The 2018 World Cup will not start for another 6 1/2 months in Moscow, but the first victory has already been achieved: Russia defeats the FIFA draw.
With President Vladimir Putin in attendance at the State Kremlin Palace on Friday, the country hosting next summer’s soccer spectacular enjoyed a very favorable place when the names of the 32 teams were pulled from glass bowls in setting the first-round quartets.
Group of Death? Try Group of Joy.
Despite having the lowest world ranking in the field, the Russians were afforded, like previous tournament hosts, a top seed. Atop Group A, they were then joined by Saudi Arabia, the second-lowest ranked team; Egypt, which last qualified 28 years ago; and Uruguay, a formidable foe.
They dodged a European opponent, such as Spain or England, and, based on FIFA’s world rankings and pots, received an almost perfect draw. The only way it would’ve been statistically better is if Croatia had replaced Uruguay and Senegal or Iran had taken Egypt’s place.
With two teams from each group headed to the round of 16 — the minimum requirement for a host country seeking to avoid embarrassment — Russia is in a strong position to advance.
Putin, no doubt, is smiling.
The Group of Death? It’s “F” with reigning champion Germany; CONCACAF power Mexico; Sweden, which ousted Italy in a qualifying playoff; and South Korea, making its ninth consecutive appearance.
The tournament will run June 14 through July 15 in 11 Russian cities (12 stadiums). Russia will open the 64-match event in Moscow against Saudi Arabia.
Here’s how the groups shook out, with initial analysis:
- Saudi Arabia
As mentioned above, the Russians are undoubtedly ecstatic about the draw results. Then again, so are the other three teams.
Imagine you’re Saudi Arabia. You’re facing long odds to begin with. You know you’re going to face one of the top seeds. You certainly don’t want to play Germany, Argentina or Brazil. Russia? Sure, why not. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Russians have never escaped the World Cup group stage and just once advanced out of the first round in the European Championship.
Uruguay is the group favorite, having finished second behind Brazil in South America’s brutal qualifying tournament and featuring Paris Saint-Germain marksman Edinson Cavani.
Egypt, with Liverpool attacker Mohamed Salah, is capable of surprises.
Spain and Portugal are responsible for the past three European titles and some of the greatest names in the sport, most notably Cristiano Ronaldo. And while their Sochi showdown June 15 is the marquee match among the 48 first-round games, both should advance regardless of the result.
If they go through, both would be favored against Group A counterparts in the round of 16.
Morocco has not participated since 1998, but with pros spread all over Europe, the Atlas Lions should not be underestimated.
Iran is a World Cup regular but will struggle to get out of the group.
If this isn’t the Group of Death, it’s the Group of Near-Death. France, a bona fide threat to lift the trophy, is the clear favorite, but Denmark and Peru have the capacity to mess up Les Bleus’ championship plans. Australia will have a tough time gaining points.
Didier Deschamps has a wealth of French roster riches from the biggest clubs in Europe: Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembele, Kylian Mbappe and Olivier Giroud, among others.
The Danes gained a place by scoring five consecutive goals at Ireland in the second leg of a European playoff. Midfielder Christian Eriksen is world class.
Peru waited 36 years to return to the World Cup, qualifying via a playoff with New Zealand after finishing fifth in South America’s unforgiving race.
This is a fun quartet, what with Lionel Messi and 2014 runner-up Argentina encountering the least populous country to ever qualify (Iceland), a traditionally capable European side (Croatia) and an unpredictable West African threat (Nigeria).
With his 31st birthday falling in the middle of the tournament, Messi is probably getting his last shot at the World Cup trophy. He almost didn’t get a chance: Argentina did not clinch a berth until the last day of continental qualifying. Any misstep would probably set up a round-of-16 game with France.
Iceland (pop. 335,000) parlayed success at the 2016 European Championship (an upset of England to reach the quarterfinals) into a World Cup berth by finishing ahead of Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey in qualifying group play.
- Costa Rica
Brazil is seeking redemption for the humiliation it suffered at home in 2014, a 7-1 semifinal loss to Germany. With Neymar in top form, a sixth world championship is in reach. The Brazilians roared through qualifying with one defeat in 18 matches and a plus-30 goal differential. They’ve got to finish first in the group; otherwise, they’ll probably face Germany again.
Switzerland and Serbia are positioned to fight for second place, but Costa Rica should not be dismissed. The Ticos were the surprise of the last World Cup, beating out Uruguay, Italy and England to win their group and then beating Greece to reach the quarterfinals before losing to the Netherlands on penalty kicks.
Costa Rica has Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas — and endless belief.
- South Korea
For the Germans, it didn’t matter much how the draw transpired: They knew they’d be installed as group favorites and carry long-term ambitions.
That said, Joachim Loew’s squad will face a test in the first two matches, against Mexico and Sweden, before aiming to cement its place atop the group against long-shot South Korea. Qualifying was a minor inconvenience for the Germans: 10 victories in 10 tries and a 43-4 scoring advantage.
If they get out of the group, the Mexicans will seek to end a streak of six consecutive defeats in the round of 16. With several players excelling in European leagues, this seems to be their best chance.
Sweden will ride the momentum of ending Italy’s string of 14 straight appearances.
England was a terrible disappointment at the 2014 World Cup, failing to advance past the group stage. Then again, England has been a terrible disappointment at many major tournaments.
The Three Lions are undoubtedly pleased with this draw, paired with Belgium as favorites in a group with a large gap between the top and bottom two. Neither Tunisia (first appearance since 2006) nor Panama (debut) stands much of a chance.
In 2014, Belgium outlasted the United States to reach the quarterfinals before losing to Argentina. This time, Chelsea’s Eden Hazard, Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne and Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku have grander goals.
Poland is the top seed because of a No. 7 world ranking that seems too generous. Colombia could end up winning the group. And Japan and Senegal are optimistic about their chances of advancing. In other words, this quartet is wide open.
Poland, a 2016 Euro quarterfinalist, qualified for the first time since 2006 and will seek to reach the knockout stage for the first time since 1986. Robert Lewandowski is one of his generation’s great scorers.
Colombia features 2014 top scorer James Rodriguez (six goals), while Japan, in a sixth straight World Cup, seeks to rebound from a poor showing in Brazil.
Senegal went to the 2002 quarterfinals but failed to qualify again until this fall.