On Friday, his Cup will be brimming

December 07, 2005|By JOHN EISENBERG

More than 1 billion people will be watching Friday afternoon when the 32 teams that qualified for next summer's soccer World Cup finals find out whom they'll be playing.

The event known as the Final Draw entrances the public in just about every country other than the United States, where millions won't care or even be aware it is happening, even though the U.S. team is now among the best dozen in the world. (ESPN2 will commit ratings suicide, take a brief break from poker, rodeo and timber sports and broadcast the live feed from Germany at 3 p.m.)

Where people care, the draw elicits intense scrutiny and wild speculation. It's a complicated affair. The names are deposited in five pots by geographic region (Serbia and Montenegro has its own pot; don't ask). They're then split into eight four-team groups as names are pulled from pots. There is no evidence supporting the urban myth about the proceedings being fixed, but when a revolving drum carrying team names malfunctioned in Spain in 1982, millions of conspiracy theorists thought they had proof. (They didn't.)

Beyond our borders, fans are obsessing over a multitude of questions as the draw nears. Who will wind up in the group with host Germany? (A bad place to be.) Who will get stuck with Brazil, the defending champion? (Just as bad.) Which African qualifier will surprise the world? Togo? Which group will be the toughest, earning the nickname "Group of Death"?

When the Netherlands wasn't among the eight teams that received a top group seeding yesterday, the story was a worldwide scandal.

Meanwhile, in America, where soccer's lukewarm appeal is a persistent tale, there seems to be more interest in baseball's version of a World Cup, officially known as the World Baseball Classic - an event that has never been held (and already a classic!).

Admittedly, the inaugural Classic, scheduled for March, could be a terrific addition to the crowded schedule of major sports events. Since the fantasy football season will be over, people should have time to watch.

Going over batting orders and pitching rotations by country is an endlessly entertaining barstool exercise (the Dominican Republic lineup is just sick) and seeing it come to life promises to be even better.

I do wish they weren't seemingly just letting some guys play for whatever country they want. Mike Piazza gets to catch for Italy because one of his grandparents was born there? Why not also Canada because he traveled there to play the Expos?

In the end, the event will probably be most popular with Latin American fans, who desperately want their athletes to be properly respected and, unlike American fans, won't be exhausted from having spent all February watching ice dancing and the half-pipe from the Winter Olympics. (Idle question: Can you have fantasy half-pipe? Or is that just called college?)

Anyway, it looks like most of the best major leaguers are going to show, and even though there'll be pitching limits that could give the event more of an exhibition feel, baseball deserves kudos for a fine idea - blatantly stolen from soccer, of course.

Personally, I wish Americans were more into the soccer Cup. I covered the 1990 Cup in Italy, and it's still the best assignment I ever had - so great I hesitate to use the term "assignment." It was like being in a Hemingway novel, traipsing around Europe writing and eating.

The soccer wasn't great (not much scoring), but the passion of the fans was energizing. The Italians made NFL draft zealots look uninterested. The whole country shut down when the home team played. You could go to a restaurant to watch, but the staff wouldn't serve you a cracker, much less a meal. Couldn't you see the game was on?

My favorite pastime was hanging around outside stadiums before games and watching cultures mingle. I bought a Cameroon "Indomitable Lions" T-shirt from a barefoot vendor, and even though it's ratty now, I'll never get rid of it.

I also came home with a Soviet soccer cap, a red relic replete with hammer and sickle - can't find those at Target.

The 1994 Cup, held in the United States, was successful in its own right. I covered that, too, and can still hear the roar that rattled Giants Stadium when Ireland scored the lone goal that beat Italy.

My various World Cup experiences hooked me, I guess. I got up in the middle of the night to watch some of the 2002 telecasts from Japan and South Korea, and I'll be watching next summer, too, wondering if it's possible to buy a Togo T-shirt on the Internet.

As the names are pulled from their pots Friday and hearts around the world palpitate, I'll be watching.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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