Yesterday, FIFA hosted the Preliminary Draw for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. In between jazz performances and awkward comedy bits from a Russian supermodel, the road to the next World Cup became much clearer for some of the FIFA confederations.
North, Central American and Caribbean
Given how completely ridiculous everything else was, CONCACAF’s World Cup qualification seems normal. There will be six matches in round three, the winner of those matches joining CONCACAF’s top six seeded teams in three groups of four. The top two teams in each of those groups then enter the Hex, CONCACAF’s six-team round-robin group to determine who will make it to the World Cup.
Of course, CONCACAF isn’t without any weirdness. Jamaica made the final of the Gold Cup, but is regarded on the same level as Aruba and Antigua and Barbuda for seeding purposes. The USA is fortunate to get the easiest group with Group C: Trinidad, Aruba/St. Vincent and Grenadines and Guatemala/Antigua and Barbuda. Meanwhile, Group B looks like it could be nasty: Panama and Costa Rica are the top seeds, and will likely be joined by Jamaica and Haiti. Group A should be easy for Mexico, as they’ll be joined by Honduras and most likely Canada and El Salvador. (I’d have have some fighting words for Mohamed, but he’s less optimistic about Canada than the whole world.)
Equally important for CONCACAF is they now know they’ll face the fifth-best Asian team for the World Cup playoff. It’s a lot more desireable than facing the fifth-best team in South America, but probably harder than facing New Zealand, the all-but-probable winner of Oceania.
CONMEBOL only has ten teams. Everyone plays 18 matches in a round-robin ten-team group. There were no groups to draw, but the Preliminary Draw did still provide us with interesting information for CONMEBOL: the fixture order. The most notable item from the fixture list concerned Brazil, who will be forced to face Copa America champions Chile at Chile, without Neymar on Matchday 1. Conveniently enough, Neymar returns for Matchday 3 when Argentina host their longtime rivals.
UEFA’s groups came last in the processing but were certainly the most interesting. There are seven groups of six teams along with two groups of five teams.
The first group that jumps out at you is Group A. That group will contain France, the Netherlands and Zlatan. France and the Netherlands should be the top two teams from the group, but it’s hard to count out Zlatan in what will be his last opportunity to qualify for the World Cup. Group G is also a strong group with Italy and Spain. Israel doesn’t have a star quite like Zlatan, but they could still prove to be a team that could make those two decorated nations sweat on their way to the top of the group. Portugal and Switzerland will make a nice battle in Group B, but Hungary won’t exactly strike fear into either of those nations.
Germany’s reward for being defending champions is a very easy Group C, as the Czech Republic will be their sternest test. In Group H, Belgium only really faces a test from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Greece is also in their group, so they could manage to do that annoying Greece thing again, but right now they can’t beat Faroe Islands. England is the clear favorite in Group F, but they have two juicy ties coming up with Scotland. They’ll also play both Slovenia and Slovakia, which is bound to confuse the less geographically-minded people in the United Kingdom.
There are also three groups that seem pretty wide open. Group D will be Gareth Bale’s best chance to play in a World Cup, as Wales’ top competition will be Austria, Ireland and Serbia. SkyBet has Serbia favored over Wales, but there’s no obvious favorite in that group.
Group E is filled with parity. Denmark, Poland and Romania will be the main contenders. Poland will count on Robert Lewandowski to carry them to the promised land, just as Denmark will with Christian Eriksen. Romania doesn’t have a player on the level of either of Lewandowski or Eriksen, but likely has a better overall squad than their two competitors. In Group I, Croatia looks to be the favorite. However, Iceland, Turkey Ukraine could all pose threats to Luka Modric and friends.
Africa, Asia and Oceania are extremely confusing at this point of the draw. The African teams don’t know their matchups yet – just that there will be 12 matches in Round 1, with 20 matches in Round 2. And it really doesn’t get exciting until Round 3.
Meanwhile, Asia wasn’t even included in this draw because of the AFC’s decision to merge the preliminary qualification rounds of the FIFA World Cup and the AFC Asian Cup. As a result, the Asian qualifiers have already begun, with Round 2 kicking off in September.
As for Oceania, if New Zealand fails to make it out of there, then the end times are near.