KEIR RADNEDGE in THE KREMLIN —- Amid all the traditional razzmatazz, the draw for the finals of the 2018 World Cup has been staged in the State Kremlin Palace in Moscow in front of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russia was awarded host rights to the first finals in eastern Europe in the controversial, scandal-hit double FIFA executive committee vote on December 2, 2010, which also blew the 2022 finals in Qatar.
The ongoing fuss around Qatar was a blessing in disguise for Russia which avoided much of the usual thunder of doubt which rumbles over any host in the run-up to the event. Even the headline-grabbing farrago over doping has been targeted at the country’s Olympic rather than football status.
The hosts will take on Saudi Arabia in the Opening Match in the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow on June 14. Egypt and double past champions Uruguay complete Group A. Holders Germany launch their campaign in Group F against Mexico with Sweden and South Korea in waiting.
Luzhniki also stages the final on Sunday, July 15.
With Italy, Holland, Chile and Cameroon all absent the groups presented a comparatively even appearance with Group B perhaps the most competitively intriguing with European champions Portugal and neighbours Spain partnered against Morocco and Iran.
Putin launched proceedings by striding on stage to welcome the football world for an event which he expected to provide “a powerful impetus for developing football in the Russian regions and across the globe.”
He promised: “We will do everything to make this a major sporting festival and bring closer together this great football family which believes in sport, friendship and fairplay – values that do not change with time. They are eternal.”
Gianni Infantino, president of the world football federation, followed up with by expressing thanks to Russia and Putin and previewed the draw in front of a watchful variety of old and famous names, who included three-times winner Pele (He played in two finals in 1958 and 1970 but missed the 1962 decider through injury).
Miroslav Klose, all-time leading marksman in World Cup, brought the trophy itself on stage, to be followed by the draw assistants Gordon Banks (England), Nikita Simonyan (Russia), Diego Forlan (Uruguay), Diego Maradona (Argentina), Laurent Blanc (France), Cafu (Brazil), Carles Pujol (Spain) and Fabio Cannavaro (Italy) – and then master and mistress of ceremonies Gary Lineker and Maria Komandnaya.
The 32 finalists had all been sorted into four pots on the basis of the FIFA World Ranking and were drawn thus:
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, Mexico, Sweden, South Korea.
Group G: Belgium, Panama, Tunisia, England.
Group H: Poland, Senegal, Colombia, Japan.