One of the great international shell games will be witnessed by millions worldwide on Friday.
Viewers of the World Cup draw, held in Leipzig, Germany, will watch intently to find out where, when and who their country or favorite national team will play in the opening round of the World Cup this June.
Watching the proceedings, one gets a sneaking suspicion that something unusual or odd, perhaps even premeditated, is occurring, though there's no way to prove it.
There are even some naysayers out there who claim the World Cup draw is fixed. That sounds like something concocted by conspiracy theorists, but there have been a number of coincidences in the past that cannot rule out the draw can be pushed in a certain direction.
If not, how can you explain England and its boorish fans going to Monterrey, which had the hottest temperatures of all Mexican venues for the 1986 Cup, after it was rumored that English Football Association officials claimed they knew where they were playing before the draw.
Or how can you explain that the U.S. wound up in Florence for two games and Rome for another -- two favorite destinations of American tourists -- in the 1990 World Cup in Italy?
And how can you explain Italy, in the 1994 World Cup, winding up as the seeded team in the New York/New Jersey venue, right in the middle of the largest Italian population in the world outside of Rome?
OK, you might claim this argument doesn't hold up because Ireland, which everyone thought would play two games in Foxboro, Mass., wound up playing a pair in Orlando, Fla., and a third at Giants Stadium.
While innocents -- celebrities from the soccer and entertainment worlds -- pull these plastic balls out of brandy snifters, skeptics have claimed that some of the balls are warmer than others to attract the human hand.
Of course, that has never been proven.
Yours truly decided to ask Clive Toye, a veteran draw watcher and a former English journalist who might be best known as the man who signed Pele to the New York Cosmos some 30 years ago.
"I am always completely bewildered, not only by World Cup draws, but by other draws," he admitted.
"It's a complex thing."
Indeed it is, sometimes more complex than it should be.
For the 1998 World Cup, for example, they needed 14 brandy snifters -- filled with various colored balls. There usually is a snifter for the four groups (eight teams apiece), one for what group they will play in (A through H) and another for what position in the group (one through four).
For each country, a ball is picked from the team snifter, followed by the group snifter and finally the position snifter.
"I know I've heard people say, 'I knew that beforehand,'" Toye said.
"I don't think so many people are in the know. … I guess everyone can follow it by taping it and watching it in ultra-slow motion to see if it's fixed."
So as confusing as the draw can be, it would be difficult to fix.
"It's a convoluted exercise," Toye said. "So many people who have to know it's a fix or be prewarned.
"It's one of the mysteries of life."
FIFA says it just happens by the luck of the draw.
Maybe, maybe not.
As for this draw, FIFA isn't expected to release the procedure until later this week.
But if the organization follows the 2002 draw rules, it will go something like this:
FIFA general secretary Urs Linsi will run it, utilizing the services of several soccer stars of past and present -- let's say Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Michael Ballack, among others -- and assorted German celebrities.
It might be better off to look back at the 2002 draw in Pusan, Korea, to help visualize the process.
Michel Zen-Ruffinen, then the general secretary, had enough of a sense of humor to remind everyone that the draw was "a very complicated" process.
"We have very good news tonight," he added. "It's worse than ever."
It was bad enough, with some restrictions thrown in:
* No more than two European teams could be placed in the same group.
* Teams from the same confederation would be equally divided between Korea and Japan (for example, if Argentina was picked for Japan, then Brazil would go to Korea).
* Teams from the same confederation can not be placed together (outside of two European sides).
* China will play in South Korea so that Chinese fans won't have to travel far due to economic and geographical reasons.
There were eight seeded teams, including defending champion France and co-hosts Korea and Japan. As for the five other seeds, FIFA based its seeding decision on the past three World Cups and the organization's annual world rankings over the past three years. More points were allocated to France '98 than USA '94 or Italia '90 in a descending 3-2-1 ratio. Using that formula, FIFA wound up with Brazil (62 points), Argentina (56), Italy (56), Germany (54) and Spain (45), with Mexico (42), England (41) and Croatia (37) missing the cut.
In Pot 1 were the five other seeded teams (remember, France, Korea and Japan already had their schedules predetermined after getting automatic berths), Pot 2 had the 11 remaining European sides, Pot 3 the South American and Asian countries, and Pot 4 had Africa and CONCACAF.
Spain was the first team drawn and it was assigned as the top seed to B1 in Korea. After the seeded teams were placed, Pele was called upon to draw the 11 Euro countries.
And so it went.
Are you still with me?
Whether FIFA follows that procedure remains to be seen (don't hold your breath; FIFA likes to tinker with the rules every World Cup to throw everyone off and to keep the media honest).
But let's say it does keep the 2002 rules. The eight seeded teams would be Brazil, Germany, Spain, Argentina, Italy, England, Mexico and France, according to Kicker Magazine.
The United States, the eighth-ranked team in FIFA's monthly poll, would fall just short of earning one of the prized seeds, Kicker reported.
Yes, FIFA can alter the formula any way it sees fit to get the results it wants. But the gut feeling here is that it will reward the European teams because the draw is in Europe.
One thing is certain: If someone doesn't like what has happened, he or she can complain afterward. By then, the World Cup schedule will have been drawn up. In the long run, FIFA doesn't care what anyone says. It's their game, their World Cup and their ball.
If you don't like it, you can go home.
Michael Lewis, who writes about soccer for the New York Daily News, will cover his sixth World Cup final draw and 11th overall since 1986 (if you include the preliminary draws). He can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com