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Russia 2018: No obvious Group of Death

*Host Russia gets favourable path draw

There was some awkward Russian rock in Moscow. It is a hot afternoon in Nigeria when the world watched the draws. The world saw football mix with politics in stilted conversations between FIFA president Gianni Infantino and his host, Vladimir Putin.

The World Cup and match ball for Russia 2018
The World Cup and match ball for Russia 2018

Argentina’s great legend, Diego Maradona, wore a golden bow tie. And English emcee Gary Lineker clearly noticed and enjoyed a well-timed elbow notch at his former Argentine rival, 30 years on from the famous Hand of God.

“Diego’s always been good with his hands,” the former striker said, as Maradona pulled another plastic ball from the pots determining where the nation’s would be playing from.

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 match-ups and schedule for the 48-game first round set to kick off 14th June (two days after the memorial of June 12 in Nigeria involving Chief M. K. O. Abiola).

The 2018 World Cup will get started with a few mouth watering matchups (not including a brutal tournament opener between Russia and Saudi Arabia, the two lowest-ranked squads in the field).

Constantine Palace world cup draw venue at the St Petersburg in Russia
Constantine Palace world cup draw venue at the St Petersburg in Russia

The next day, Group B powers, neighbours and rivals Portugal and Spain will meet in Sochi. And in Moscow on 16th June, all eyes will be on Lionel Messi and Argentina as they face off against debutants Iceland, the smallest nation ever to qualify for the World Cup. A day later across town, the USA’s most popular soccer team, Mexico, will play world champion Germany.

No obvious group of death: 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 as the team is known 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 the group play). South Korea has been in a bit of a down cycle lately, the graphline has faced south. May be, they can make it skew upwards during the tourney but the Reds are always energetic and Tottenham’s Son Heung-min is capable of doing some damage on a good day.

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 favoured to reach seven.

Is France the most fortunate favourite? A cursory look among the early seeded title favourites—Germany, Brazil and France, the French seems to me to have the best odds. Argentina will be picked by some despite their qualification struggles—Les Bleus as the French team is called appear to have the easiest path through the first round.

Will this be another bad tide, big-name French team that winds up being than the sum of its parts? I think this draw is a lucky one for manager Didier Deschamps, he’ll have some time to iron out any kinks as the 1998 World Cup 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, as the team is known, 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.

Rigged? Not likely, but Russia has a shot: Former FIFA emperor, Sepp Blatter, said last year that he believed UEFA had rigged tournament match-ups 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.” That rested.

Well, maybe the natural Russian chill made a difference on Friday. No Vodka shots. 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. I see Russia surviving the gulag options in that group.

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