World

First 2014 World Cup qualifier kicks off in Trinidad

Castelao Stadium in Fortaleza in one of the proposed venues for the 2014 World Cup.
WORLD CUP 2014
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GENEVA (AP)

The road to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil officially begins Wednesday when the first qualifying match is played at Trinidad.

The Caribbean island is at the epicenter of a bribery scandal that's shaken FIFA.

Three years before the tournament begins in Brazil, the first of 832 scheduled qualifiers features two low-ranked teams playing on neutral ground in suspended FIFA vice president Jack Warner's home nation.

Because Montserrat's home stadium doesn't meet international standards, it faces Belize in a preliminary round, first-leg match in Couva that Warner is banned from attending.

Warner and former FIFA presidential candidate Mohamed bin Hammam are accused of paying or offering $40,000 in cash bribes to Caribbean voters last month. They deny the allegations.

Montserrat is among about 18 Caribbean Football Union members targeted in an ongoing FIFA investigation into the alleged bribes. National team coach Kenny Dyer told The Associated Press his players are focused only on their game.

''There is no distraction,'' Dyer said Tuesday in a telephone interview. ''There's only one thing on their minds and that's training and getting the right result.''

Dyer said the Montserrat squad listened to a pep talk from their federation president Tuesday. At the same time, some of Vincent Cassell's CFU colleagues were in the Bahamas to be interviewed by former FBI agents gathering evidence for FIFA's investigation.

Bribery and World Cup soccer will compete for FIFA's time and attention in the coming weeks.

Warner and bin Hammam's expected date with the FIFA ethics committee in Zurich could create an unwelcome distraction before July 30, when the full World Cup qualifying draw is conducted in Rio de Janeiro.

First, there are preliminary matches in the CONCACAF region and Asia for the likes of 202nd-ranked Montserrat and No. 172 Belize.

''It means a lot to them,'' CONCACAF general secretary Chuck Blazer said. ''It's an exciting time for them. There's a lot of attention focused on it.''

It was Blazer who sparked the corruption crisis by submitting evidence implicating his FIFA executive committee colleagues.

Montserrat was devastated when the Soufriere Hills volcano erupted in 1995, one year before the nation gained FIFA membership, and its soccer culture has struggled since. In three World Cup qualifying campaigns, Montserrat has never won a match, nor played at home.

That could soon change.

The reward for eliminating Belize could be a genuine home game at Blakes Estate stadium when CONCACAF qualifying resumes in September.

''That will be a first. The whole island will come to a standstill,'' Dyer said. ''Our field in Montserrat is one of the best I've ever seen, absolutely plush.''

CONCACAF's powers, including the United States and Mexico, join qualifying play in June 2012.

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