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SOCCER / GRAHAME L. JONES : Qualifying for World Cup ’98 Isn’t Far Off

Five months from today, on April 6, Mythical League Soccer--the league with 57 players and one coach--opens play.

But don’t despair, 18 days later something actually important happens in the world of soccer.

On April 24, Argentina is host to Bolivia, Colombia entertains Paraguay, Peru is at Ecuador and Venezuela is home against Uruguay.

And with those four matches, qualifying for the 1998 World Cup in France will be well and truly under way.

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A mere 21 months after Brazil defeated Italy at the Rose Bowl to end World Cup ’94, the ball starts rolling again.

In fact, it might start even earlier than that.

South America last week became the first confederation to announce its schedule of qualifying games for France ’98, but it is possible that another confederation, perhaps CONCACAF, will open its schedule as early as March.

On Dec. 12, at the Louvre in Paris, the draw for worldwide qualifying play will be held.

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With most, if not all, of FIFA’s 191 member countries expected to enter, it will take until November 1997 to whittle that number down to the 30 that will join host France and defending champion Brazil in the finals.

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South America is taking a new approach to qualifying this time around.

In the past, the confederation has confined its qualifying matches to a two- or three-month period in the year immediately preceding the World Cup.

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This time, CONMEBOL has elected to spread the games out over 19 months.

The nine countries will play each other twice, home and away, in a double round-robin format, with the top four qualifying for France.

The proposed schedule, which requires FIFA approval next month, is likely to cause problems among European clubs that will be required to release their top South American players frequently throughout the 19 months.

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Chile will make its reappearance on the World Cup stage June 2 when it travels to Venezuela for its first qualifying match.

The Chileans failed to qualify for World Cup ’90 in Italy and were banned from World Cup ’94 after that infamous qualifying match against Brazil in 1989 in which Chile goalkeeper Roberto Rojas feigned injury, claiming to have been struck in the head by an object thrown from the Brazilian crowd.

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The United States could play 16 qualifying games, eight at home and eight on the road, under the latest plan proposed to FIFA by CONCACAF, the North and Central American and Caribbean confederation.

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Earlier, it had been decided that the region’s last two qualifying rounds would consist of two groups of six teams each. That would have meant 20 qualifying games, but FIFA said that was too many.

The new plan proposes three groups of four teams in the penultimate qualifying round, with the top two in each group advancing to a six-team final qualifying round.

CONCACAF will send three qualifiers to France ’98, with Mexico considered a lock and Canada, Costa Rica, Honduras, Trinidad & Tobago and the United States most likely to be fighting for the other two spots.

Soccer Notes

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In an effort to start the season with more than 57 players, MLS has announced that it will hold tryouts in each of its 10 cities. The Los Angeles Galaxy tryouts are scheduled for Dec. 2-3. Information can be obtained by calling (800) 678-1328, the league said. There was no word on tryouts for coaches. . . . Brazilian national team midfielder Juninho, 22, has been acquired by Middlesbrough of the English Premier League from Sao Paulo for $7.5 million. Middlesbrough, coached by former England and Manchester United star Bryan Robson, also features Bolivian international winger Jaime Moreno. . . . Osvaldo Ardilles, Argentina’s 1978 World Cup-winning midfielder, is on his way out as coach of Guadalajara only a handful of games into the new Mexican League season. Dutch coach Leo Beenhakker, fired by Club America last season, is seen as his likely successor. Guadalajara apparently is unaware or untroubled by the fact that Beenhakker resigned as coach of Turkish first division team Istanbulspor last month after the team lost seven of its first eight games.

Richard Moeller Nielsen, who coached Denmark to the European Championship in 1992, will take charge of Finland’s national team after the 1996 European Championship in England. Moeller Nielsen, 58, has signed a four-year contract with the Finnish soccer federation. . . . Goals by Hao Haidong and Li Bin gave China a 2-1 victory over Colombia in front of 60,000 at Beijing’s Workers’ Stadium. Alexis Mendoza got Colombia’s lone goal late in the game. . . . FIFA President Joao Havelange is likely to get a less-than-enthusiastic welcome when he leads a delegation of officials to Nigeria on Tuesday to explain why world soccer’s governing body took the World Youth Championship tournament from Nigeria in April and moved it to Qatar. Nigeria’s military ruler General Sani Abacha had issued the invitation to FIFA, which claimed an outbreak of meningitis and cholera in Nigeria was responsible for the switch.


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