By Mark Jones and Jay Mwamba
DUBLIN — Ireland’s opponents in the first phase of next year’s soccer World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea will be revealed on Saturday.
With manager Mick McCarthy’s team almost certain to be confirmed as a second seed in the draw, there are strong hopes that the Irish will avoid several strong countries in the group stages.
If Portugal, England, Croatia and Russia are also named as second seeds, then Ireland cannot come up against them until the last 16. With the U.S. team likely to be a fourth seed, they could end up in the same group as the Irish.
There had been speculation that Ireland could be included among the third seeds, which make qualification for the knockout stages more demanding. However, a jump from 20th to 18th in the recent world rankings looks to have guaranteed a place in the second seeds.
The draw takes place on Saturday in Busan, South Korea, with the holders, France, and the co-hosts,Japan and South Korea, already confirmed as top seeds. Eight groups of four countries will be drawn with the leading two teams from each group qualifying for the Round of 16.
Follow us on social media
Keep up to date with the latest news with The Irish Echo
World Cup legends Pele, Johan Cruyff and Maradona will participate in the draw, which will also determine in which of the two Asian host nations the Republic will be based in for the first round.
Uruguay grab last spot
Uruguay ran riot in Montevideo last Sunday to beat Australia 3-0 and grab the final place at the 32-nation World Cup finals next summer 3-1 on aggregate.
Edged 1-0 in Melbourne five days earlier on Kevin Muscat’s penalty, the South Americans attacked from kick-off and needed only 14 minutes to tie the playoff on aggregate.
Spanish-based striker Dario Silva, who missed the first leg through injury, opened the scoring after outpacing Sheffield United defender Shaun Murphy.
There were chances on both sides before the Uruguayans exploded again late in the second half.
Assuming the role of super-sub, Richard Morales clinched qualification for the 1930 and 1950 World Cup winners with a goal (70th) four minutes after joining the fray. He added a second in the last minute.
Uruguay, who were spurred on by 70,000 ecstatic fans at the Estadio Centenario, return to the finals for the first time since Italia ’90.
They also increase the South American contingent to Japan/Korea to five, following the earlier qualification of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Ecuador.
Ireland have climbed two places into 18th in the latest FIFA world rankings, off the back of their qualifications to Japan/Korea ’02.
France remain the world’s top ranked side, while Argentina, the side many pundits are picking to face the French in next summer’s World Cup final, have nudged jaded Brazil out of second place.
The complete top 20 list is: 1. France, 2. Argentina, 3. Brazil, 4. Portugal, 5. Colombia, 6. Italy, 7. Spain, 8. Netherlands, 9. Mexico, 10. England, 11. Germany, 12. Yugoslavia, 13. Czech Republic, 14. Paraguay, 15. Romania, 16. Sweden, 17. Denmark, 18. Ireland Republic, 19. Croatia, and 20. Belgium.
Euro ’04 draw
European soccer’s governing body, UEFA, will hold the draw for the 2004 European Championship qualifying competition in Portugal on Jan. 25.
World Cup and defending European champions France, who still have to qualify for the 2004 tournament, are the top seeds for qualifiers. Ireland are seeded sixth, based on their performance in the Euro 2000 and World Cup 2002 qualifying competitions.
Hosts Portugal are the only country so far assured of a place in the 16-nation Euro 2004. They will be joined by the winners of the 10 qualifying groups – each comprising five teams — and the winners of a two-legged playoff series, featuring the runners-up from each group, at the end of the qualifying competition.
Dates for the Euro 2004 qualifiers are: Sept. 7-8, 2002; October 12-13, 2002; October 15-16, 2002; March 29-30, 2003; April 1-2, 2003; June 7-8, 2003; June 10-11, 2003; September 6-7, 2003; September 9-10, 2003, and October 11-12, 2003. The playoffs are scheduled for November 15-16 and 18-19, 2003.
FIFA says the 2002 finals will be the “safest ever.” The organization’s general secretary, Michel Zen-Ruffinen, said in Kuala Lumpur last week that a host of security measures had been developed following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
“What is sure is that a lot, a lot, a lot of steps and initiatives will be taken,” Zen-Ruffinen told a press conference.
“It will be the safest ever World Cup organized in terms of steps taken by the organizers, by the states and by FIFA.”