World Cup Soccer Action Already Befuddles

LET'S face it, making complete sense of what will happen during the 1994 World Cup soccer tournament may take until the next century for the average American to figure out. The draw held Sunday in Las Vegas clumped the 24 competing teams into six divisions, leaving this newspaper and many others to run charts that only hint at the Rube Goldberg nature of the format. (For example, in Round 2, the winner of Group A meets the third-place team from Group C, D, or E.)

The month-long tournament, which comes to the United States for the first time, begins June 17 in Chicago with a game between defending champion Germany and Bolivia. It ends July 17 at Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena, Calif., after 52 games have taxed the mettle of travel agents to coordinate the movement of teams, fans, and officials among nine scattered cities.

And this is just the distillation of an even more unwieldy process that began two years ago with 141 national teams vying for berths in Mother Earth's most ambitious athletic tournament.

At past World Cup draws there have been serious accusations of rigging. In Italy four years ago, some observers suspected the lottery balls had been tinkered with to facilitate a good draw (that is, easy competition) for the home team.

This time if there were any shenanigans in the glittery 90-minute production, generously sprinkled with celebrity entertainers like Robin Williams, Barry Manilow, and Dick Clark, no one detected it.

In fact, rather than an easy path to the second round, the US team will be seriously challenged to stay alive. The Americans' first-round opponents - Switzerland, Colombia, and Romania - are all rated higher than the US in the latest international rankings.

The Americans, of course, will enjoy the home-field advantage wherever they play, and maybe especially so in their opening game in the Detroit area. There, for the first time, a World Cup game will go under cover - in the Pontiac (Mich.) Silverdome. The unusual surroundings could favor the US in its June 18 clash with Switzerland.

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