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Applause at the Draw, but Will Russia Keep Cheering?

Friday - 01/12/2017 16:38
The host country got a favorable draw, but it will be up to other teams, and to FIFA, to make the best of the situation if the Russians go out early.

MOSCOW — Half a million fans — by current, suspiciously optimistic, estimates — will descend on Russia next year for what Gianni Infantino, the 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.

Russian President Vladimir Putin wth the World Cup legends Diego Maradona, right, and Pele.CreditAlexey Nikolsky/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

It might have been relief from the locals in the crowd, of course: there has been no little concern here 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 here 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 the absurd, gaudy pomp of the ceremony that preceded it, complete with a traditional Russian dance troupe.

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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 favorites 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.

Friday's World Cup draw drew up welcoming paths for several of the tournament favorites. CreditYuri Kochetkov/European Pressphoto Agency

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 Lionel 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.

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 Key: Russia, FIFA, World Cup

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