Russia hoping for a smooth take-off
World Cups do not have to feature a strong run from the hosts to capture the imagination. But it helps. Russia go into Friday's draw amid anxiety about their capabilities, anxieties apparently shared by the country's bigger businesses, who have been slow in offering themselves as official World Cup sponsors.
The concern? How long the will party-givers actually last as participants. Russia have only got out of the group stage once in their last nine major tournaments. So they desperately want their Group A to include a tamer trio of opponents like, say, Peru, Sweden, and Panama rather than a daunting line-up like, for instance, Spain, Nigeria and Costa Rica.
Rules, Regulations and Rankings
In the interests of diversity, no two teams from the same confederation – or continent – can be in the same group, except those from Europe, which has 14 representatives among the 32 finalists. Two European teams – but no more than two – can be grouped together. Countries are seeded, according to Fifa’s ranking system – or, in Russia’s case, favoured for host status - into four pots, with one from each pot in each of the eight groups.
An early Mena meeting?
The next World Cup, in 2022, will be the first hosted by an Arab nation – Qatar – and, with the Middle East and North Africa well represented in Russia, a presence from the region in the knockout stages in 2018 would be welcome.
But the chances of two Arabic-speaking teams being set against each other in the group stage are heightened by the seeding of both Egypt and Tunisia in Pot Three; Saudi Arabia are in Pot Four.
So a repeat of the 2006 World Cup scenario, when the pairing of Tunisia and Saudi Arabia in the same group did neither any favours, is possible. Morocco, in Pot Four, could be grouped with Iran, who are in the third tier of seeds.
Spain keen to end the bad starts
Spain, the most successful national team of the last decade – two European championship titles, plus the 2010 World Cup – have lost some of their swagger in the last four years. The cost is a Pot 2 berth in the draw. That means a potential grouping with the likes of Germany or Brazil.
Of concern to Spain will be who they meet in their first game. They have lost on Matchday 1 in both previous tournaments: to Switzerland, when they went on to lift the trophy in South Africa and, dramatically, by 5-1 to Holland in Brazil, when Spain, as champions, crashed out in the group phase.
A benchload of Argentines
Having made such hard work of squeezing through the qualifiers – it went right down to the wire – Argentina can console itself with its reputation for producing good managers. There are five native Argentines currently managing World Cup contenders.
There’s a scenario in which three of them might be corralled in one group. That’s if Saudi Arabia (under Juan Antonio Pizzi) were to be grouped with Egypt (Hector Cuper) and either one of Argentina (Jorge Sampaoli) or Colombia (Jose Pekerman) or Peru (Ricardo Gareca).