In a widely-anticipated move, FIFA today announced the new Group seedings and match schedule for the 2002 World Cup Finals in Japan and Korea.

Months of careful negotiations with Australian broadcast rights-holder Channel Nine have finally borne fruit, and ensured that Australian fans will only be partly shafted, not completely as was feared.

Group H, which was to feature co-hosts Japan along with Belgium, Russia and Tunisia, has been revamped. Japan remain, but their new group opponents will be –

– the Aussie swim team, with Ian Thorpe expected to play goalkeeper and four other positions

– Fatty Vautin’s XI, captained by Terry Hill

– the cast of McLeod’s Daughters, with special guest midfielder Red Symonds

Nine’s anchorman for the World Cup telecast, Tim Sherridan, said “Nine is extremely pleased with the new match schedule, which will allow us to show at least seven matches unaffected by other prime time commitments.”

Les Murray, the front man for soccer at SBS, said he was “disappointed” with the developments. “This is the world’s biggest sporting event,” he bemoaned, “and Channel Nine has no idea – we at SBS can’t work out why they bought the rights at all.”

Sherridan: “Les Murray has no idea about the love affair that Australian sports fans have with Channel Nine. And Nine continues to lead the way in sports coverage – why, we will even be running 3-minute ad breaks throughout both halves of each match to give the viewers a chance to stretch their legs and grab a coldy. When did SBS ever do that?”

A FIFA spokesman had some words of support for Nine in its attempt to bring the World Cup to an Australian audience (tennis, rugby league, golf, swimming, Formula One, lawn bowls, ping-pong, Lotto and AFL commitments permitting), and those comments can be seen after tonight’s Letterman.

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