The hotel lobby of the Marriott Hotel on Dec. 1, 2001, in Busan, Korea, was a beehive of activity on the morning of the 2002 World Cup draw. It seemed they could have held an official FIFA delegate meeting there, because every nationality was represented.
Among those in attendance included Ireland coach Mick McCarthy, former Germany star striker Jurgen Klinsmann, Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz, U.S. head coach Bruce Arena and former U.S. coach Bora Milutinovic, who would be coaching his fifth country in as many World Cups that June when he led China.
Of course a draw wouldn't be a true draw without controversy, and FIFA started it at the very first press conference when it announced the eight seeded teams at a press conference held at BEXCO (Busan Exhibition and Convention Center).
Co-hosts Korea and Japan already knew where and when they would play, as did defending champion France. The five countries that were selected as the other seeded teams were Brazil, Argentina, Italy, Germany and Spain. That led to questions as to why Germany, which struggled to secure a berth in the European playoffs, was given the nod over England, which had squashed its rival with a stunning 5-1 result on German soil.
FIFA general secretary Michael Zen-Ruffinen said the organizing committee had based its seeding decision on the past three Word Cups and the organization's world rankings during the past three years. More points were allocated to France '98 than USA '94 or Italy '90 in a descending three-to-one ratio. So using that formula, FIFA wound up with Brazil (62 points), Argentina (56), Italy (56), Germany (54), Spain (45), Mexico (42), England (41) and Croatia (37).
The draw had several restrictions:
- No more than two European teams could be placed in the same group; teams from the same confederation would be equally divided between Korea and Japan. That meant if Brazil wound up in Korea, Argentina would play in Japan, and so on.
- Teams from the same confederation could not be placed together (outside of the two European sides).
- China would play in South Korea so that Chinese soccer fans wouldn’t have to travel far and they would help lagging tickets sales in that country. It was one for "economic and geographic reasons," Zen-Ruffinen said. How ironic that 50 years after the Korean War, South Koreans were hoping the Chinese would come to their country in droves!
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the pre-draw events was the announcement that the defending champion of the 2002 World Cup would not receive an automatic berth in the 2006 tournament. Sepp Blatter, now FIFA president, called it "an historic decision. “Countries that have automatically qualified don't get much actual competition in the four-year span during World Cups, except for Europe which has the quadrennial Euro Championship,” he said. "This will make them better prepared and put them in the same calendar as other nations," Blatter said.
On Draw Day, Zen-Ruffinen finally got down to business, calling in some "friends" to help out: former French great Michel Platini, Brazilian legend Pele, Roger Milla - Cameroon's 1990 World Cup savior - and some well-known Korean and Japanese celebrities.
Zen-Ruffinen showed he had his sense of humor to remind the audience at the convention center that the draw was "a very complicated" process. "We have very good news tonight," he said. "It's worse than ever."
It was challenging enough, especially with all the restrictions thrown in. In Pot 1 were the five seeded teams. Pot 2 housed the 11 remaining European sides. Pot 3 had the South American and Asian countries and Pot 4 had Africa and CONCACAF, which included the USA.
Spain was the first team drawn, and it was assigned to place B1 and would play in Korea. After the seeded teams were placed, Pele was called upon to draw the European countries. First it was Denmark, then Slovenia and so on. When Portugal was announced as included with hosts South Korea, a loud "Oooh” was heard from the audience.
When England was drawn in the Argentine group that already had Sweden, a loud gasp and applause emanated from the crowd. By the time Nigeria had been added to the terrible trio, Group F immediately was proclaimed as this World Cup's “Group of Death.”
"I hope we have better luck in June than we had tonight," England coach Seven-Goran Eriksson said. "I don't think anyone here would want to trade places with us."
The USA's draw looked ominous: the host side Korea and two European teams – dark horse favorites Portugal as well as Poland. The Americans were scheduled to play Portugal in its opener June 5 in Suwon.
"The joke here is that Portugal is already celebrating," Arena said, referring to the fact that the Portuguese would advance to the second round. "I am not concerned about the morale of the team. They know we will be the underdog in that game. I don't think it hurts us to play them in the first game. It might have been more difficult to play Korea in the opening game, with the momentum of a country behind you. When you look at the situation, it is okay. All the games will be tough.”
Arena considered Portugal to be at the level of a seeded team.
"Without a doubt, Portugal over the last three years has been one of the best teams in the world," he said. "They are definitely comparable to teams like Brazil, Germany and Spain. So in my opinion they are like any other seeded team. They are going to be a team that in many people's eyes that can win the World Cup." What most people didn’t know that in that hall in Busan, the U.S. coach had immediately and quietly believed that Portugal was a team the U.S. could defeat.
Then it was Korea in Daegu June 10, and Poland on June 14 in Daejeon.
"The U.S. playing in Korea will be a big game, and the enthusiasm and support will be impressive," he said. "I'm happy to not be playing them in the first game."
Twelve years older and wiser, Arena recently put things into perspective.
“When you're coaching the U.S. team, I think you always hope that you can get an Asian team and not two European teams in your group,” he said. “To me, that is the rule of thumb. When you get the two European countries, it gets tough and it depends obviously on who you draw. That's what my goal would always be. And having said that, we got the worst possible Asian team that you can have -- the home team. When you get the match-ups, you look at the opening game, you project their first 11 and your first 11, and you kind of sense where you're at. In 2002, I felt we were better in some positions and Portugal was better in a few and then there was a wash.”