When the dust settled from the fanfare and opening speeches from Vladimir Putin and FIFA president Gianni Infantino, host Russia was given a favorable path, while other intriguing matchups headlined the World Cup draw.
Friday morning’s World Cup draw in Moscow had a bit of everything. There was some awkward Russian rock. We were treated to stilted conversation between FIFA president Gianni Infantino and his host, Vladimir Putin. Diego Maradona wore a golden bow tie. And English emcee Gary Lineker clearly noticed, and enjoyed a well-timed dig at his former Argentine, 30 years on from the Hand of God.
“Diego’s always been good with his hands,” the former striker said, as Maradona pulled another plastic ball.
Inside those balls were the names of the 32 competing countries (not including the USA, Italy, Chile and Netherlands) and potential group positions, which when drawn, filled out the matchups and schedule for the 48-game first round set to kick off June 14. The 2018 World Cup will get started with a few mouthwatering matchups (not including a brutal tournament opener between Russia and Saudi Arabia, the two lowest-ranked squads in the field).
The next day, Group B powers, neighbors and rivals Portugal and Spain will meet in Sochi. And in Moscow on June 16, all eyes will be on Lionel Messi and Argentina as they face off against debutants Iceland, the smallest nation ever to qualify. A day later across town, the USA’s most popular soccer team, Mexico, will play world champion Germany.
That’s how it begins. Here are three thoughts on the draw itself and the how the table has been set for the group stage:
There’s no obvious Grupo de la Muerte, but Mexico’s come close
Mexico has endured six-straight eliminations in the World Cup’s round-of-16. It may risk another one—if it’s lucky—following a really tough draw. El Tri features in a group including Germany, Sweden and South Korea. The reigning champs typically are a certainty to finish first, meaning Mexico likely will be battling with two other capable, experienced teams for the second spot.
Sweden showed their discipline and quality in dispatching four-time champion Italy in last month’s UEFA playoff (and finishing ahead of the Netherlands during group play). South Korea has been in a bit of a down cycle lately, but the Reds are always energetic and Tottenham’s Son Heung-min is capable of doing some damage.
If Mexico beats out Sweden and Korea, they’ll probably be rewarded with a second-round match in Samara against Neymar and Brazil. At which point, the streak would be favored to reach seven.
France the most fortunate favorite
Among the early seeded title favorites—Germany, Brazil and France seem to have the best odds and Argentina will be picked by some despite their qualification struggles—Les Bleus appear to have the easiest path through the first round.
Will this be another beguiling, big-name French team that winds up being than the sum of its parts? Lucky for manager Didier Deschamps, he’ll have some time to iron out any kinks as the 1998 winners face Australia, Peru and Denmark in the first round.
Denmark is no pushover, but France will be happy to have avoided Spain, Switzerland, England and Croatia. Peru has qualified for the first time in 36 years and may be overawed, and the Socceroos will be out of their depth.
Compared to the tasks facing Germany and Argentina—and to a lesser extent, Brazil—France should hit the second round in good shape. There, assuming they top Group C, they’ll face a challenge against the second-place finisher from among Argentina, Iceland, Croatia and Nigeria.
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Rigged? Maybe not, but Russia has a shot
Deposed FIFA despot Sepp Blatter said last year that he believed UEFA had rigged tournament matchups by cooling certain balls ahead of the draw. It was denied, of course, and this week FIFA director of competitions Chris Unger insisted, “[The balls] are all the same. They don’t feel any different … It’s entirely random and by chance how the groups get formed at the end.”
Well, maybe the natural Russian chill made a difference on Friday. The hosts—the lowest ranked team in the tournament and perhaps the worst A1 in World Cup history—probably couldn’t have asked for a better draw. They’ll meet Saudi Arabia, the second-lowest ranked team, in the opener. Then, Russia will have to deal with Egypt—which is competing for the first time since 1990—and a Uruguayan side relying on the aging Luis Suárez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Godín.
FIFA likes to have the host nation stick around for a bit, and despite the odds, there’s now a slight chance that’ll happen.