Barbie dolls, Muppets battle to bore draw

We all wait with an impending sense of dread to see what South Korean soccer chief Chung Mong Joon and his cronies have got up their sleeves for the opening ceremony of the World Cup next year.

Judging by the botch job they made of the draw for the finals in Pusan on Dec. 1, something along the lines of “Madame Butterfly” meets “The Flintstones” might make an appropriate theme for the curtain-raiser in Seoul on May 31. Don’t forget to bring a good book.

How many cups of tea did you get through watching the draw on television? I’m sure I would have worn out my slippers, too, shuffling between the sofa and the kitchen to put the kettle on.

Unfortunately, Korean soldiers with machine guns made sure we hacks didn’t escape the Pusan Exhibition Center until FIFA general secretary Michel Zen-Ruffinen, who was in charge of handling the balls for the evening, had finished telling us how many languages he can speak.

South Korean organizers (KOWOC) made few friends that night.

Hosted by a pair of Korean-Americans called Barbie and Ken (or maybe it was Christine and Rick) with a rare talent for interrupting not only each other but also FIFA president Sepp Blatter, it was a “bore draw” from start to finish.

Not even Bolton versus Derby could conjure up that much tedium over 90 minutes. We even had to endure stoppage time to allow for Blatter’s long-winded and largely unintelligible speech after his grand arrival on stage. The only surprise was that it didn’t go to penalties.

“Would you like to say something, Mr. Blatter?” asked Christine, as if talking to a naughty schoolboy. Not surprisingly, Blatter did want to say something. So much, in fact, that Christine cut him off with an ultra-bright “Thank you very much” before he had finished.

By this point, however, there were at least half a dozen reporters among the British press corps slumped in their seats and snoring loudly, thanks to the musical acts that had come before Sepp, Christine and Rick had even begun their “Muppet Show” routine.

First up was the official 2002 World Cup anthem, composed by “an evangelist,” Rick helpfully informed us, although thumbing quickly through our program notes we managed to deduce Rick had actually meant Vangelis.

Not that it mattered. The most interesting bit was when the big telly in the exhibition hall went on the blink and we were all left in the dark praying for divine intervention. Those of us still awake, that is.

Next, we were treated to some Korean pop music in the form of that household name You Seung Jun, who had obviously arrived straight from his shift at the local Hyundai factory and was unable to change out of his overalls. As for the singing: do not, under any circumstances, give up the day job.

KOWOC put us out of our misery soon afterwards with the absolute clincher, the shaking-your-head-in-utter-despair segment of the show that almost made you lose the will to live.

“The Boat Song,” an epic story about the symbiotic relationship between Koreans and the sea, was sung by an old man wearing red lipstick and a large hat who, for my money, fell some way short of “elevating the audience to a higher state of mind,” as promised by Rick.

These boat songs can last up to eight hours, apparently. Thankfully, we got the radio edit of this ancient cover of “Wake Me Up Before You Row-Row.” It still felt like eight hours, mind, and journalists continued to drop like flies back in the cheap seats.

“The Sombrero Song,” a drunken story about the symbiotic relationship between young Britons and the Costa Del Sol would have livened things up a bit and given the evening a more international flavor, but it was not to be. Perhaps the Germans will oblige at the 2006 draw.

Other lowlights of the draw in Pusan were an aria from “Romeo and Juliet” optimistically translated as “Oh, I want to live,” and the official 2002 World Cup song by Anastacia called “Boom,” a hugely intelligent title in the wake of Sept. 11.

Also staggering was Blatter’s call for world peace while flanked by two giant swastikas. It was the mother of all oversights that nobody had noticed during rehearsals how the backdrop to the stage resembled a collage of Nazi logos.

The sign for a Buddhist temple in Korea and Japan looks like something completely different to the rest of us. Do KOWOC and Japanese organizers JAWOC honestly fail to see the likeness?

Welcome to the 2002 World Cup, ladies and gentlemen. Just don’t mention swastikas, dog meat or commercial whaling.

Mum is certainly the word as far as FIFA is concerned of course and, in an attempt to help you forget too, it wheeled out all the old favorites at the draw.

Guests included Pele, Johan Cruyff and some bloke who had climbed Everest without an oxygen mask and who was cryptically introduced by Christine as “someone who is not from football but from the mountains.”

To be fair, though, we were all in need of oxygen masks by then. We already knew that England’s World Cup would be short and sweet and that the Germans had bunged Sepp and his pals a big brown envelope to avoid any first-round slipups.

When Zen-Ruffinen confessed that the draw was “worse than ever this time,” England manager Sven Goran Eriksson had to be physically restrained from leaping onstage and strangling him. It was that kind of evening.

Here is a simple equation that FIFA and JAWOC might want to consider ahead of the Group F match between England and Argentina in Sapporo next June 7:

8,000 England fans + 2,000 Argentina fans + 20:30 kickoff + very large brewery smack in the middle of town = ALL SORTS OF MAYHEM!

Perhaps when FIFA officials have finished being photographed with babies and showing that they can eat live octopus, they could switch the kickoff time of what is sure to be the most explosive match of the first round. A 9 a.m. start should do the trick.

Lost in all the excitement, the Kashima Antlers won the J. League championship for the second year running by beating Jubilo Iwata 3-2 on aggregate. Forgive me for not doing a cartwheel of delight.

Mitsuo Ogasawara’s brilliant golden goal in the second leg at Kashima Stadium last Saturday failed to mask the fact that, yet again, the best team in Japan over the whole season — this time Iwata — missed out on the big prize.

Following in the footsteps of Kashiwa Reysol and Shimizu S-Pulse, Jubilo finished with a total of 71 points over the two stages, a whopping 17 more than Kashima. It is time to scrap this two-stage nonsense once and for all.

Having said that, Sir Alex Ferguson could do with a second stage in England after MANCHESTER UNITED FLOPPED TO A SIXTH PREMIER LEAGUE DEFEAT OF THE SEASON LAST WEEKEND AT HOME TO WEST HAM. (My “Caps Lock” key got jammed there, completely by accident.)

Ferguson has clearly lost the plot. Veron, Van Nistelrooy and Beckham all out of the starting lineup for a game his side desperately needed to win to stay in touch with the top clubs!? Presumably they are being rested for the Intertoto Cup.

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