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Set for a Russian party

Rory Smith, New York Times News Service, Dec 4 2017, 17:21 IST
Five-time champions Brazil and England will be expected to come through the group stages without much trouble. Reuters

Five-time champions Brazil and England will be expected to come through the group stages without much trouble. Reuters

Half a million fans - by current, suspiciously optimistic, estimates - will descend on Russia next year for what Gianni Infantino, FIFA president, has already decreed will be the "best" World Cup in history.

Every single fan, he has decided, will have "an amazing experience." Billions of dollars have been spent on new, or renovated, stadiums to host the finest players in the world: Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappé. Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, on Friday promised a "major sporting festival of friendship and fair play."

And now, at last, we know how it will all kick off. This great celebration of soccer, this era-defining event, the most watched sporting event in the world, will get underway at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium on June 14, with the almost elemental collision of the 63rd- and 65th-best teams the planet can offer.

Applause rippled across the floor of the hall at the Kremlin State Palace when it was confirmed that Saudi Arabia - officially the weakest of all the teams who had to qualify for next year's World Cup, according to FIFA's rankings - would face Russia, officially the weakest of all the teams in next year's World Cup, in the tournament's opening game.

It might have been relief from the locals in the crowd, of course: there has been no little concern that Russia's team is so poor that it might do what the revelations of the ongoing FIFA corruption trial in New York and the allegations of widespread state-sponsored doping could not: make Putin regret bringing the World Cup to Russia in the first place.

Still, the applause felt odd, misplaced. By almost any measure, Russia-Saudi Arabia is an anticlimax of an opening game: the weakest, in terms of the rankings of the two teams, in World Cup history. It is not the sort of game that lived up to pomp of the ceremony that preceded it, complete with a traditional Russian dance troupe.

But it is fitting, given how the rest of the draw panned out. For the first time, FIFA had changed the way the World Cup groups were drawn, pooling teams according to their ranking, rather than on a geographical basis. The move's main effect was to protect most of the tournament favourites from meeting one another.

Indeed, only in two groups are notional heavyweights drawn together: Spain meets Portugal in Group B, while Belgium encounters England in Group G. The prospect of drama in either group, though, was quelled when the identities of their other opponents were revealed. Spain and Portugal will expect to get past Morocco and Iran; England and Belgium should be too strong for Tunisia and Panama, a World Cup debutante. In the head-to-head games, nobody should suffer a knockout blow.

France, Brazil and Germany did even better. It is a convention among athletes and coaches alike that you never risk belittling an opponent - pretty much every coach who faced the news media after the draw uttered some variation on the phrase "there is no such thing as an easy game" - but for those three, in particular, it must have been tempting to break it.

All three have precisely the sorts of groups that they would have drawn for themselves: Peru, Australia and Denmark for the French; Serbia, Switzerland and Costa Rica for Brazil; Mexico, Sweden and South Korea in with the reigning champion, Germany.

Of all the top seeds, in fact, only Argentina had cause to leave Moscow a little dispirited. Jorge Sampaoli's team stuttered through qualifying, its fearsome attack blunted surprisingly - and troublingly - easily until Messi conjured a hat trick in Ecuador to ensure his country would go to Russia. Still, its fragile confidence could have done without the prospect of Croatia, Nigeria and Iceland lurking in Group D.

That such a lineup could constitute the toughest of all the groups is indicative of the other major change - one not effected, at least directly by FIFA - that influenced the way the draw played out.

Qualifying for this tournament proved, decisively, that there has been a shift in the nature of international soccer. Italy, the Netherlands, Chile and the United States are not here; Iceland, Peru and Panama are. Major nations can no longer coast into the World Cup. Smaller countries, with a decent crop of players, a gifted coach, and a sense of purpose, can overturn the odds.

The change has made for some wonderful stories over the last two years, but this was its flip side: a tournament short on groups of death and seismic encounters between superpowers.

As Gareth Southgate, the England manager, rightly said, it is when the draw is over that "everything comes alive." It is when fans start to map out where their team will go, and whom it might face in the knockout rounds, when a black-and-white tournament is flooded with color.

This is a little different. The 2018 World Cup has the look of a slow-burner. The first two weeks will be intriguing, rather than explosive; some of the lesser lights will have a moment to shine. Only in the latter stages will the fireworks start. FIFA is unlikely to object to a tournament that, if things go to form, could throw up quarterfinals between Portugal and France, Brazil and England, Spain and Argentina and Germany and Colombia.

It is an approach with just one attendant danger. All tournaments hinge on how the host country copes when its team is eliminated. If it loses interest, the event itself can lose some of its fizz.

That is a particular risk with Russia, where official support for the World Cup is rooted in a desire to project national pride, and power, to the world. If that wanes, the electricity of the tournament might go with it. "Russia is warm and welcoming," Infantino said. "Everyone will be able to celebrate football with the Russian people." The question, apart from what "everyone" means, is how long that will last.

So perhaps the applause that greeted confirmation of the opening game was not from the Russians, but from FIFA. Russia is in a group with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uruguay. Not a cakewalk, by any means, but not a Calvary, either. Enough, certainly, to reassure the host that it will not be thrown out of its own party too early.

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