U.S. soccer happy with draw

Posted: Sunday, December 02, 2001

BUSAN, South Korea (AP) -- The freshness of the first World Cup in Asia will have the drama of an old rivalry: Argentina vs. England.

Those two soccer powers were drawn Saturday into the same group for next year's tournament, while most of the other big-name countries avoided each other. And the United States -- grouped with Portugal, Poland and co-host South Korea -- wasn't complaining.

''I was quite relieved,'' U.S. coach Bruce Arena said. ''The draw gives us some optimism.''

Even more optimistic are defending champion France and three-time champion Italy, both of which were top seeds and didn't draw particularly formidable foes. The French, who open the 32-team tournament May 31 in Seoul against Senegal, also have Denmark and Uruguay in Group A. Italy joins Croatia, Ecuador and Mexico in Group G and will play in Japan.

Brazil, the only four-time World Cup winner, plays in South Korea in Group C with Turkey, Costa Rica and newcomer China -- also a favorable draw.

But Argentina, the oddsmakers' pretournament favorite at 4-1, and England could not be thrilled with being grouped together. Add in Nigeria, the most formidable African nation, and defensively staunch Sweden, and Group F is, by far, the most difficult.

''I hope we have more luck in Japan than we had tonight. It is the most difficult group,'' said England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, a Swede who will coach against his countrymen June 2 in the opener for both sides.

''I always see things positively. While this is a tough group, it also feels inspiring,'' said Tommy Soderberg, one of Sweden's two coaches.

Argentina and England have played several World Cup games, including a 1986 semifinal that featured Diego Maradona's ''Hand of God'' goal. Argentina knocked the English out of France '98 in a second-round match decided on penalty kicks and made infamous by current English captain David Beckham's red card for petulantly kicking Diego Simeone.

The top two teams in each of the eight groups advance to the second round. The final of the first World Cup to be played in two countries will be in Yokohama, Japan, on June 30.

The Americans play their first game on June 5 vs. Portugal in Suwon, South Korea. On June 10, they face South Korea in Daegu, and they close group play on June 14 vs. Poland in Daejeon.

''Any group would be difficult. I like the group,'' said Arena, whose team plays an exhibition game against the Koreans on Dec. 9 in Seogwipo, South Korea. ''Obviously we're opening against one of the top teams in the world, then we have the host country and then Poland.''

Brazil and Germany, who combined have won seven of the 16 World Cups, struggled in qualifying. The Brazilians went to the last South American qualifier before making the field. Germany, a three-time winner, needed a playoff win over Ukraine to get in.

''We've got five or six months to get ready,'' Brazil coach Luis Felipe Scolari said. ''Enough problems. We must learn our lesson once and for all.''

As must the Germans, who despite their recent problems, were given a top seed over the English, who beat Germany 5-1 during qualifying.

''There are no easy rivals anymore,'' German coach Rudi Voeller said, ''but the second round should be within our reach.''

The groups:

Group A (in South Korea) -- France, Denmark, Uruguay, Senegal.

Group B (in South Korea)-- Spain, Slovenia, Paraguay, South Africa.

Group C (in South Korea) -- Brazil, Turkey, China, Costa Rica.

Group D (in South Korea) -- South Korea, Portugal, Poland, United States.

Group E (in Japan) -- Germany, Ireland, Saudi Arabia, Cameroon.

Group F (in Japan) -- Argentina, Sweden, England, Nigeria.

Group G (in Japan) -- Italy, Croatia, Ecuador, Mexico.

Group H (in Japan) -- Japan, Russia, Belgium, Tunisia.

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