By Suresh Nair
YOU got another six months to prepare for your Russian date but the first victory has already been achieved: Russia defeats the FIFA draw, which was held Friday at the State Kremlin Palace.
Russia President Vladimir Putin made his presence powerfully felt as the 32 lottery-balls were pulled from glass blows to announce to the world that they’re set to host next summer’s sporting spectacular.
Frankly, the Russians are dwarfs in the world of football and despite having the second-worst world ranking in the field, they were afforded, like previous tournament hosts, a top seed. Atop Group A, they were then joined by Saudi Arabia, the lowest-ranked team; Egypt, which last qualified 28 years ago; and Uruguay, a formidable foe.
Lucky, lucky Russia and one could see Putin smiling with relief as 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.
From a neutral point of view, it’s like the movie theme “Russia with Love” as they’re in a very strong position to advance wiih two teams from each group headed to the round of 16 — the minimum requirement for a host country seeking to avoid embarrassment.
Oh dear, this is hardly anyone’s idea of an opening-day blockbuster with Russia against Saudi Arabia on June 14, kick-off in Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium, which will also host the final.
Seriously, will it hurt the buzz around the tournament as Russia wants to showcase the month-long event as one of the best ever.
Russia Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko says “it means nothing, all the marketing for the World Cup has been done, the advertising, the TV rights are almost finished,” adding “always some games can mean more or less interest.”
For fans, Mutko adds, “it’s about the entirety of the tournament, the 64 games to be played, the World Cup, so the who and the where, it’s meaningless.”
GROUP OF DEATH
Yes, we always talk of the Group of Death?
By a revised seeding pattern, there is no clear “Group of Death” as there have been in years past. The new system in theory makes it impossible for the world’s best teams to be drawn into the same group. Still, each group has to have a cut off somewhere, and this year’s cut off put Spain in Pot 2. That’s how they ended up with Portugal.
The most balanced group from top-to-bottom might be Group F, which pits defending champion Germany against Mexico, Sweden and South Korea. Germany is still the heavy favorite to win this group, but Mexico was really impressive in qualifying and will be full of confidence. Sweden is fresh off an upset playoff victory over Italy, while South Korea had some difficulty in qualifying but just beat Colombia’s full side in a friendly.
Mark Group D, too, as it also presents no walkover games, with Argentina, Iceland, Croatia and Nigeria.
As far as teams from Pot 1 go, Portugal got the rawest deal by drawing Spain, but Cristiano Ronaldo and company should have no trouble getting past Morocco and Iran.
While there isn’t a clear-cut Group of Death, there is one group that jumps off the page as being the easiest: The “Group of Life,” so to speak.
Group A features host Russia, by far the worst team from Pot 1, along with Uruguay, Egypt and first-time participants Saudi Arabia. This is a remarkably fortuitous development for the hosts, who now have a solid chance of reaching the Round of 16, though Egypt and Uruguay will be favoured.
READY FOR THE BETS?
If you’re an early betting man, the global pundits are putting the good money on Germany, Brazil and France as the early favorites at 5-1 in the futures market.
Holders Germany should go far in the tournament after a flawless qualifying campaign as they seek to retain their title and have been drawn in Group F alongside Sweden, Mexico and Korea Republic.
Joachim Low’s side won all 10 games in qualifying, scoring 43 goals along the way, and will be aiming for another successful summer, having lifted the FIFA 2017 Confederations Cup in July.
Brazil were also impressive in qualifying, comfortably topping the CONMEBOL standings, and will be favourites to progress in Group E alongside Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia. Neymar will be the star of the show for the Selecao, but Tite’s side possess plenty of other attacking options such as Gabriel Jesus, Willian, Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho.
Don’t write off the Frenchmen. They also have plenty of strength in depth and should go far. Les Bleus won the trophy in 1998 and were runners-up in 2006. They will face Peru, Denmark and Australia in Group C in Russia.
As I mentioned, there is no obvious “Group of Death,” although Portugal and Spain have again been drawn together in Group B along with Iran and Morocco.
Spain will be out to regain the title they won in 2010 and have a strong squad with a nice mix of youth and experience from David De Gea in goal, through to Andres Iniesta in midfield and Alvaro Morata up front.
Julen Lopetegui’s side are priced at 15-2, and Cristiano Ronaldo’s European champions Portugal are 20-1.
Argentina made hard work of qualifying, but with Lionel Messi in the ranks, anything is possible. They are available at 8-1 and will face Iceland, Croatia and Nigeria in Group D.
Watch out Vladimir Putin: Hosts Russia qualified automatically and may suffer due to a lack of competitive football in the run-up to the tournament. Home advantage should help, but they are a million goals from picking up a maiden title.
For Singapore fans, with the colonial hangover still in mind, following a new-look England may be priceless. I will put on record that England should have a sense of equilibrium after this draw – especially with the “Hand of God” but, this time, Diego Maradona’s divine intervention delivered them a World Cup draw that they could have hand-picked themselves.
In summary, reaching the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on 15 July is not going to be easy for Darren Southgate’s team. If England tops their group, their path to the final could see them come up against Colombia, Brazil, France and then Germany. If Southgate’s side finish second, then it could be Poland, Germany, Spain and then Brazil in the final.
Here’s your World Cup 2018 line-up:
- Group A: Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uruguay
- Group B: Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Iran
- Group C: France, Australia, Peru, Denmark
- Group D: Argentina, Iceland, Croatia, Nigeria
- Group E: Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia
- Group F: Germany, Sweden, Mexico, South Korea
- Group G: Belgium, Panama, Tunisia, England
- Group H: Poland, Senegal, Colombia, Japan
Get your diary marked out well: 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.
Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based journalist, with three decades experience, who feels Russia World Cup 2018 will be the most unpredictable with possibly one of the lesser-ranked teams even making it to the semi-finals