England left unseeded in the realms of chance

 

England will not be seeded when the draw for the 1998 World Cup is made in Marseilles tomorrow. It is five years and two managers since Graham Taylor failed to qualify for the 1994 tournament, but this has been enough to expose Glenn Hoddle's team to the risk of meeting Brazil, the holders, France, the hosts, Argentina, Germany or even Italy again in the opening phase.

Spain, Holland and Romania complete the seedings announced by FIFA yesterday and arrived at by combining the results of the last three World Cups with the current world rankings. Both England and Bulgaria, who finished level on 127 points under the system operated by the organising committee, were well behind the Dutch, the last in the list of seeds and one place above them with 149.

"England have probably been penalised because they were not in the last World Cup," said Sepp Blatter, the general secretary of FIFA. So reaching the semi-finals under Bobby Robson in 1990 and qualifying directly for next summer's tournament by forcing Italy into a play-off with Russia has not been enough to spare Hoddle's team a lottery which, by the standards of past World Cup draws, leaves more to chance than usual.

Yesterday Hoddle did his best to put on a brave face. "It's no surprise to me that we're not seeded," he said. "It's been decided on us not getting there in '94. All I can say about this is let's make sure we never fail to qualify for a World Cup again and suffer in the same way."

While the full effects will only be apparent when the draw is made, it is obvious that to reach the second round by filling one of the top two places in their group England could find themselves having to see off not only Brazil, say, but Nigeria and Croatia.

An easier group, in theory at any rate, would find them up against Romania, South Africa and Paraguay. England would probably settle equally for Holland, Morocco and Japan. And of course they could meet Scotland, one of their opponents at Wembley in Euro '96, in a World Cup tournament for the first time.

"I won't lose any sleep if we're pitched in with Brazil, whether we beat them or lose to them," said Hoddle. "We have two other games in the opening group and we would not have to play Brazil until the final. In fact it will be an advantage if Brazil are in our group."

At the same time Hoddle hoped England would not be saddled with a "group of death" situation tomorrow. "We virtually had that in the qualifiers," he said. "Yes, we came through it, but we hoping for an easier ride this time."

With the World Cup stadiums in Nantes and St Etienne reluctant to remove perimeter fences, despite pleas from FIFA, it might be assumed that somehow England will end up playing two Group B matches at these grounds following the crowd trouble in Rome. But yesterday Keith Cooper, a FIFA spokesman, insisted that this would not be a factor.

Blatter, moreover, pointed out that the removal of fences at British grounds had shown that spectators behaved better once the barriers had been moved. "Why are we aggressive? Because we are behind bars?" he said. In fact Fifa has accepted that poor ticket distribution and over-aggressive policing contributed to the incidents in Rome's Stadio Olimpico.

For the first 32-nation World Cup more has been left to chance. The seeds having been decided, the remaining 24 finalists will be divided by geography rather than form, the only complication being the impossibility of dividing nine Europeans equally among eight groups.

Hoddle's team will go into the pot containing the nine unseeded European teams, one of which will join seven finalists from South America and Asia. The odd nation out will find themselves in the group headed by Brazil or Argentina.

A separate draw will be made to decide this while making sure no group contains three European countries. All the South American, African, Asian and CONCACAF (North and Latin America and the Caribbean) finalists will be kept apart.

Had FIFA based their seedings solely on the world rankings, England, at present lying sixth, would have been among the top eight. But the overall records of the finalists since August 1993, when the rankings were inaugurated, only formed 40 per cent of the reckoning.

With 60 per cent of the calculations based on recent World Cup achievements England have to some extent been the victims of a FIFA compromise. Blatter implied that the rankings would carry more weight in the 2002 tournament.

The best piece of news for Hoddle yesterday was FIFA's decision to declare an amnesty on yellow cards received in the qualifiers.

Guardian Service.