The World Cup starts today

BC Pires
Date Published: 
UK Guardian

The footballing wallahs at Fifa will be feeling a little smug today. The game's governing body could hardly have picked a more vibrant place to begin the marathon journey to the 2002 World Cup finals this evening than Port of Spain's Hasley Crawford National Stadium. For it is carnival weekend in Trinidad and Tobago, and the party will be in full effect when the hosts take on Netherlands Antilles.

While Trinidad and Tobago's opener is merely the first of 809 games to decide who fills the remaining 29 places for World Cup 2002, the revellers in Port of Spain will view it as the moment the carnival goes into overdrive. Only the carnival cities of Brazil and New Orleans could possibly compete with the frenetic atmosphere - despite the fact that not everyone here will be dancing to the same beat.

After Trinidad and Tobago's recent Gold Cup disappointment, losing 1-0 to Canada in the semi-finals, their manager Bertille St Clair was sacked. Now the Manchester United striker Dwight Yorke, among others, has threatened not to play for his national side until St Clair is reinstated.

To be fair, Yorke would not have played tonight anyway, events at Old Trafford proving a weightier distraction. But the Trinidad football authorities will not be allowed to brush the matter under the carpet just because the carnival is in town.

For the rest of the world, the next 632 days of qualifying will see hopes dashed, dreams fulfilled and mismatches of the most humiliating kind. Indeed, such is the allure of Japan and South Korea in 2 years' time that only one of Fifa's 203 members withdrew from qualifying on account of a lack of skill: Papua New Guinea has instead prepared a development programme aimed at 2006. Three others, Burundi, Niger and Afghanistan, opted out due to political conflict and financial hardship; North Korea remains ambivalent towards its host neighbour.

They will not be joining the hosts and the holders France at the most commercially driven tournament of all, but for the 20 million who are expected to attend the qualifying matches from Macao to the Maldives, the motivations are the same.

There are up to 14 qualifying spots from Europe, four or five from South America, five from Africa, two or three from Asia (to go with Japan and South Korea), three from Concacaf (grouping the Caribbean, North and Central America) and one from Oceania, if its representative gets past a play-off.

As the Caribbean launches its challenge this weekend, hopes remain high for Trinidad and Tobago. Netherlands Antilles have never scored a goal against them in three World Cup matches and, despite the dismissal of St Clair, the home side are one of the favourites to shimmy their way to one of the Caribbean's three slots in the Concacaf qualifiers, where relative giants such as Mexico and the United States enter the fray.

There again this is Trinidad, where the Attorney General, a lifelong opponent of capital punishment, hanged nine men in a single weekend last year; and this is World Cup football, where anything can happen. You have got to expect a double measure of controversy, and the opening game in Port of Spain has it in spades.

St Clair led the national team to its best-ever performance in the Gold Cup, yet was sacked immediately upon his return. Understandably, not everyone in Trinidad and Tobago agreed with the three-man committee that dropped the axe.

"Canada was by far one of the weakest teams in the tournament," said the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation special adviser Jack Warner of the eventual Gold Cup winners. "I have consistently said that in spite of our success and victories, I still find the team to be technically deficient in several areas, particularly our defence and midfield."

Shaka Hislop and Russell Latapy, Trinidad and Tobago's other leading players from British clubs, are also said to be extremely unhappy about the sacking, as are most callers to television and radio chat shows. Following the resignation of Trinidad's favourite son Brian Lara from the captaincy of the West Indies cricket team, sport has kept a heady profile here. There is talk of a boycott of today's game, but that will happen only if someone throws a massive free party on the other side of town at kick-off.

Whether or not St Clair is reinstated, the only thing that can prevent the stadium from being packed beyond fire safety regulations is if everyone wakes up too hung over from last night to be able to move before this evening. But that is extremely unlikely, given that most people will not even be going to sleep until next Wednesday.

• The Cayman Islands team, beefed up by a number of British-based players face a daunting opener in Havana where they take on Cuba tomorrow. Cuba, who played in the 1938 World Cup finals in France, has seen football overtaken in popularity by several sports, but still scored a 6-1 aggregate win over the Caymans in the qualifiers four years ago.

Number of 2002 World Cup qualifying matches to be played in each Fifa zone:

Europe 238
South America 90
Africa 149
Concacaf 124
Asia 162
Oceania 42

Intercontinental play-offs 4

Total 809