Call it the war of the worlds, old vs. new. When Team New Zealand and Swiss Alinghi face off Saturday on the Hauraki Gulf in a best-of-nine series for the America's Cup, it will be a clash of polar opposites.

Alinghi is rich and aggressively international, with 15 countries represented on a 95-person team led by techno-billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli, 37, who was born in Italy, raised in Switzerland and educated in the United States.

TNZ is poorer and avidly nationalistic, with a nearly pure-Kiwi team of 100. The boat sports the national emblem, a silver fern, over the national color, black, and a simple, symbolic name: Team New Zealand.

Alinghi's sailors, designers and boat-builders come from everywhere, but at the heart of the sailing team are a half-dozen ex-Kiwis lured by Bertarelli's $75 million budget.

TNZ had to scratch up its modest, $40 million budget from corporate sponsors, government subsidies, local donors and hometown marketing schemes like "loyalty vouchers" Kiwis can buy for $1 to $20. The sailors even bring their own lunches to work.

Alinghi, an invented name that means nothing, represents an alpine, 700-year-old landlocked country of 7 million skiers and soccer fans in the heart of Western Europe, the world's most cosmopolitan place. Sailing is not a popular Swiss sport.

TNZ represents a young, volcanic, sailing-mad nation of 3.9 million tucked away in a remote corner of the South Pacific, for whom the America's Cup is an immense source of national pride.

If the Swiss win they plan to carry the Cup to the top of the Matterhorn, raise it aloft and crow awhile, then arrange to defend it in some Atlantic or Mediterranean port that has nothing to do with Switzerland.

If the Kiwis win, they'll leave it right where it is in the hidebound Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron headquarters on Waitemata Harbor and zealously defend it again in three years.

These two teams, next-door neighbors on syndicate row, have clashed heatedly. Alinghi was fined for spying on the Kiwis; TNZ was slow to slam the lid on a hate campaign led by local businessmen against Kiwi sailors who defected to the Swiss camp.

At last, the action moves to the water. Who will win is impossible to say. Under Cup rules, the two sides never have raced nor even paced alongside each other. Regulations require Alinghi and TNZ vessels to stay at least 200 meters apart until Saturday, when the two boats rumble down on each other from opposite ends of the starting line and it's all on.

Will Alinghi's veteran crew, led by two-time Cup champion Russell Coutts and five of his mates from 2000 Team New Zealand, prove too canny for a Kiwi squad of untested youngsters and take the Cup away? Or will TNZ's radical and inventive "hula," a horizontal underwater hull appendage designed to increase waterline length and therefore speed, give the home team an insurmountable speed edge?

We must wait and see. Meantime, Cup fans ponder the collision of new vs. old for the world's oldest sporting trophy and wonder how victory on either side may affect the future of the event.

No issue divides the contestants more sharply than nationality. Team New Zealand, stung by the defection of three-fourths of its 2000 race crew -- including Coutts and five other ex-Kiwis to Alinghi -- is known to want to stiffen rules that let sailors jump ship by setting up residency in a new land; Alinghi would like to throw out the remaining rules on nationality altogether, arguing that the expense of setting up pro-forma residences is wasted money.

"I can't understand the crazy nationalistic ideas of these Kiwis," Bertarelli told the Swiss newspaper Tages Anzeiger in January. "They would not allow such splendid sailors as Russell Coutts and [tactician] Brad Butterworth to show their talents elsewhere than New Zealand."

Added Bertarelli: "We have modern ideas. We are open, we have a mixture of cultures on our team. Our crew has the freedom to choose what they do. That's the more modern ideas we represent, as opposed to the Kiwis."

Ross Blackman, Team New Zealand's syndicate chief, was too circumspect to rise to smack that tempting bait, saying he's negotiating with potential challengers over rules for the next Cup and intends to keep his options open. He said proposals for nationality next time run the gamut from requiring passports of every team member to having no passport or residency requirements for anyone.

Privately, insiders say TNZ would like to impose a rule requiring at least a majority of team members to hold passports in an effort to restore nationality to the event, which many consider a key appeal of the Cup.

Only 20 years ago, almost all contenders were proudly nationalistic, with names like Australia II, France III, Stars & Stripes, Italia and Sverige (Sweden). The 2003 Cup by contrast was a mishmash of corporate teams (Oracle and Prada), multinational ones (OneWorld and Alinghi) and nationalistic ones (GBR and Team New Zealand).

Which vision will the future bring?

Whoever wins this Cup gets the defining say. Under the 126-year-old Deed of Gift, written by the first Cup winner, George Schuyler, when he donated the silver ewer as a perpetual challenge trophy, the defender calls the shots.

The only rules carrying over year to year are general ones from the arcane Deed calling for "friendly competition between foreign countries" and requiring each entry to represent a yacht club. All else is negotiated afresh by mutual consent between the winning team and a new "challenger of record," which the winner gets to choose.

Because of their strong views on the nationality issue, Alinghi and Team New Zealand are said to be interviewing weak partners for the role of challenger of record -- small yacht clubs with limited means which could be strong-armed into agreeing to just about anything in return for the honor of serving.

If that sounds like a formula for abuse, TNZ's Blackman points out the system has "somehow survived for 152 years and still manages to attract the wealthiest and most passionate sportsmen on earth." Five billionaires backed 2003 campaigns.

In any event, says Blackman, something happens to Cup organizers tempted to meddle too rashly with traditions.

"A lot of people have big ideas about how to make the Cup better," he said, "but when they finally get to be the trustee, they move more slowly. You ask yourself, 'What are the features and elements that have caused this event to carry on with such interest and fierce competition all these years?' Those are the elements that you hurry very slowly to change."

Blackman reckons history and tradition weigh heavily when push comes to shove on matters of nationality, commercialism and rules of racing. "The responsibility that comes with being a trustee means you have to consider all opinions, not just your own," he said.

Interestingly enough, amid the speculation last week about who was in line to be challenger of record should Alinghi or Team New Zealand prevail, an intriguing possibility surfaced: The two teams, polar opposites, were mulling a mutual agreement under which if Team New Zealand won, Alinghi would become challenger of record and if Alinghi won, the honor would go to TNZ.

If that came to pass, the battles over nationality would be fought in the boardroom with compromise the only solution.

How could anyone compromise on a difference so fundamental? "We could if we thought it was advantageous to us politically," said Alinghi executive director Michel Bonnefous, who said he has met with Blackman on the issue. "On principle, we would never agree."

Ah, politics -- lifeblood of the arcane game. "I love this old lady, this Cup," said Bruno Trouble, a former Cup skipper for France and for the last 20 years a director of the Louis Vuitton Cup challenger series.

"Cosmetic surgery is fine, but more than that, it could kill her."

Ship, shape: Team New Zealand crew gets set to hoist spinnaker in training for America's Cup, which starts Saturday against Alinghi.