Everyone's a winner in FIFA lottery
MARSEILLES gave us Cantona, and gave France the contaminated glory of Bernard Tapie, whose money bought the European Cup. So what now awaits England, Scotland and 30 others at the World Cup draw tonight in this intriguing Mediterranean port?The playing field is level. People can look for sinister arrangements, for so-called groups of death, or for easy pickings but they cannot really second-guess what will come out of what is transparently the most equitable system that FIFA has devised.
Just as the seedings were perfectly proper, so the new format of separating countries by geography rather than arbitrary second, third and fourth seedings, makes the main draw equally so.
It may have the trappings of absurd theatre, it may resemble the glitzy wrapping around a short message inside a Christmas cracker, but tonight has all the makings of a decent lottery.
Swilling around the harbour is intrigue, phobia, fantasy. Yet what is the point of speculating on ``best-case scenarios?''
England are about to realise their fate, and it is a shallow observer who would deem, for example, Romania, Jamaica and Iran as easy prey.
The Romanians are rightly seeded they were competitive through to the last eight in 1994, they were rampant in qualifying, and while their stars may be long in the tooth, the first round is precisely when you would not want to catch them.
The same remark applies to Iran, who are not technically in the same class, not experienced, but are likely to be running on almost religious fervour in the early matches.
As for the main competition, it is true that the World Cup has expanded, yet that affords each team a 50-50 chance of reaching the second round.
Moreover, the expansion fulfils the promise that FIFA president Joao Havelange made when he was voted into power almost 25 years ago on the generosity of African voting.
He said then that he would do all in his power to raise that continent to world standards, that he would send them coaches, finance, and eventually places at the top table of international football.
They are here, and Nigeria, in particular, has the force, the ability, the courage that belies African disorganisation attributes that no-one in their right mind will be happy to be drawn against.
They could, the Olympic champions, be World Cup semi-finalists, if only they can hire a manager and arrange some preparatory games.
Certainly, teams from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, could rouse themselves to take advantage of any first-round opponent who was complacent.
This evening, as the names tumble out, it must be remembered that football is, increasingly, a lingua franca.
Everyone is entitled to hope, everyone should believe in the efficacy of this draw, and everyone will have time to prepare for their known opponents next summer.
Meanwhile, Alan Shearer yesterday set his sights on a March comeback and gave England fans the promise they have wanted to hear: ``I will be fit for the World Cup.''
Shearer's ankle injury has left him on the sidelines since August.
But the striker is adamant that he will be back in action in the spring, and bursting to make his mark at the greatest show on earth next summer.
``The recovery is going extremely well,'' said Shearer. ``I'm running at three-quarter pace, just below a sprint.''
Liverpool have accepted Coventry Ciry's £800,000 bid for veteran midfielder Michael Thomas.
Ray Harford is set to become the new boss at QPR after rejecting a bid to keep him at West Brom.
Leeds have had talks with Republic of Ireland international Gary Kelly with a view to keeping him at Elland Road for the next five years. Kelly's current deal runs out in 1989.
The Times, London.