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Grinding Toward Germany

The World Cup finals are still two years off, but the global battle to reach them is well under way

Earlier this month at Gillette Stadium, below a banner that audaciously proclaimed the New England Patriots world champions, the U.S. men's soccer team took a big step in the chase for the only truly global trophy in sports. For those who assume the next World Cup begins in June 2006, think again. By the time the 32team finals kick off in Munich, 194 nations will have played 849 qualifying games in a marathon campaign that makes Bush-Kerry seem like an overnight runoff. "People have no idea how tough it is to get to a World Cup [finals]," says U.S. forward Brian Ching. "They just expect us to be there."

After beating El Salvador 2--0 in Foxboro, Mass., on Sept. 4 and getting a 1--1 tie in Panama four days later, the Americans sit atop their CONCACAF semifinal group. But last week's stalemate at Panama City was only the fifth of a possible 20 games they might need to play to reach Germany 2006--and one of 90 qualifiers played around the globe from Sept. 3 through 10. It's a long slog, and nothing is guaranteed. The first full week of European action saw pratfalls by Euro champ Greece (which lost to Albania, 2--1), superpower France (which drew 0--0 at home to Israel) and slouching England (which blew a two goal lead to tie Austria 2--2). Meanwhile, qualifying has already given us a Cinderella story: The tiny Solomon Islands is just four games from a miracle ticket to Germany. Alas, the Solomons still have to go through Australia and the fifth-place finisher in South America qualifying.

All of which is to say that the Road to Deutschland can turn any Cobi Jones into an Indiana Jones, bushwhacking his way through Central America. (The dreadlocked U.S. midfielder's isthmus trip was rewarded when his 92nd-minute equalizer silenced 12,000 Panamanians agog over their impending victory.) Our various amigosto the south have a history of greeting the U.S. with all manner of party favors--setting off hotel fire alarms at midnight, throwing urine and feces at players--and the Panama fans did their part last week. A local radio station blared music from industrial-strength speakers outside the U.S. team hotel, and at the game one supporter posted the classy sign osama is here, so please lose.

"In [Europe] you never expect weird things like this: the conditions, the terrible refereeing, all sorts of things they just don't let happen over there," says U.S. captain Claudio Reyna, who plays club ball for Manchester City in the Premier League. At least these days some of the bad calls are going the Yanks' way. Jones's last-gasp goal at Panama appeared to be struck from an offside position. And in the match in Foxboro, El Salvador midfielder Denis Alas was ejected under the new FIFA rule prohibiting players from wearing jewelry.

Halfway through this semifinal round of qualifying, the U.S. is one of 137 countries still alive for 2006. If the Yanks finish first or second in their four-team group, they move on to CONCACAF's six-team final round, from which the top three automatically advance to Germany. It will be a major upset if the Americans, who reached the final eight in the last World Cup, don't qualify for their fifth straight finals. Such is life when you have become the putative regional powerhouse. "We've done enough to say yes," says 22-year-old star Landon Donovan when asked if the U.S. has overtaken archrival Mexico. "Now we just have to keep proving it."

With all those campaign stops ahead, they'll certainly get the chance.

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Solomon Islands

Despite fielding only one professional player, the civil war-- torn Solomons tied regional power Australia 2--2 in Adelaide, a result that contributed to the elimination of New Zealand (which was upset by Vanuatu). Solomons Prime Minister Allen Kemakeza greeted the team as businesses closed and tens of thousands of islanders welcomed their lads back to Honiara.


In Lusaka, 41year-old coach Kalusha Bwalya came out of retirement and scored in Zambia's 1--0 victory over Liberia. Bwalya, who helped rebuild the country's soccer program after a 1993 plane crash killed 18 national team players, has his squad tied with Togo and Senegal for first in its qualifying group.


After its under23 team made the Olympic semifinals, Iraq's senior team can reach Asia's final round if it wins at "home" in Doha, Qatar (where the games have been moved for security reasons), against Uzbekistan on Oct. 12 and Palestine on Nov. 16. Because the Asian fifth-place team takes on the CONCACAF fourth-place team for a World Cup spot, it's conceivable that Iraq could play a win-or-go-home series against ... the U.S.




The U.S. has weathered El Salvadoran roughness (above) and a hostile crowd in Panama.



  [See caption above.]