France 1998 : they're off !
© AFP

The marathon qualifying round for the next World Cup has begun: the first of a total of 639 games was played before a lively crowd, and the total of six goals will probably be above the statistical average.

Eight years ago, Guyana; in 1992 the Dominican Republic, and this time the similar-sounding Dominica; the Caribbean has become the traditional kick-off point for World Cup qualifiers. By taking part in this opening match, teams that would not otherwise be very noticeable in the mad world of football get their moment of glory. This time it was the turn of the Caribbean islands of Dominica and Antigua, both much smaller even than Hong Kong, with only about 70,000 inhabitants each.

Dominica only became a member of FIFA at the 1994 Congress in Chicago and as yet has barely half a dozen international games under its belt, and this is naturally the first World Cup adventure in its history. In this respect Antigua, which is even smaller in terms of area and population, is an old hand. They played their first World Cup qualifier back in 1972, two years after joining FIFA, and began to serve their apprenticeship by conceding 11 goals against Trinidad and Tobago (a record they reluctantly will probably hold for a long time).

Although always overshadowed by the World Cup finals themselves, the qualifying matches in the 90s have provided plenty of action and been a showcase for international football in their own right: they have moved into an impressive new dimension.

No fewer than 170... teams will be playing for the 30 final round places

About 3000... players in all will get a chance to compete in the qualifiers - a new World Cup record

Over 20... months, or more than a year and a half, will be needed to get through the qualifying programme, which began in the Caribbean with the match Dominica - Antigua on 10 March 1996 and ends with a number of matches in November 1997.

Exactly 639... games will be played to determine the 30 teams that will join defending champions Brazil and and host country France in the finals (excluding possible play-offs). Last time there were 504 matches.

An impressive 72... of them will be played in South America alone, where a comprehensive continental championship will be held (without Brazil) - easily the biggest single group of hopeful qualifiers in World Cup history.

The 2,500th qualifying match... in the history of the World Cup was the game Dominican Republic-Aruba on 24 March.

....and plenty of... premieres ahead in this World Cup, as several nations, mostly in Europe and Asia, clash for the first time and generate more excitement (at least for the statisticians).