The real countdown to the 2018 World Cup in Russia begins on Friday as the draw for the tournament is held at a star-studded ceremony in the Kremlin.
President Vladimir Putin is expected to address the footballing world that has descended upon Moscow, in the midst of a freezing Russian winter, to find out who will play who, when and where at the competition next year.
Putin and Russia will hope to make the draw itself a memorable occasion and turn the focus firmly to football, and the chosen setting, by Red Square and St Basil’s Cathedral, could scarcely be grander.
The build-up to Russia 2018 has been overshadowed by talk of the controversial awarding of the tournament in the first place, of the friction between Putin’s regime and the West, and of fears over terrorism and hooliganism.
Russia’s sporting reputation has also taken a battering after investigations into widespread doping by its athletes, including at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
But now football’s biggest superstars, from Lionel Messi to Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar, will find out who stands between them and World Cup glory as the draw begins at 6:00 pm local time (1500 GMT) inside the State Kremlin Palace.
The moment has come for Germany to discover who they will meet as they look to become the first nation to successfully defend the title since Brazil in 1962.
Messi and Ronaldo, the two players who have dominated the game’s biggest individual accolades over the last decade, will hope to avoid tough draws for Argentina and Portugal respectively in what will surely be their final opportunity to lift the trophy.
– Heavyweight contests? –
Germany, Brazil and Argentina are all in the first pot along with France, European champions Portugal, Belgium, Poland and the hosts.
But if those nations are certain of avoiding each other, danger lurks in pot two, where the Spanish — the 2010 winners rebuilt into a formidable force by Julen Lopetegui — lie along with England.
“Whatever happens we will accept it gladly and sportingly. I don’t waste energy thinking about who I prefer and who I don’t,” said Lopetegui, but Spain and England must be crossing their fingers in the hope of being paired with Poland or the Russians.
This is still a 32-nation tournament for now, and FIFA will keep apart sides from the same continent with the exception of Europe, which has 14 representatives to go into eight groups.
Most sections will therefore contain two European nations, raising the prospect of England or Spain meeting Germany or France in heavyweight contests right away.
France and Spain were even drawn together during one practice run of the draw, while alternatively, there is the possibility of England being drawn with Iceland, the team that humiliated them at Euro 2016.
“Sometimes a strong group can strengthen you for the following rounds,” admitted Brazil coach Tite.
Coaches from 30 of the 32 nations are present in Moscow, with the exceptions being Uruguay’s Oscar Tabarez, who will not attend due to health issues, and Australia, currently without a manager.
– Maradona and Lineker –
“Before the draw, there is nothing you can do. You just wait. You need some luck to win the World Cup and it begins here with the draw,” said former France player and coach Laurent Blanc.
He is in Moscow to act as an assistant, along with fellow former trophy winners such as Gordon Banks, Fabio Cannavaro, Carles Puyol and a certain Diego Maradona.
Germany’s Miroslav Klose, the leading scorer in tournament history, will bring out the trophy, while former England striker-turned TV presenter Gary Lineker will conduct the ceremony along with the Russian journalist Maria Komandnaya.
Looking forward to the occasion more than most will be Iceland, the Euro 2016 quarter-finalists making their World Cup debut, and Central American outsiders Panama.
Also eagerly awaiting the draw will be Peru, qualified for the first time since 1982, and Egypt, back after a 28-year absence.
Those nations will add something new to a tournament that will be deprived, among others, of four-time winners Italy, the Netherlands and the United States.