“And I love the mystery of the World Cup draw. We are saturated with soccer now: We can watch all of the world’s best players every week. Only at the World Cup do players from nowhere suddenly burst to life, and teams — Tunisia, Iran, even Russia itself — from isolated soccer cultures join the party. The draw is the start of that adventure into the unknown.”
Even if you don’t share Rory’s delight in a good draw, he broke down all 32 teams, this week, looking at their pasts, their paths and at what would qualify as a successful trip to Russia.
Diego Maradona has arrived, and he looks amazing.
With an hour to go, a word about seeds.
The seeding this year is based on the FIFA world rankings. That’s controversial, because the rankings are far from universally accepted as the most accurate ordering of teams. The most contentious issue is that friendly games count in the rankings, although they are worth fewer points. Because team’s positions are based on average points per match, teams that play a lot of friendlies are penalized. Several sides, including Poland, seem to have gamed the system by playing fewer friendlies, which helped their ranking.
So before you ask: that’s why Poland, a fine team but hardly a tournament favorite, is in Pot 1.
Here’s what to expect today.
■ The draw will take much longer than it needs to take. It always does. FIFA budgets about an hour for a mix of performances, speeches and, amid much social media grumbling, the draw itself.
■ This will be the first draw in a generation that will not take place under the usually benign (but not always) awkwardness of Sepp Blatter, who served as FIFA’s president from 1998 until he was ousted amid a corruption scandal two years ago. Gianni Infantino, who replaced Blatter as president in 2016, is FIFA’s top man now.
■ The World Cup kicks off June 14, with Russia’s first game, in Moscow. It concludes there on July 15. Germany is the defending champion. No team has repeated as world champion since Brazil, in 1958 and 1962.
■ The 32 teams who qualified for the World Cup already have been seeded according to the FIFA rankings (cue more grumbling) and divided into four pots. The breakdowns:
Pot 1: Russia, Germany, Brazil, Portugal, Argentina, Belgium, Poland, France
Pot 2: Spain, Peru, Switzerland, England, Colombia, Mexico, Uruguay, Croatia
Pot 3: Denmark, Iceland, Costa Rica, Sweden, Tunisia, Egypt, Senegal, Iran
Pot 4: Serbia, Nigeria, Australia, Japan, Morocco, Panama, South Korea and Saudi Arabia
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■ The teams will be drawn and placed into first-round groups one pot at a time: all the Pot 1 seeds first, then all the teams in Pot 2, and so on until the eight four-team groups are filled. It is a random draw, but there will be adjustments to keep regional rivals apart. Only Europe, which sends the most teams by far, can have two in the same group.
■ There has been grumbling about Poland’s gaming the FIFA rankings to earn a place in Pot 1 alongside the favorites Germany, Brazil, Argentina and France, but several serious contenders lurk in Pot 2. There probably isn’t a coach in the field who wants to be dropped in a bracket with Spain or Croatia.
■ Don’t follow the World Cup unless the United States is playing? Well, have we got a surprise for you ….
■ Gary Lineker, the former England striker-turned-television pundit, will serve as the master of ceremonies alongside the Russian journalist Maria Komandnaya. Lineker played in two World Cups, winning the Golden Boot as the leading scorer in 1986 and helping England to the semifinals in 1990.
■ Wary of traveling within reach of investigators from the United States Department of Justice, the former FIFA president Sepp Blatter spends his days in his native Switzerland now. But he was invited to the World Cup draw by Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, and reportedly will attend.
■ Another rarity to watch for Friday: Pelé and Diego Maradona both will be at the draw, the former as a guest and the latter as one of the eight ball-drawing assistants. Rivals for the title of world’s greatest player, they have generally kept their distance over the years.
A news conference about the draw focused on Russian doping.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino held a pre-World Cup draw news conference Friday, but the topic of the draw barely came up. Instead, Infantino, appearing with Russia’s deputy prime minister, Vitaly Mutko, who leads the country’s World Cup organizing committee, spent more than an hour uncomfortably, and at times angrily, fending off questions about Russia’s doping scandal.
Infantino tried to distance FIFA, and the World Cup, from the accusations, which could see Russia banned from the Olympics next week — only months before the country hosts the World Cup. Mutko, formerly Russia’s sports minister and still the head of Russia’s soccer federation, was more combative.
Mutko has been implicated in what has been described by whistleblowers and investigators as a massive state-sponsored doping plan, but on Friday he angrily rebutted the accusations and vowed that Russia “will take a firm position and will defend its athletes until the bitter end.”
“There is no proof,” Mutko said at one point.
Infantino also was asked about the ongoing trial in Brooklyn of three former soccer officials who were charged in FIFA’s own broad corruption scandal in 2015, but said he would not comment on “things that are not proven.” Witnesses at the trial have testified about payments from Qatar to FIFA officials to win the rights to host the 2022 World Cup.