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The Inside Track | SOCCER GRAHAME L. JONES

U.S. Is Ready to Step In if World Cup Plans Fizzle

April 11, 2006|GRAHAME L. JONES

When Colombia failed to get its act together in time to stage the 1986 World Cup, FIFA quickly moved the tournament to Mexico.

Twenty years later, that precedent remains a tantalizing prospect.

What if South Africa stumbles in its efforts to stage the 2010 World Cup? What if Brazil is financially unable to play host to the tournament in 2014?

Would world soccer's governing body move either of those events to the United States?

It's not beyond the realm of possibility.

Already there have been uneasy rumblings out of South Africa over that country's preparedness to stage the 32-team tournament in four years.

In March, there were warnings that South Africa would not be able to beam the World Cup to the world without a massive and costly upgrade of its digital television transmission network.

Then, just last week, Helen Zille, the mayor of Cape Town, questioned whether her city could afford its $165-million contribution toward a new stadium when there were so many homeless in the city.

World Cup organizers dismissed such fears but there are sure to be many more hiccups on the road to Africa's first World Cup.

In Brazil, meanwhile, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the country's president, has assured the Brazilian soccer federation of "all the backing necessary" for the World Cup in 2014.

But Brazil might not be able to afford what it takes to put on the tournament. Soccer-loving Brazil, a five-time world champion, does not even have suitable stadiums, let alone everything else needed.

All of which is why the U.S. is watching and waiting.

The memory of 1994, when the U.S. staged the best-attended and most profitable World Cup in history, lingers at FIFA headquarters in Switzerland, and returning the tournament to these shores 20 years later is an increasingly appealing option.

*

Tonight, in a small stadium in an out-of-the-way spot, the U.S. plays its final match before Coach Bruce Arena selects the roster of 23 players he will take to Germany this summer.

The place is Cary, N.C., and the opponent is Jamaica.

Making a noteworthy appearance for the U.S. -- but in no way challenging for a 2006 roster spot -- will be goalkeeper Tony Meola, who is expected to play at least a portion of the match and thus earn his 100th international cap.

That puts Meola is some exclusive company. Only eight other U.S. men have reached the century plateau: Cobi Jones, 164; Jeff Agoos, 134; Marcelo Balboa, 128; Paul Caligiuri, 110; Claudio Reyna, 108; Eric Wynalda, 106; Earnie Stewart, 101, and Joe-Max Moore, 100.

Such players, Meola included, "have not gotten their due recognition," Arena told U.S. Soccer's website. "Those are the guys who really turned around the national team program and made MLS a reality."

Arena coached Meola at Virginia, and tonight's honor is a nod of thanks to the goalkeeper from his former coach.

If Meola, a 1990 and 1994 World Cup starter now playing for the New York Red Bulls, seems to have been around forever, well ... he made his international debut on June 7, 1988, against Ecuador in Albuquerque.

"They used to call him 'the Meatball' at Kearny High," Arena said of Meola's New Jersey youth. "He's been a terrific athlete. He was a good baseball player as well. He was a guy, I thought, who was a can't-miss prospect, and he's certainly proved that."

The U.S. will field an all-MLS lineup tonight. In a halftime interview with Rob Stone during the D.C. United-Chivas USA game Saturday on ESPN2, Arena said he had settled on 18 of his World Cup players and probably could name 21 if pushed.

The two remaining places, he says, will depend on how many forwards and how many defenders he elects to take to the World Cup.

All of which means tonight's match is key for Houston Dynamo forward Brian Ching, who has scored five goals in two games already this MLS season, and for Galaxy defender Chris Albright, whose versatility and attacking make him a potentially useful utility player.

It also is important to three midfielders coming off injuries and striving to make the final 23: John O'Brien of Chivas USA, and Steve Ralston and Pat Noonan of the New England Revolution.

Arena will announce a preliminary roster of 35 on Wednesday, then pare it to 23 shortly before FIFA's May 15 roster deadline.

The U.S. is 9-0-7 against Jamaica, which failed to qualify for Germany '06.

*

Good to see that common sense, for once, has prevailed in Tehran and that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's controversial president, has decided not to attend the World Cup.

"It is not on his agenda," Hamid Reza Asefi, a spokesman for Iran's Foreign Ministry, told Reuters news agency.

Germany had worried that Ahmadinejad, who has called for the destruction of Israel and has labeled the Holocaust a myth, might show up for Iran's opening game against Mexico on June 11. Iran also plays Angola and Portugal in the first round.

"Naturally, he can come to the matches," said Wolfgang Schaeuble, Germany's Interior Minister. "We want to be good hosts."

But Schaeuble also called Ahmadinejad's anti-Israel comments "unacceptable" and said he would "certainly have a talk with him about the remarks he made" should Ahmadinejad travel to Germany.

Meanwhile, Iranians in the U.S. are circulating an online petition (www.petitiononline.com/AZAD2006/petition.html) demanding that women be allowed to attend sporting events in Iran.

The petition, addressed to FIFA, the Asian Football Confederation, the International Olympic Committee and sports authorities in Iran, points out that female fans were violently rebuffed when they tried to attend a World Cup warm-up match between Iran and Costa Rica at Azadi Stadium in Tehran on March 1.

In addition, it states that two days later, more than 2,000 women were expelled from a World Cup of Gymnastics event at the Azadi Sports Complex.

The petition is largely symbolic and does not figure to change the state of affairs in Iran.

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