ALL IN: THE WORLD PREPARES FOR THE FIFA FINAL DRAW
And the U.S. team is likely to get a difficult one. But that’s what’s supposed to happen. It’s the World Cup, after all.
After 853 matches played across the six confederations featuring 200 nations which scored 2,344 goals, qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup is over.
Now the real drama begins.
Yes, we’re talking about (cue ominous music) the FIFA Final Draw.
Representatives of all 32 countries that survived the often gruesome qualifying process will come together in their Sunday best (or in this case, their Friday best) at the Cape Town International Convention Centre in Cape Town, South Africa, on Dec. 4 to find out where, when and against whom they will begin their run to soccer’s greatest prize.
Rarely do so many dress up so nice for so simple a process as pulling ping-pong balls out of big glass bowls.
But how simple is it? Actually, not so much. In reality, there are way too many twists and turns in a FIFA Final Draw to call it anything but a complex puzzle from which dreams will be fulfilled and dashed. The final days before the draw are marked by pontificating prognostication as to which countries will be seeded, who will be in which pots, who has a chance to play whom and who will land in the place no one wants to be: the Group of Death.
The Final Draw is reality TV, FIFA style. It’s a lottery, but one in which winners and losers are not so clear. Those designations can be made only after the end of first round play. Still, the media love to crow about which groups are the “easiest” (as if anything is easy in a World Cup) and which teams got a “bad draw.”
Truth be told, there is such a thing as a bad draw. No team wants to hear FIFA general secretary FIFA Secretary General Jérôme Valcke, the Final Draw master of ceremonies, finish this sentence by naming their country: “And the final team in the group containing Brazil, Portugal and Nigeria is…”
But the draw is not just slotting teams into groups. It is a full-out 90-minute “infotainment” extravaganza viewed by 200 million worldwide and covered by 1,700 media types onsite. There will be a gaggle of world-famous celebrities on stage (hello Charlize Theron), dignitaries (hello Mr. Jacob Zuma, president of South Africa) and globally-recognized soccer players (hello Mr. Beckham, who is also a world famous celebrity and dignitary, just ask the Queen) for what has evolved into a Las Vegas-type show. (Hey, the USA was way ahead on this one. The Final Draw for the 1994 World Cup was held in Las Vegas.)
It has taken about a year of preparation and 3,600 hours of manpower to set up the sprawling Draw Hall. There were 5,000 hours of production of the video material to be used during the show. (Sounds like the life of our ussoccer.com all_access video crew.)
But one of the most entertaining aspects of the show is when the camera pans to the coaches of the competing teams after their name has been drawn into a group.
There are some excellent attempts at poker faces as everyone fills out their draw cards, but the “tells” are there. Did that coach try to mask that smirk of delight after seeing New Zealand would be in his group? Or is that guy trying to hide his horror with a fake smile after finding out he’d just been placed with Spain?
Fortunately for the USA, head coach Bob Bradley has one of the best poker faces in the business. But which teams will stand between Bradley’s troops and the much-coveted second round berth? As mentioned above, at this point, who the heck knows?
However, now that FIFA has determined the seeds and in which of the four pots each team will be placed, this is what we do know:
• The 32 teams will be placed into eight groups of four teams each.
• FIFA has endeavored to separate teams from the same region as much as possible, and no teams from the same confederation (besides the European teams) can be drawn into the same first round group.
• Pot 1, the seeded teams, consists of: Brazil, Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Argentina, England and host South Africa.
NOTE: It’s hard to argue with any of those choices. Yes, the host must be seeded.
• Pot 2 will be composed of teams from Asia (Australia, Japan, Korea DPR, Korea Republic), our region CONCACAF (Honduras, Mexico, USA) and Oceania (New Zealand).
NOTE: As the highest ranked team in this pot, nobody wants to draw the USA.
• Pot 3 includes teams from Africa (Algeria, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria) and South America (Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay).
NOTE: In a World Cup played in Africa, this is probably the second strongest pot.
• Pot 4 will contain the remaining European teams (Denmark, France, Greece, Portugal, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Switzerland).
NOTE: This is going to be a great World Cup.
Now, drawing South Africa is a double-edged sword. The Bafana Bafana has racked up some remarkably unsuccessful results recently, just changed back to the coach they had before they fired their most recent coach, and is the lowest ranked team in the World Cup. Still, what kind of atmosphere and pressure awaits a team facing the host in the first-ever World Cup in Africa?
But the USA has faced hosts twice before, in 1990 in Italy (a 1-0 loss) and in 2002 in South Korea (1-1 tie) and fared well both times.
In looking back at the past five Final Draws since the USA qualified for that 1990 World Cup in Italy, which at that time was its first World Cup 40 years, there have been some interesting trends.
Indulge us if you will:
With 13 European teams in the tournament, five groups will have two European teams in them, as no group can have more than two European sides. We’re guessing the USA will be in one of those groups. How do we know? Well, in the previous five World Cups, the USA has always had at least two European opponents and in 1990, they had three! That was when there were just 24 teams in the World Cup.
That leaves the non-European “wildcard” team which for the USA in the past four World Cups has been Colombia (1994), Iran (1998), South Korea (2002) and Ghana (2006). Often a result against that wildcard team will make the difference between advancing to the second round and elimination.
In 1994, the USA upset the hugely favored Colombians, who were a pre-World Cup favorite to win it all, and advanced to the second round.
In 1998, the USA fell to Iran in one of the most anticipated and tense games in U.S. history. The USA did not get out of group play.
In 2002, the USA tied host South Korea, a team that made the last four of the tournament. Result: A second round match, which the Americans won by defeating Mexico in one of the USA’s most glorious World Cup matches ever.
In 2006, the USA fell to Ghana and did not make it out of the group. They were, however, the only opponent eventual champion Italy failed to defeat.
Who will this wildcard be? It will likely come from Pot 3 and will either be the USA’s second African or third South American team it has faced in the first round. It’s a case of “pick your poison.” Or, in this case, it’s getting picked by whichever celeb pulls that ball out of that glass bowl.
Long story short, the USA will get a seeded team, a “wildcard” from Africa or South America and a European country. Short story short: The U.S. group is likely going to be a doozy no matter how it breaks down.