s expected that the top eight teams in “Pot A” will be automatic seeds Brazil (champion) and Germany (hosts), along with Spain, Mexico, Argentina, England, Italy and France, but nothing is certain.

FIFA boss Sepp Blatter left some teams sweating recently, when according to England’s Daily Mail he said: “The seeded teams won’t only be decided on their FIFA ranking, but also on results obtained in the 1998 and 2002 World Cups. With the selection procedures, I think the national teams of Holland and England have reason to be worried. Even Italy might not get a place.”

If, as Blatter says, Italy and England should be worried and the rankings are considered more, it bodes well for the U.S. team. Then again, the flamboyant and outspoken Blatter might be just trying to drum up suspense for the upcoming draw, as other FIFA officials suggest the previous system of seeding will be used.

Unless there is a major surprise, the U.S. team and two other CONCACAF teams — Costa Rica and Trinidad and Tobago, likely will be placed in the same pot as the five African teams. (The United States never has played an African team at the World Cup.)

That sets up the possibility of the U.S. team being drawn into a tough group (rankings listed) with the likes of Brazil (1), Holland (2) and Switzerland (38), or an easier group that could include Spain (8), Serbia and Montenegro (42) and Australia (54). The only time the U.S. got a top seed was when it held the 1994 World Cup and was drawn against Colombia, Switzerland and Romania.

As for now, it’s still a guessing game.

Who will win? — Only seven teams — Uruguay, Brazil, Germany, Italy, England, Argentina and France — have won the World Cup and all of them are going to Germany except Uruguay. Anyone of them could win the title again.

However, South American teams have struggled when the World Cup has been in Europe. Only Brazil has won one of the 10 events in Europe, and that was at Stockholm, Sweden, in 1958.

Likewise, no European team has won the Cup in the eight finals held outside Europe. The South Americans claimed all of them, including the ones in the United States in 1994 and Asia in 2002, which were both won by Brazil.

Things could be different next year. The rosters of Argentina and Brazil will be stocked exclusively with European-based players.

That’s a far cry from the 1978 World Cup when all of Brazil’s players were home-based and all of Argentina’s players, except for one, played in Argentina.

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