France the destination for only the skilful few
WITH the memories of Euro '96 still fresh, the focus now falls on France '98 and the two-year struggle for places in the next World Cup.
Hosts France and holders Brazil qualify automatically but this still leaves room for 30 more teams in the expanded format.
Of those 30, 14 will come from Europe, five from Africa, four from South America, three from the CONCACAF region (Central America, North America and the Caribbean), three or four from Asia and possibly one from Oceania.
The European nations have been drawn into nine groups, with only group winners guaranteed a place in France. The team with the best record of the nine group runners-up will also qualify, while the other eight runners-up enter play-offs to determine the four remaining places for Europe.
Six of the European groups are already underway and the other three kick-off this weekend.
European champions Germany, who are in Group Nine with Northern Ireland, Ukraine, Armenia, Portugal and Albania, do not start their campaign until October 9 (away to Armenia) and will have no fewer than four opportunities to watch the fancied Portuguese before the two sides meet for the first time in the group in Lisbon on December 14.
In Group Two, England and Italy begin their quests with the same fixture: Moldova away.
England, under new manager Glenn Hoddle, start first, on Sunday, and will be followed by Italy on October 5.
In Group Four, Sweden, who finished third in the 1994 World Cup, will be the toughest opponents for Scotland, who kick-off their campaign tomorrow against Austria.
Wales, whose Group Seven opponents include Holland, Belgium and Turkey, entertain minnows San Marino tomorrow and the Republic of Ireland, under new manager Mick McCarthy, are away to Liechtenstein in Group Eight.
Northern Ireland cannot expect to progress from Group Nine but can make life difficult for the Germans and Portugal. Northern Ireland take on Ukraine in Belfast tomorrow.