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With Blatter, World Cup Draw Should Be Quite a Show

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Sepp Blatter is in town, and that can mean only one thing: It’s time again to pluck the Ping-Pong balls out of the goldfish bowls.

Yes, another World Cup is about to land on these shores and Blatter, who delights in such moments, will be on hand in San Jose this afternoon to preside over the final draw for the third FIFA Women’s World Cup, to be played in eight U.S. cities June 19-July 10.

The 63-year-old Swiss--short, balding, easily mistaken for a banker or a grocer--is still remembered for his master- of-ceremonies performance at the World Cup ’94 draw in Las Vegas. Blatter was somewhat star-struck while sharing the stage with Robin Williams and James Brown, among others. (Blatter to Faye Dunaway: “May I call you Faye?”). He’s star-struck no more.

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Now, he flies in from Zurich not as FIFA’s general secretary, a post he held for 17 years, but as FIFA’s president, the most powerful figure in the sport. A certain dignity is required.

This morning, he will be in San Francisco, sharing a stage with Donna de Varona, chair of Women’s World Cup ‘99, and Marla Messing, WWC ’99 president, for what is billed as a media briefing but which more likely will become something altogether different.

Chances are, Blatter will find himself fielding some increasingly tough questions, especially about some of his recent comments. For instance:

* Why does he think the men’s World Cup should be staged every two years instead of four?

* Why does he favor using video cameras to determine whether a goal has been scored?

* Why does he want to pile a world club championship atop an already overcrowded fixture list?

* Why has FIFA consistently failed to implement a proper international calendar that would reduce, if not eliminate, club-versus-country conflicts?

* Could FIFA’s disagreement with International Olympic Committee drug-testing proposals lead to soccer pulling out of the Olympics?

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* What is FIFA’s position on the IOC bribery scandal and how clean is its house?

* Isn’t it true there were substantial gifts given to influential FIFA members when Japan and South Korea were battling for the right to host World Cup 2002?

The questions this morning will not all be sweetness and light.

Blatter probably will be only too pleased to find himself making the limousine ride south to Spartan Stadium in San Jose, where, shortly before 6 p.m., the 16 participating countries will be divided into four groups of four teams each for first-round play in Women’s World Cup ’99.

The draw will take place at halftime of a 5 p.m. game between the United States women’s national team and an all-star team comprising players from the World Cup-qualified countries and a few guests. The ceremony will be held on a 4,000-square-foot covered stage that has been erected at one end of the stadium. The game and the draw will be televised live on ESPN.

And Blatter, most assuredly, will be prominently involved, just as he is certain to repeat one of his favorite phrases, that “the future of football is feminine.”

INTRIGUE AND SUBTERFUGE

FIFA has been very coy about releasing details of exactly how the draw will be performed--in other words, which countries will be placed in which goldfish bowls and on what basis?

What is known is that four teams have been seeded and that each will head one of the groups. They are the United States, as 1991 world champion and 1996 Olympic gold-medal winner; Norway, as reigning world champion and 1991 runner-up; China, as 1996 Olympic silver medalist, and Germany, as 1995 World Cup runner-up.

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So much for the facts. Now for the intrigue.

For months, coaches and federation officials from the competing nations have been trying to make sure the draw works in their favor. The U.S. has not been silent in this process.

“We’ve been lobbying hard,” acknowledged U.S. Coach Tony DiCicco, “because it’s something I’ve learned in coaching at this level--that you have to get your word in on how the draw should be.

“It’s going to be a tough competition. I think it’s very important that they do it fairly.”

Geography comes into play. For example, Canada and Mexico will not be drawn into the same group as the U.S. because countries from the same confederation are supposed to be kept apart in the first round. Similarly, Japan and North Korea will not be drawn into China’s group.

Europe, with six competing teams, is another matter. Presumably, the four that are not seeded--Denmark, Italy, Russia and Sweden--will be placed in one bowl and the U.S., therefore, would play one of those four in the first round.

