Brackets kick off World Cup '94 today

December 08, 1991|By Bill Glauber

In the world of soccer, this is opening day. But there will be no first kick, no ceremony to mark a two-year chase for global supremacy.

Instead, the leaders of the sport will gather today in the Paramount Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York, and they will watch as, one by one, countries are called, brackets are filled and qualifying is launched for the 1994 World Cup.

"The United States doesn't have an interest yet," said Bobby Charlton, captain of England's 1966 World Cup championship team. "But around the world, this draw will be watched by everyone. It's the start of a great race."

The great race will stretch across six continents and involve 143 countries, culminating in a 24-team final in the United States in the summer of 1994. Defending champion Germany and the host United States already have qualified.

For others, dangers loom.

The Soviet Union will find itself competing for one of 13 European slots against Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Nine South American powers will scramble for three places.

In first-round games, Iraq will remain separated from its Persian Gulf war opponents, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

"There are certain levels of teams like England and France, who [if] drawn together, could eliminate each other," Charlton said. "There is doubt. Sometimes, there is not a great difference between the top teams. Everyone has a chance."

Charlton, a spokesman for MasterCard International, a World Cup sponsor, said the country with the most to gain in the next two years is the United States. Even though it won't have to go through the rigors of qualifying, the U.S. team will have an opportunity to improve through exhibitions and world tours.

"I'm realistic," Charlton said. "I don't think at the moment you can say the United States can win the World Cup. Nevertheless, I've seen the emergence of countries you don't expect to do well. For instance, in 1990, Cameroon did well in Italy. Also, the United States is young and enthusiastic. The general expectation of the Americans is that they go for it."

According to Charlton, the home field can often mean everything in the World Cup. Playing in front of raucous crowds at Wembley Stadium, Charlton and England ruled the soccer pitch in 1966. He may have scored 198 goals in more than 600 matches for Manchester United, but he is remembered as a national hero for his extraordinary performance in the World Cup.

"We were the best in the world," he said. "We had a result that meant it would be on people's minds forever. To win the World Cup is the most unbelievable thing. You set off hoping to be a pro player. You aspire to be a world champion. What else can you do? It's glory, if you seek glory. It's not for fame and for fortune."

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