Geneva, Jun 15: The road to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil officially begins Wednesday when the first qualifying match is played on Trinidad, the Caribbean island at the epicenter of a bribery scandal that's shaken tournament organizer 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 in nearby Port of Spain last month. They deny the allegations.
Montserrat is among around 18 Caribbean Football Union members targeted in an ongoing FIFA investigation into the alleged bribes, but national team coach Kenny Dyer told The Associated Press that 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 Vincent Cassell on Tuesday. At the same time, some of Cassell's CFU colleagues were in the Bahamas to be interviewed by former FBI agents who are gathering evidence for FIFA's investigation.
Bribery and World Cup football 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 shapes as an unwelcome distraction before July 30, when the full World Cup qualifying draw is conducted in Rio de Janeiro where countries will discover their route to getting one of 31 spots available in Brazil in 2014.
First, there are preliminary matches in the North, Central American and Caribbean (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 told The AP by telephone from New York. "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, but Dyer's world is far removed from football's power games.
"Some players are seeing each other for the first time," said Dyer, whose squad of mainly England-based players includes just three attached to Montserrat clubs. The team last played a competitive match in October.
"We've got players that work in McDonalds, we've got accountants, a few full-time professionals, policemen," said the 46-year-old Dyer, who played professionally in England and Cyprus. "It's not easy trying to get players to play for Montserrat. But there's national pride."
Montserrat was devastated when the Soufriere Hills volcano erupted in 1995, one year before gaining FIFA membership, and its football culture has struggled since.
In three World Cup qualifying campaigns, Montserrat has never won a match, nor played on home ground.
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."
In Asian qualifying, eight first-round matches begin June 29. A second preliminary round is then required to decide which 20 Asian Football Confederation members will be in the draw in Rio.
Europe's 53 teams, including defending champion Spain, begin their qualifying groups in September 2012.
Nine South American teams begin their single-group program in October without Brazil, which qualifies automatically as host.
Africa has a preliminary round in November before a 40-team group phase starts next year.
Oceania kicks off in August with a tournament at the Pacific Games in New Caledonia.
CONCACAF's powers, including the United States and Mexico, join play in June 2012.
Just four of FIFA's 208 members opted not to enter: Asia's Bhutan, Brunei and Guam plus Africa's Mauritania. AP