So, it’s seeded teams in one bowl and unseeded European teams in another. But what happens to the remaining eight countries? How are they divided? Will the unseeded Asian teams--Japan and North Korea--be lumped in with the African entries, Ghana and Nigeria? And what will become of Australia and Brazil, not to mention Canada and Mexico?

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Women’s soccer does not yet have strength in depth, so it is entirely possible that one of the seeded teams might end up with a far easier passage to the second round than the other three. It has happened before.

In the 1995 World Cup in Sweden, the U.S. was drawn to play China, Denmark and Australia in the first round whereas Norway was grouped with relative lightweights Canada, Nigeria and England.

“There’s a way to do these things where it’s more fair, I think,” DiCicco said. “That’s all I want. I want it to be a fair draw and not have a bunch of easier teams end up in one group and a bunch of harder teams end up in another group.”

What DiCicco really doesn’t want to see is Canada, Mexico, Brazil and Australia put in one bowl, because the U.S. then would have to play either Brazil, which has beaten it in the past, or Australia, which is rapidly improving, as well as one of the European teams and a fourth team.

The worst-case scenario for the Americans today would be to wind up with, say, Sweden, Brazil and Japan as first-round opponents.

“I have a renewed respect for Japan after playing them in those three games [in Japan last year],” DiCicco said. “They’re a much better team than they used to be. They have a lot more bite to their game. I don’t know anything about the African teams, but I feel more confident playing one of them than either of the two Asian teams.”

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But the luck of the draw can work in many ways, and there is no guarantee that it will work in the United States’ favor.

Is there?

THE ART OF SOCCER

Friday was a day to remember for Daphne Yap, a 16-year-old sophomore at Leland High School in San Jose. It was her painting that was selected from among more than 250 entries nationwide to serve as the official poster for World Cup ’99. She not only earned $2,000 for the work but saw the painting unveiled to the world’s media in San Francisco Friday afternoon.

“I drew it because it was a contest and I like to enter contests,” Yap said of the oil and pastel composition, a colorful collage of game action and player faces. “It took like an hour. I’m speechless [at winning]. It just came to me. I did it like really late at night, on a school night.”

TROPHY? WHAT TROPHY?

Friday was a day to forget for Keith Cooper, FIFA’s chief spokesman, who had to stand before a room full of reporters and television cameras and explain why the new Women’s World Cup trophy would not be unveiled, as promised.

“The trophy is here, it does exist,” Cooper said. “It’s actually here, in a metal box in an office just down the corridor.”

But because the creator had boarded a plane for Lebanon without signing a particular release form, lawyers for WWC ’99 ruled that the trophy could not be officially put on display.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

All-Around Stars

FIFA world all-star team to play U.S.:

*--*

No. Name Position Club Country 1 Gao Hong Goalkeeper Guangdong China 2 Kim Sun Hui Defender Pyongyang North Korea 3 Julie Murray Forward NSWIS Saphires Australia 4 Lene Terp Defender Odense Boldklub Denmark 5 Linda Medalen Defender Asker Norway 6 Charmaine Hooper Forward Chicago Cobras Canada 7 Manuela Tesse Midfielder Lazio Italy 8 Bettina Wiegmann Midfielder Grun-Weib Brauweiler Germany 9 Vivian Mensah Forward La Ladies FC Ghana 10 Homare Sawa Midfielder Yomiuri Beleza Japan 11 Graziele Forward Lusa Sant’Anna Brazil 12 Ulrika Karlsson Goalkeeper Balinge IF Sweden 13 Corinne Diacre Defender Soyaux France 14 Sara Mohamed Defender Al-Maaden Club Egypt 15 Irina Grigorieva Midfielder CSK VVS Russia 16 Laurie Hill Midfielder Sacramento Storm Mexico 17 Mercy Akide Forward Pelican Stars Nigeria 18 Sue Smith Forward Tranmere Rovers England

*--*

Coaches: Gunilla Paijkull, Sweden, and Sylvie Beliveau, Canada.

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