ROME, JUNE 20 -- When Pete Rozelle was National Football League commissioner, he dreamed of something like this. He put the word parity into NFL parlance.
It's the same with thoroughbred racing secretaries who assign varying weights for horses to carry so, in theory, they'll all hit the wire together.
Welcome to Group F of the 1990 world soccer finals. Going into Thursday's last day of first-round play, there is nothing to choose from among the Netherlands, England, Ireland and Egypt. Call it the Rozelle Division of the World Cup.
Each team has played 0-0 and 1-1 ties. In Thursday's last games, if the Netherlands-Ireland match on Sicily and England-Egypt on Sardinia end in identical ties it would establish the most preposterous finish in Cup history.
Lots would have to be drawn to determine which two teams would advance to the round of 16. At the moment, it's undetermined whether the third-place team also can make it -- already, two of the four available wild-card places out of the six groups have been clinched.
Of course, if two of the Group F teams were to step forward and actually win a game, that would solve matters. Actually, the Netherlands should beat Ireland, and England should beat Egypt. But nothing yet has gone according to form in Group F. It's the division in which good teams are risking getting hung by their ties. Each of these goal-shy teams has had its own peculiar problems.
The Dutch hoped to make a relatively conservative start and gain momentum throughout the month-long tournament. They came here with a stunning squad hoping to win the Cup. Now they have to go full throttle against Ireland or they'll be in trouble.
England couldn't have brought more distractions. The players have been overwhelmed with questions about the miserable behavior of a minority of their fans. Bobby Robson, the coach, has been depicted in the English press as having been left up the track and covered with dust by European teams using modern tactics. He's accused of teaching a game for dinosaurs.
The Irish, never in the World Cup finals before, came ready to play. They beat England, 1-0, in the European Nations Championships in 1988 and wanted to prove themselves in their opener on Sardinia with England. In effect, they did: 1-1.
Egypt, out of the Cup finals since 1934, opened as well as Ireland by surprising the Netherlands with a 1-1 tie. Of the four teams in the group, Egypt was considered least likely to advance.
The second set of games still failed to separate the teams. Again, the Dutch looked sluggish and had to settle for a 0-0 tie with the English, who outplayed them. England's top forward, Gary Lin-eker, missed two close-in scoring opportunities and merited this Pearl Harbor-size headline in one of the merciless English tabloids: "Sin-eker."
In Sunday's Ireland-Egypt game, little happened. Ireland is a team built for ties; it plays rugged defense and doesn't take many offensive risks. But the Irish have done what they do (or don't do) well -- they're undefeated in 15 straight international games.
But on Sunday, Egypt out-Irished the Irish. For good reason, the Egyptians played like a road team; almost 20,000 Irish fans sang and cheered in Palermo's Della Favorita Stadium. Egypt went into the soccer equivalent of basketball's four corners. Sometimes its goalkeeper held the ball so long the Irish said he might as well have taken it and gone home.
A war of words ensued between the rival coaches, Ireland's Jack Charlton and Egypt's Mah-moud El-Gohari. "I did not like the way the Egyptians played with their time-wasting tactics," said Charlton. "Their goalkeeper must have wasted five minutes of the game. I think we could have won if Egypt had started to play. I hate playing against teams like that -- I deplore them."
"Jack talks too much," said Ahmed El-Mokadem, speaking for Egypt's coach. "We are very unhappy at what he said. I know people say Jack is honest but I don't see how you can equate honesty with verbal aggression. Jack's team played 90 minutes of ineffective, unentertaining soccer. I admit we played badly, but the way Ireland plays forces you to play badly. It is totally frustrating. No team has managed to escape their contagious rubbish."
All of this has been enough to get the attention of Italians, who haven't been overly concerned with Group F except that England's in it and the majority of Italians don't want to see England advance -- with its rowdy fans -- to the mainland.
This brings up Thursday when Italy gets to do one thing it likes better than watching a soccer match: watching two matches at once.
Netherlands-Ireland and England-Egypt both start at 9 p.m. (3 p.m. EDT). Channel-switching here will go on for the following two hours. With their Group A team already set for Round 2, Italians can settle back and savor the untangling of Group F along with their late-evening pasta.
"Egypt is England's problem now," Charlton said. "At least Holland will come to play."
That should be enough. The Netherlands has a Murderers Row of a lineup. Probably the best the Irish can do is another tie, and they're not going to be embarrassed if that's what it takes to get to the second round.
England, based on its aggressiveness against the Netherlands, finally should win against Egypt. Probably the best Egypt can do is tie, and it will be playing its time-consuming style.
But who knows? Ties with identical scores Thursday would leave no way of separating the four teams after the tiebreaking procedures: points (two for a victory, one for a tie); goal differential and goals scored.
If that happens, and unless FIFA, soccer's international organizing body, suddenly devises some other procedure, the fate of a quality team such as the Netherlands would be settled by, of all things, a lottery.