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On the road again.

The 15th World Cup will kick off in Chicago on 17 June 1994 and already the qualifying rounds are well underway. Teams from the Middle East have not yet started their tournaments, having been preoccupied until recently with the 1992 Asian Soccer championship. Bob Pateman reports.

The qualifying rounds for the 1994 World Cup are already well underway. Europeans have witnessed the unexpected sight of Switzerland, Greece and Norway topping their groups, while France and Holland struggle. In the Central and North America region, Costa Rica, the surprise team of the 1990 finals, is already out of the competition.

In contrast the Asian groups, which include the Middle Eastern nations, have yet to kick off their tournaments, mainly because the top sides have been pre-occupied with the 1992 Asian Soccer championship. Staged in Hiroshima last November, the eight team finals give a good guide to current form in the region.

On the face of it, the tournament was bad news for the Middle East, with the title going out of the region for the first time since 1968. Yet perhaps too much should not be read from that result, as Japan's victory had a great deal to do with home support and the motivation provided by the patriotic crowds. Japan is not going to enjoy such an advantage in all its World Cup games, half of which take place in Dubai.

Although Japan won the Asian tournament, the Middle East provided two of the semi-finalists, while Iran was close to reaching that stage before it conceded a decisive goal to the Japanese. Indeed for the first half of the tournament Iran looked the best team on view, its build and strength giving it a clear advantage over many of its Asian neighbours. Sadly several of the Iranian players ran wild at the end of the Japanese match, one result of which will be a 12-month ban on players Peyoos, Moghaddam and Moharrami. We must wait to see how the bans will affect Iran, although a World Cup group that includes Syria, Oman, Taiwan and Myanmar hardly looks like giving much trouble.

Nonetheless, it is increasingly likely that Saudi Arabia will, once again, carry the main hopes of the region. Asian champions in 1984 and 1988, the men from Riyadh played extremely well in Japan, going undefeated in five games before losing to the hosts in the final. Owairan and Al Bishi were two of the outstanding players of the tournament, but the side lacked one vital component - a striker with the killer instinct in the box.

The World Cup has always been jinxed for the Saudi team. The side that has consistently done so well in the Olympics and Junior Championships has a pretty dismal record in the most important competition of all.

Qatar and the UAE, which reached the semi finals, both returned disappointing performances. The UAE team dismissed its Russian coach, Valeri Lobanouski, soon after the tournament. Both sides have the ability to reach the World Cup finals, but there was no evidence in Hiroshima that they had either the spirit or the courage.

When the Asian World Cup games do kick off, they will be staged in six groups. Each involves either four or five teams, which will play each other twice. To save travelling expenses the fixtures will be played at just two venues. After the first mini tournament, the sides will reconvene at a second venue to complete the fixtures.

Groups C and F, which include Qatar and UAE, kick off the series in early April, and the last games finish on July 11. At that stage the six group winners will go through to a final showdown to decide the two tickets for America.

The Middle Eastern nations have captured a good share of the opening games, Amman, Tehran, Doha, Beirut, Riyadh and Dubai all getting the opportunity to stage matches. The use of Beirut is the most exciting feature of the tournament, the match between Lebanon and India on 7 May marking the return of international soccer to Lebanon after many years absence. The Lebanese league is now fully operational, with Al Ansar taking the 1992 title and strikers Walid Dahrouj and Fadi Alloush snatching the most headlines. We can only wait to see if the national team can complete the fairy tale by getting the better of the group favourite, South Korea.

While we wait for the Asian games to get underway the Arabic nations of North Africa are already well into their fixtures. At the time of going to press, the first round games will be coming to a conclusion. This time the African groups have been more chaotic than ever, with Uganda, Sierra Leone, Sao Tome, Sudan, Malawi, Mauritania and Burkina Faso all withdrawing from the competition, while Zaire and Angola are having problems staging their home fixtures due to political unrest. Libya, under a UN embargo, has also been unable to arrange any matches and it looks increasingly unlikely it will actually take part in Group D.

The big clash so far has been the Group A game between Algeria and Ghana. Ghana called back its big stars from Europe and won the match 2-0, thanks to goals from Belgium-based Prince Polley and the Olympic hero, Ayew. However, Algeria still looks in a strong position, thanks to Ghana suffering a shock defeat to the outsider, Burundi. A win, or perhaps even a draw at home against the Ghana all-star team, will probably be enough to see Algeria through to the next round.

In Group C, Egypt started off with two wins, Hossam Hassan once again demonstrating his ability to put the ball into the net. However, Egypt then lost an away game to Zimbabwe, a match where it might have expected to pick up a point. If Zimbabwe can be inspired by Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar, who is enjoying a late call up to the country of his birth, and new Coventry star Peter Ndlovu, the result could still be close.

The big north African clash comes in group F, where Tunisia and Morocco have been paired together. Tunisia, with a team built around a core of players from Club Africain, started as favourites, but its early results have come as a great disappointment. A good opening 5-1 win over Benin was followed by vital points dropped away to Ethiopia and at home to Morocco.

Morocco has been involved in one of the strangest games in the whole history of the World Cup. In October it played host to Ethiopia, whose flight came via Rome. While on the ground in Italy either three or six of the Ethiopian team (depending on which report you read) suddenly "disappeared", presumably to seek asylum. As a result, the Ethiopians lined up with two reserve goalkeepers and the assistant coach playing on the field.

The latter, an elderly gentleman, lasted a mere ten minutes before retiring, and one by one a stream of "injured" players followed. Finally, the Ethiopians were down to six players, at which point the referee, following the laws of the game, abandoned the match. That might well have been expected to be the end of Ethiopia's campaign, but instead it bounced back to field a full team for the home game with Tunisia.

The 15th World Cup will kick off in Chicago on 17 June 1994, with a match involving the holders, Germany. The final will be played in July at the Los Angeles Rose bowl.

In between these two dates the 52 matches will be shared by nine cities. Detroit's Silverdome will stage four games, the first time World Cup matches will have been played indoors.
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Title Annotation:Mosaic; soccer teams prepare for the 15th World Cup
Author:Pateman, Bob
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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