If you weren’t watching Fox Sports 1 on Saturday afternoon then you missed one of the most bizarre television sports broadcasts of the year. Maybe of ever. Well, at least since the last televised FIFA ceremony. World soccer’s governing body held its draw for the qualifying rounds of the 2018 World Cup in St. Petersburg, Russia, and things got weird fast.
After Russian President Vladimir Putin thawed the crowd by flatly declaring, “Our country has a long history of football,” FIFA President Sepp Blatter blew some hot air directly at Putin.
“We are looking forward to an exciting evening and an exciting World Cup for the game, for the world, for Russia,” he said excitedly. He then told Putin (via The Guardian), “You make us happy and comfortable.” Possibly because Putin was one of the few who defended FIFA in the face of corruption indictments….
Anyway… so the two high-fived and the show went on. And oh, what a show it was. Along with the draw, which resembled a highly produced church raffle, there was plenty of side entertainment to be had.
A couple of Russian singers came out to perform “Moscow Nights.” Some Russian ballet stars danced a section of “Anna Karenina,” saxophonist Igor Butman and his band entertained the crowd with jazzy rendition of the “Ole” chant tune, and one of the show’s co-hosts modeled a few tragic dresses, including a blue taffeta number that fit like a suit of armor on top and a hot air balloon on the bottom.
As for the main point of the proceedings — the draw — things went off without a hitch. Overseen by FIFA Vice President Jerome Valcke and assisted by a bevy of soccer stars including Brazilian legend Ronaldo, the world’s soccer teams were distributed successfully among their regional federations in qualifying groups.
The two most competitive groups — Europe and South America — set up some of the most must-see matches in the qualifying rounds. There will be a likely tense matchup between Chile and Brazil, which will have to play its first two qualifying matches without Neymar after his suspension for red-card behavior during this summer’s Copa America tournament. He’ll return in time for Brazil’s matchup against Argentina, which of course, features his Barcelona teammate and best friend Lionel Messi.
UEFA, the European federation, offered quite a few enticing matches, including a Spain vs. Italy, who both landed in Group G; Netherlands vs. France, who both landed in Group A; and England vs. Scotland, who both landed in Group F.
Portugal and Germany got two of the luckiest draws, landing in their respective groups, B and C, as clear favorites.
As far was what went down with CONCACAF, the federation the United States answers to, The Washington Post’s Steven Goff has complete coverage. (Spoiler: Team USA got pretty lucky.)
No matter who wins or loses, however, Russia, which gets an automatic spot in the tournament for hosting, wishes to remind you it’s all gonna be okay. The program ended with Russian pop star Polina Gagarina coming out with the Children’s Choir of St. Petersburg to sing the country’s 2015 Eurovision song contest submission which is about peace and love and definitely not about bribery and corruption.