No Groups of Death; rankings rule -- What to expect at the World Cup draw
For many, qualifying for the 2018 World Cup has been a procession -- going through the motions toward the inevitable. For others, there has been suffering and insecurity right down to the final whistle of the final playoff game. And for others still, whether because they've been absent for decades or because it's their first time, it's been a magical journey, a flight into possibility.
Then there are those who took for granted that they'd be a part of the World Cup and stumbled along the way: We don't need to talk about them, but we know who they are.
But now Friday's World Cup draw is nearly upon us. This is when things become a little more real, when teams can start to really dream and begin to map out pathways to immortality. This is when they project ahead seven months and try to learn as much as you can about their opponents, some of whom might be age-old rivals, some of whom they might never have seen (or even thought about). When they start to fret and anticipate in equal parts. When Russia stops being a concept and becomes a spiritual home. And when the world -- at least for the 32 chosen ones -- becomes a common ecosystem.
Draw ceremonies are always rather awkward exercises: Former icons paraded around, quips from officials in suits, some music, some eye candy, montages about faraway cities (some of which you might never have heard of) and balls being drawn out of pots. But here are some things to consider as the event unfolds.
1. Say goodbye to the Group of Death?
For the first time, pots will be based on FIFA rankings, rather than geographical factors. The only exception is Russia, who will be a top seed as host, as well as the stipulation that there can't be more than one team from the same confederation in each group (two in the case of UEFA). Before, after the top seeds, teams were allocated to pots based on confederation, which facilitated unbalanced groups.
What does this all mean? Theoretically, more balanced groups. Consider the "Group of Death." It's a trite, ugly and ultimately nonsensical term, but the good news is we likely won't get one -- at least not to the degree we did in the past.
It also means that watching the draw unfold will feel a little different. It will be more like a Champions League draw, in which teams can get only certain opponents. Brazil, for example, know they will face either Spain, Switzerland, England, Mexico or Croatia from Pot 2.
2. FIFA rankings rule
The seeds are based on FIFA rankings, which we know are imperfect and, to the casual observer, might seem a little screwy. You can live with Russia being given an edge by enjoying the top seed (they're actually the lowest-ranked team in the World Cup), but to a casual observer, seeing Poland in Pot 1 and the likes of Spain and England in Pot 2 will feel weird, particularly when Poland failed to qualify for the past three World Cups and exited Euro 2016 at the quarterfinal stage.
Blame the fact that the rankings, to some degree, can be gamed. But mostly, blame the fact that comparing nations who very rarely play one another is extremely difficult. And a ranking based over four years -- perhaps necessary to account for freak results -- becomes less relevant over time.
3. Who gets Spain? And will England get Germany?
One obvious theme is that nobody in Pot 1 will want to get Spain, who most bookmakers have as fourth favorites, in Pot 2, but all are in danger of facing them. The prospect of an England vs. Germany group game -- a tie drenched in history, and not just sporting -- is also a real possibility.
Further down, you might have your own choices of teams to avoid. In Pot 3, Senegal combine high-end defensive muscle (Kalidou Koulibaly, Cheikh Kouyate, Idrissa Gueye) with attacking flair (Sadio Mane, Keita Balde), while in Pot 4, Serbia have likely been flying under the radar and have plenty of big names and experience. (If you insist on having a Group of D----, then Brazil, Spain, Senegal and Serbia might just be it.)
But remember this, too. For all the familiar names you might spot, it really matters very little come June next year. Factors like chemistry, form and coaching carry far more weight than pedigree. Four years ago, Costa Rica were thrown in a group with three previous World Cup winners: Italy (4), Uruguay (2) and England (1). Guess who won the group and went on the quarterfinals? That's right, Los Ticos, a team whose second-biggest name was -- no disrespect -- Bryan Ruiz.
History matters less and less. We saw this very clearly last time around. Spain, the defending world champion, exited in the group stage. Germany and Brazil were nearly bounced out in the round of 16 by Chile and Algeria respectively. Switzerland made Lionel Messi and Argentina sweat into extra time.
We can project who we fear and who we'd rather face. But, as with a horror movie, the threat can increasingly come from anywhere. The flip side of that is that anyone can dream and be made to look like a fool.
At least until next June.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.