MEXICO CITY — For countries where soccer is the king of sports, the World Cup is a combination of the Olympics and a call to war.
In just over a year, the battle comes to Mexico.
Already, more than 120 countries--including the United States--have begun a series of regional elimination tournaments. That will produce the top 22 teams, plus host Mexico and defending champion Italy, to meet in nine Mexican cities in May and June 1986 in the final round of the quest for the title.
An event like this normally includes the traditional European powers, such as England, Italy, France, West Germany, and Poland; African newcomers such as Algeria; Arab teams like Kuwait; Asian or Pacific teams like South Korea or New Zealand, and the Brazilian and Argentine powerhouses from South America.
Once in Mexico, they will divide into groups chosen by lot months before at an internationally televised ceremony. Then they go at each other until the two finalists meet at Mexico City in a match that will attract a worldwide television audience of nearly two billion.
The winner gets a $20,000, 14-inch tall gold cup named the FIFA Cup. FIFA--the International Federation of Football Associations--is world soccer's ruling body. Its president is a Brazilian, Joao Havelange.
It used to be called the Jules Rimet Cup after the man who promoted the World Cup tournaments starting with the first one in 1930. It was specified that whichever country won the tournament three times would retire the trophy.
Brazil did that in 1970 at Mexico City (having previously won in Sweden in 1958 and Chile in 1962) and took the cherished cup home only to lose it to thieves on Dec. 20, 1983. It never was recovered and a replica now stands in the hall of the Brazilian Soccer Federation.
The winner next year will be merely a custodian of the trophy for four years. But for that same period, as Italy does now, it also will carry the mantle of soccer supremacy and will automatically qualify for the next tournament in Italy in 1990.
Mexico will be hosting the tournament, for the second time in 16 years, only because Colombia bowed out for economic reasons. The Mexicans were chosen over two other countries that lobbied hard to get it--the United States and Canada.
In Mexico, the games will be played in 12 stadiums in nine cities, with the inaugural game at 101,000-seat Aztec Stadium, a massive concrete structure in the capital that hosted Olympic Games in 1968.
Other cities where games will be played include Guadalajara and Monterrey, each with two stadiums; Puebla, Queretaro, Toluca, Leon, Irapuato and Nezahualcoyotl, a working-class suburb of Mexico City.
Press accreditations will be limited, if that word can be used in this case, to 3,000.
Tickets range in prices up to $600 for the 13-game series to be played at Mexico City including the championship match June 29. They went on sale in December. Special ticket allocations are sent to every country that participates in the tournament.
As host country, Mexico will be head of one of the six four-team groups into which the competitors will be divided.
Mexico will have Aztec Stadium as its home site. Defending champion Italy will head the group headquartered at Puebla, 70 miles southeast of Mexico City.
The Mexicans advanced to the quarterfinals in the 1970 World Cup before losing to Italy, 4-1. They failed to qualify for the 1982 tournament in Spain, losing the regional berths to Honduras and El Salvador.
The United States is one of the 17 North American, Central American and Caribbean nations vying for a spot in the 24-team tournament.
It already has advanced to the second, nine-team round of the regionals and will face Trinidad-Tobago and Costa Rica in an elimination group, with the first match against Trinidad-Tobago May 15.
Experts feel that the United States has a chance of beating its two opponents and moving to the regional finals. Honduras, however, is the favorite to win the one spot remaining for this region.