It wasn’t a boring World Cup draw, well, except for Vladimir Putin’s speech and the operatic entertainment segment, but it was hardly the most thrilling either.
Maybe we expect too much – after all, the action from Friday’s show at the Kremlin in Moscow was only ever going to feature a bunch of former players plucking plastic balls from goldfish bowls.
Yet past World Cup draws definitely had a little more intrigue than this one, which not only lacked a “Group of Death” but was also light on big-name battles in the early stages.
WORLD CUP DRAW: Full list, schedule
TAKEAWAYS: A closer look at the draw
Portugal v. Spain on June 15 – day two of the event – will be a welcome exception, a genuine scrap between two teams with reasons practical, geographical and sentimental for wanting to get the better of the other.
Even so, both of them will still feel confident about finishing in the top two in the group and making it into the business end of the event. Most of the strongest countries will feel the same way, a direct result of a new format that saw the seeding pots determined on world ranking rather than regional factors.
It is a process that the United States could have benefitted from, alas, yet there is still plenty for the American soccer fan to get excited about when soccer’s grandest show lights up next summer.
Here we take a look at the groups as they were determined on Friday, with story lines to watch for and wildly premature predictions:
Five matches to watch
- Portugal v. Spain – June 15 –Sochi: Two potential winners and neighbors squaring off on day two.
- Germany v. Mexico – June 17 – Moscow: El Tri faces a brutal assignment first up against the defending champ.
- Belgium v. England – June 28 –Group action ends with what should decide the outcome of Group G.
- Russia v. Saudi Arabia – June 14 – Moscow: Russia knows how to put on a show and the Opening Ceremony will be great. Can it’s 65th-ranked team match up?
- Argentina v. Nigeria – June 26 – St. Petersburg: Nigeria won a recently friendly between the teams and is upset-minded again.
Vladimir Putin had a beaming smile on his face and it wasn’t because of the Russian dancers that were part of the pre-draw entertainment. Being a top seed as host nation, Russia always had a decent shot at getting a prime draw, but this exceeded its expectations. Uruguay has talent aplenty and neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt should be underestimated, but Russia will have aspirations of not just qualifying from the group, but winning it.
Prediction: 1. Russia 2. Uruguay 3. Egypt 4. Saudi Arabia
This is the closest thing the 2018 World Cup has to a Group of Death, but it isn’t, not really. It initially shaped up that way when Portugal and Spain were lumped together and seeing Cristiano Ronaldo take on his Real Madrid club teammates will be an opening weekend blockbuster. In reality though, it would be a huge shock if either of those two heavyweights failed to make it through to the knockout stage.
Prediction: 1. Spain 2. Portugal 3. Morocco 4. Iran
France has a habit of getting nice draws and this one is no different. Peru is arguably the weakest of the Pot 2 teams, Australia still has a lot to prove an international level and Denmark struggled for consistency in qualifying. Les Blues should easily beat the Aussies in the opener and ride momentum from there.
Prediction: 1. France 2. Denmark 3. Peru 4. Australia
Sometimes the schedule of the group is as important as who you face and Iceland, everyone’s sweetheart team, could be the fall guys here. It is hard to make up ground if you make a losing start, just ask Portugal from 2014, and Croatia and Nigeria will both fancy their chances of joining Argentina in the last 16. Nigeria is the strongest of the African nations, and that continent’s best shot at a deep run.
Prediction: 1. Argentina 2. Nigeria 3. Croatia 4. Iceland
Brazil has no reason to fear anyone after its carefree romp through qualifying and there is certainly little to bother it here. Switzerland won its first nine qualifiers but lacks the imagination to trouble the South Americans, while Costa Rica will seek to transfer its CONCACAF form to a bigger stage and repeat its dream run from 2014.
Prediction: 1. Brazil 2. Costa Rica 3. Switzerland 4. Serbia
Mexico is packed with talent but has gotten itself a horrible draw. Germany always starts like a train and there are no easy match-ups to follow, with Sweden full of confidence after eliminating Italy and South Korea continuing to improve. Unless it can win both of its last two games, an early exit may beckon for El Tri.
Prediction: 1. Germany 2. Sweden 3. Mexico 4. South Korea
The big European teams should dominate this one and all eyes will be on Belgium, arguably the most entertaining squad to watch in world soccer right now. England has done well in the build-up, Tunisia fought hard to get through Africa’s tricky qualifying process, while Panama may find life tough in its World Cup debut after the drama of CONCACAF’s final day.
Prediction: 1. Belgium 2. England 3. Tunisia 4. Panama
Poland deserves its high ranking and top seed but there are still questions over its ability to shine on this kind of stage. There are potential pitfalls everywhere it looks in what could be the most even and hard-to-pick of all the groups. Colombia has boundless potential but is often its own worst enemy, while the fearless and hard-working Japanese squad might find this assortment of opponents to its liking.
Prediction: 1. Japan 2. Colombia 3. Poland 4. Senegal
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